"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Funny Meeting You Here

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

Categories:  1: Featured  Game Recap  Jon DeRosa  Yankees

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1 Dina   ~  Apr 24, 2012 11:53 pm

Ugh...I was at the game tonight. After that lost chance in the third inning it really never felt like anything was going to get going. Just a very blah feeling from a crowd that was very pro-Rangers (yes, I know it's their stadium, but in 8 years of going to Yankees games down here, I have never been to a game that has not had AT LEAST one "Let's Go Yankees" chant until tonight).

I did get some great pics of Mo and Swish during BP, so I guess that's something. Oh well, I'll be there tomorrow too, so hopefully there will be a better outcome.

2 Boatzilla   ~  Apr 25, 2012 12:32 am

Why didn't the Yankees go all out for Darvish? Because all along Cashman was planning to land Pineda.

Uh, nevermind...

3 Boatzilla   ~  Apr 25, 2012 12:41 am

One important and most obvious point to remember. No Japanese pitcher has anything to do with the performance of any other Japanese pitcher.

Some of the statements on the Banter and in U.S. sports media are bordering on racism or at least prejudice. "After Kei Igawa, the Yankees are gun shy about...." Well, Kei Igawa was Kei Igawa. That's all. He just happens to be from Japan.

Imagine hearing this, "Well, after what happened with LaTroy Hawkins, the Yanks are gun shy about singing another African-American pitcher."

It's ludicrous, I know, but that's the same kind of lens through which many people seem to view Japanese players.

4 monkeypants   ~  Apr 25, 2012 1:11 am

[3] It is a ludicrous comparison. When someone speculates that yankees are "gunshy about signing another ajapanese pitcher", they aren't talking about his race or nationality or whatever. They clearly mean that the team is wary of paying big bucks in posting fees to sign a big name pitcher out of the Japanese Leagues (keeping mind the Yankees have had two major buste). While there have been some success stories, there have also been plenty of disappointments coming out of the Japanese Leagues, and frankly MLB teams are still trying to figure out how exactly to evaluate the level of talent and competition there, and how to translate Japanese players' performance into MLB performance.

That is completely different from your hypothetical comparison about not signing a black player after a black free agent bombed.

5 Mr OK Jazz Tokyo   ~  Apr 25, 2012 1:15 am

[0] Great write up, and I need to get that Babe Ruth pick!

[3] Boat, as you know, I usually am pretty radical on issues like this..ahem..but not 100% sure I agree with you this time. It's not that fact the the guys are "Japanese", it's that they are coming out of the "Japanese leagues" (NPB) that give people pause. Same was said about Roberto Petagine and Tuffy Rhodes. "Great seasons and they show talent..but it's the Japan leagues.." Merely a quesiton about the level of play. I think Ichiro and Matsui proved that Japanese guys can excel in the majors.

6 monkeypants   ~  Apr 25, 2012 1:59 am

[5] And one could argue that even Matsui was a slight disappointment relative to his staggering numbers in Japan.

7 Mr OK Jazz Tokyo   ~  Apr 25, 2012 3:21 am

(6) But no one expected 55 home runs from Matsui in MLB. I think he more than lived up to expectations.
Also, J pitchers' hype fr exceeds their production but that's more a media thIng. Nomo, Kuroda, Kaz Sasaki, Hasegawa.. All pretty good MLB careers.

8 monkeypants   ~  Apr 25, 2012 3:56 am

[7] Perhaps, though one would be hard pressed not to see Matsui's first season as a Yankee as pretty disappointing. Of course, this was followed by two fine campaigns, espcially considering his relatively low annual salary. He wasn't the same player after injuries and age started to take their toll, but that's to be expected.

9 RIYank   ~  Apr 25, 2012 6:35 am

"One important and most obvious point to remember. No Japanese pitcher has anything to do with the performance of any other Japanese pitcher."

I don't think that's obvious at all. The performance of one Japanese pitcher is evidence for the performance of others. The fact that several highly-touted Japanese pitchers turned out to be hugely overpaid (well, not exactly overpaid, but the teams paid way too much) is a perfectly sensible reason for deciding not to bid high, or at all, for the next highly-touted Japanese pitcher. (And I agree that it's not in any way racial -- Darvish is not even racially Japanese, is he?)

Also, I love the word "gunshy". It seems like it should be a Japanese word. Or else maybe a childish adjective -- like "darvish". Gosh, you were looking a little gunshy this morning; are you sure you're feeling quite darvish?

10 The Hawk   ~  Apr 25, 2012 6:50 am

Yeah if there were a Japanese-American kid tearing up Triple A there would be no hand-wringing about bringing him up just because Kei Igawa sucked

[9] Darvish is half-Japanese, half-Iranian, quasi-technically speaking

11 Mr OK Jazz Tokyo   ~  Apr 25, 2012 7:57 am

[10] Yep, though he has stated he considers himself "Japanese" and not in any way "Iranian"..though that's a whole other kettle of fish with the "mixed race" folks here..

Watched some of the game this evening. His stuff is stupid awesome..really, he should be wearing pinstripes. The Yankees are a team of stars, and Darvish is going to be a big one.

12 Jon DeRosa   ~  Apr 25, 2012 8:10 am

The thing that we have learned, and should know implicitly anyway due to MLB rejects dominating there, is that we have to ignore the stats from Japan.

What the Yankees needed with Igawa and Darvish was boots on the ground, getting a very good idea of what his stuff was like. I hope the Yankees learned enough from Igawa to have lots of scouting on Darvish and were lukewarm because of those scouting reports. And I also hope those scouting reports were correct. Last night, obviously, it looked like the Yanks missed the boat.

13 RIYank   ~  Apr 25, 2012 8:41 am

[12] But scouting a pitcher is horribly unreliable. So pre-Moneyball!

I thought Darvish looked good last night, but not as great as 8.1 shutout innings would predict. He got pretty lucky, actually -- 7 hits and two walks typically produces a couple of runs. Still, his true outcomes totals were very impressive.

14 OldYanksFan   ~  Apr 25, 2012 12:48 pm

"One important and most obvious point to remember. No Japanese pitcher has anything to do with the performance of any other Japanese pitcher."

While that may be correct, I believe you can correlate players who played in a certain environment to one another. The Nationality has nothing to do with the issue, rather the differences in the players and types of players, the schedule, the size of the ball, and many other differences between Baseball in Japan and MLB.

This is not about stereotyping players, but about assessing conditions that help evaluate stats accumulated in Japan, and how they might correlate to MLB.

I also think we have a pretty educated crowd here, and we should be careful about being the Politically Correct Police everytime any kind of mention is made that references someones race, creed or color.

If a RHB hits 60 HRs in a year, 52 at Coors field and 8 on the road, do we expect him to hit 60 HRs if the Yankees get him? If not, are we prejudiced against people in live in Colorado?

I do think Yu will do very will here, as his personal tools translate to MLB better than many other Japanese players. But I'll bet that just like many other Pitchers that have come from Japan, his BB and HR rate will be significantly higher than in Japan, and that it will also take a year or 2 of scouting and familiararity (SP???) before we can assess how he will do over the long term.

In terms of not signing him, I think the cost, our propsed $189m budget, and that fact that there were more unknowns with Yu than with a MLB Pitcher we know well, had more to do with passing on him, rather than his 'nationality'.

15 Jon DeRosa   ~  Apr 25, 2012 3:07 pm

[14] Yu's salary, as it realtes to the cap, is really very reasonable and would have been a creative way for Cashman to use Yankee $, acquire an ace type pitcher, and still meet "austerity" goals.
Ya know, if he is an ace.

16 RIYank   ~  Apr 25, 2012 3:25 pm

[15] True, but not obviously relevant. His salary plus amortized posting fee is enormous. He might be worth it, but anyway that's the right question; the question of whether his salary alone is very reasonable is of dubious interest.

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