Japanese “Slap-Ball” comes to the Blue Jays

May 31, 2013 at 2:45 am

By Terry Watada

Ichiro, Yu Darvish, Godzilla (Hideki Matsui), Daisuke Matsuzaka legendary baseball names – not old names from the sport’s fabled past, but destined for Hall of Fame status no doubt. The four mentioned have or are playing for the storied New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians and the Texas Rangers. They truly have proved that Japanese Baseball, with unusual pitching styles and “slap-ball” hitting, is here to stay.

I recall the excitement caused by a great new (to the MLB anyway) J-Ball player as he took the mound. Hideo Nomo, with his arched back and arms extended in the air high above him before he went into the “Tornado Delivery” (coined by sportswriters), caused a sensation with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995. That year, he led the National League in strikeouts and was second in ERA (2.54). He beat Sandy Koufax’s single-season franchise record of 10 strikeouts per nine innings with his 11. He started that year’s All-Star Game, striking out three of six batters. He was named Rookie of the Year. During his career he threw two no-hitters, no other Japanese pitcher has ever thrown one. Hideo Nomo retired in 2008.

Nomo-san certainly paved the way for equally sensational players from Japan. Of late, it seems like every MLB team has its Japanese component. When I was last in Japan (2012), the television networks carried just about every American game with Japanese players – stars or not in the MLB. It was nice seeing a bit of home while in such a distant country.

The Toronto Blue Jays are no exception. A recent story in the Toronto Star cited four Japanese players in its team history. For the life of me I could only think of Don Wakamatsu and Brandon League, but both were Japanese Americans, hapa in fact. And Wakamatsu was the team Manager. Last April however a breath of spring came to the team in the form of Munenori Kawasaki, a shortstop from the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks via the minor leagues for Seattle and then Toronto. He made his big league debut with the Mariners in March 2012 before being traded to the Blue Jays.

Writers describe him as in the following: “Munenori Kawasaki is cute and fun and enthusiastic and kind of goofy. He’s also a superbly trained defensive shortstop with a track record to match.” Couldn’t have said it better.

Kawasaki was born in Aira, a town in central Kagoshima, and introduced to baseball by his older brother. He exhibited such talent that he gained the nickname Satsuro – a combination of Satsuma (a former province in western Kagoshima) and Ichiro Suzuki. Fans felt his style was very similar to the Mariner superstar’s, a boyhood hero of Kawasaki.

He created a sensation when he scored a run in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006. He batted leadoff and was effective with Ichiro as a teammate. Unfortunately, he suffered an injury while sliding into home plate to score, which affected his play during the regular season.

In Toronto, he has become an instant sensation. He replaced the injured star shortstop Jose Reyes and made his mark by stellar play at his position and key hits with his at-bats. And though he wasn’t expected to do well (one sportscaster called him pre-debut the “Light Hitting Kawasaki”), he won the leadoff batter position (for a time anyway), the one expected to get on base, after producing in the nine spot. His personality also played well to the crowd. He constantly does knee bends; he hustles with every play; and he bows to umpires and fellow players who make impressive plays. A You-Tube video caught him dancing oddly in the Softbank Hawks’ dugout. It has gone viral.

Such is his popularity, he has a “Kawasaki Section” in the stands. The fans imitate his bow, which includes a joining of hands in gassho. He must be Buddhist expressing his gratitude though few fans would know that. The Atlanta Braves have the racist Tomahawk Chop and now we have the Kawasaki Bow. Not sure how I feel about that.

In interviews also, Kawasaki comes across as “quirky” as writers and reporters characterize him. “I am always serious – Japanese style. I am serious like samurai” he once said about his tendency towards the eccentric.

More importantly, he brings energy to the team. In the early going the Jays suffered from inconsistent pitching, fielding errors and a lack of hitting still Kawasaki hanged tough. In his first five games, he hit .364 with a .500 on-base percentage. Inspiring to say the least.

He is like Suzuki as a slap ball hitter (very Japanese). I agree not much power with very little potential to get extra-base hits but he does grind at-bats, sometimes getting 11 pitches to walk. In that regard he is invaluable wearing out pitchers and getting on base as a potential run.

At this writing, Kawasaki has become an important member of the team, but come the All-Star Break (mid July), Jose Reyes is due back healthy and raring to go. Kawasaki may stay as a pinch-hitter or backup shortstop. There is also the possibility of being sent back to the minors. Shame really since he has made his presence felt and has paid his dues.

I have yet to go to a game, but if I really wanted to meet the man, I could go to GUU, the popular Izakaya in downtown Toronto. It is said to be Kawasaki’s favourite restaurant. It may become mine as well if Japanese Baseball’s allure lasts.