Hiroki Kuroda and Yu Darvish came to the Major Leagues from Osaka by different routes. Darvish has talent and ambition that the Nippon League could not contain. It cost the Rangers over one hundred million dollars to bring him to Texas. Over his long career, Kuroda quietly moved from one challenge to the next, only considering the Major Leagues, and eventually Yankees, when his previous teams didn’t want to pay him anymore.
Their journeys to America, however different the paths, share a common starting point. In 1934, Eiji Sawamura left his high school team and renounced his amatuer status for a chance to prove himself against the best players in the world. He joined the newly formed All Nippon club to face Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and the other American All-Stars during the Bambino’s famous tour of Japan and to become a member of Japan’s first professional baseball league, which would start play in 1936.
The Big Leaguers put on a hitting show all over Japan. They won all the games and hit bushels of homers to the delight of many Japanese fans. Every contest was lopsided save one, pitched by seventeen-year-old Eiji Sawamura. The game is recounted in detail in Robert K. Fitts’s new book, Banzai Babe Ruth. Almost equaling the famouns feat of Carl Hubbell in the 1934 All Star Game, Sawamura struck out Charlie Gehringer, Ruth, Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx in succession while pitching nine brilliant innings.
The Japanese hitters would not score against the Americans, a theme that repeated itself throughout the tour, so Sawamura would have to be equally stingy. Sawamura took the mound with a bright, mid-day sun beind him and the American hitters had trouble distinguishing his adequate fastball from his hellacious curve. After several innings of futility, Babe Ruth advised his lineup to forget the fastball and sit on the curve.
In the seventh inning Lou Gehrig did just that. The game was played in Shizuoka Kusanagi stadium, which is very small, even by Japanese standards. Gehrig picked out a curveball and his blast found the cozy right field stands. It was the only run of the game.
Connie Mack was the elder statesman on the trip, but did not attend the game. After Ruth recounted the young pitcher’s exploits, Mack rushed to meet Sawamura that evening. He asked Sawamura to return to America and become a Major Leaguer – sixty years before Hideo Nomo and Hideki Irabu, Sawamura had a chance to become the first Japanese import. Fitts has Sawamura’s answer:
Despite his competitive spirit and drive to beat the Major Leaguers, Sawamura would remain in Japan and honor his decision to play in the new league. “I’m interested, but also afraid to go” was the young pitcher’s official response. Mack smiled and did not press for a more definitive answer.
Japan celebrated Sawamura’s performance without regard for the final score. A Japanese pitcher proved his skill and heart against the best in the world. It not only made Sawamura a national hero, but laid an important brick in the foundation of Japanese professional baseball. Sawamura went on to have an excellent career, but it was cut short by World War II. He enlisted in the Imperial Army in 1943 and was killed when his ship was torpedoed near the end of the war. The Japanese created the Sawamura Award to recognize excellence in pitching, much like the American Cy Young Award.
Yu Darvish won the Sawamura Award in 2007 and was in the running each of the last four years. He showed why in eight and a third innings tonight. In only the seventh matchup of Japanese starting pitchers in the Majors, Darvish beat the Yankees and Hiroki Kuroda 2-0. Darvish struck out ten and got another twelve outs on the ground. He put on a show with a variety of effective pitches, most impressive to me was the difference between his mid-nineties four seamer and his low-nineties running fastball.
Hiroki Kuroda wasn’t quite up to that standard, but held a hard-hitting lineup in check into the seventh. He allowed a homer to Ian Kinsler in the first and made the mistake of walking Elvis Andrus in front of the hottest hitter in the American League. After a steal, Josh Hamilton drove in Andrus with a single. Other than that Kuroda kept the Rangers off balance with his off speed stuff. There are a lot of ways to get Major League hitters out and between these two creative pitchers, we saw most of them tonight.
The Yankees did have a chance to get to Darvish in the third. Granderson batted with the with bases loaded and nobody out. Darvish mixed sliders and fastballs and Curtis ran the count to 2-2 by fouling off the nastier ones. On the seventh pitch, he dropped a slow, wrinkly curve low and away and got a very generous call to get the strikeout. Alex Rodriguez could not get around on a 94 mph heater in on his hands and tapped into a double play to end the threat.
Of course Yu Darvish looks like a great investment tonight. He was excellent. I don’t doubt there will be bumps on the road, but he seems well equipped with strong command and deployment of an electric arsenal. Watching both pitchers tonight, I was happy to have Hiroki Kuroda on the squad, he’s a capable guy. But Darvish was good enough to make me wonder why the Yankees weren’t interested in him at all. It’s only one game though and if the Yankees see them again, I hope they remember revenge is Darvish best served cold.
(OK, that’s not a good pun, but neither are any of the other ones I’ve been hearing. Let’s at least try to push the envelope here.)
Photos via fromdeeprightfield.com and ESPN.com