Take Me Out to the Ball Game 2014

May 6, 2014 at 8:48 pm

By Terry Watada.

Japanese baseball players have certainly had an impact on Major League Baseball.  From the idiosyncratic style of Hideo Nomo to the hitting prowess of Hideki Matsui (Godzilla), Japan has contributed a great deal to the old ball game.  Ichiro Suzuki, Yu Darvish, and this season’s pitching sensation Masahiro Tanaka (and so many others) have thrilled fans from the get-go.  Mind you, they were superstars for their prospective teams back in Japan.

In Toronto, Munenori Kawasaki is a fan favourite, even if he keeps bouncing up and down to and from the minor leagues.  Often described as “light hitting”, he is however a talented reliever at shortstop and can be counted on to get on base and steal.  He is famous for declaring to the Toronto press, “I am Japanese!”  In the stands, the spectators have concocted the “Kawasaki Bow” out of respect (I believe).  He is wonderful to watch.

Very few have heard about the Blues Jays pitcher Tomo Ohka.  His story is worth telling, however.  He is the only Japanese pitcher ever to throw a knuckleball.  Only a handful of pitchers have mastered the massively mystifying pitch so Ohka is in a class all by himself in Japan and maybe North America.

Born in 1976 in Kyoto, Ohka first played professionally for the Yokohama BayStars (1994 – 1998).  He was picked up by the Boston Red Sox organization in 1999.  He was assigned to the minor leagues until his MLB debut in July 1999.  He played at that level until he was sent down to the minors again to refine his skills.  As a result, he was named the Boston organization’s Minor Player of the Year in 1999 and 2000.  He was traded to the Montreal Expos in 2001 where he experienced solid if not stellar years.  In June 2004, after three straight wins, his right forearm was broken by a line drive by Carlos Beltran in Kansas City.  He underwent major surgery requiring nine screws and a titanium plate.  He recovered, slowly, but his consistency was gone.  He did manage to move with the Expos to Washington (becoming a Washington National), but then he began bouncing around teams after an altercation with Nationals coach Frank Robinson.  He played for the Milwaukee Brewers, Toronto Blue Jays (2007), St Louis Cardinals, Seattle Mariners, the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians.  He returned to Japan in 2010, playing for his old team, the Yokohama BayStars.  For the 2013 MLB season, he signed a minor league contract with the Toronto Blue Jays.  He was subsequently invited as a non-roster invitee to spring training in 2014.

At 38 years old, most pitchers would retire but his knuckleball lengthened his career.  Back in 2012 in Japan, he had no team contract and so began training on his own.  The Toyama Thunderbirds, an independent-league team, gave him an offer.  That was rock bottom for the career pitcher, so he decided to learn the specialized pitch.  Trouble was no one in Japan could teach him.  He therefore scoured the internet and found precious little.  What he did find he watched a thousand times (by his estimate).  He bought a net and practised throwing “hundreds a day” until his fingers started bleeding.

The key to an effective knuckleball is removing the spin off the pitch.  Ohka couldn’t do it until he discovered he could if he didn’t rely on his fingernails.  So he developed a feel with his finger tips.  Consequently, he always carries a nail file wherever he goes to keep the nails short.  That was when the Blue Jays came a-calling.

The Jays realized a second knuckleball specialist (next to ace RA Dickey) would be advantageous in helping their catchers to get used to the dancing pitch.  For Ohka, he could perfect his skills from the only knuckleball pitcher to win the Cy Young Award (in the 2012 season).

His chances of making the bullpen for the Jays was unlikely from the start and was reassigned to minor-league camp on March 2, 2014, without making an appearance in an exhibition game.  But no one should count out the plucky and resourceful player.

He did pitch a perfect game for a Red Sox minor league team.  He also had a no-hitter under his belt.  He was one of the first Japanese pitchers to make it to the MLB.  He holds the distinction of second most all-time wins by a Japanese pitcher in the MLB.  And how can you dismiss a man who was referred to during the March 16, 2003, episode of the Simpsons?

“Look at me, I’m Tomokazu Ohka of the Montreal Expos!”
Bart Simpson