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No Mania When He Crossed the Pacific

It was a historic moment, a watershed happening for the grand old game. There, on the mound, in Shea Stadium, New York, was a Japanese pitcher. Not a Nisei, an honest-to-God born-in-Japan, bred-in-Japan, learned-how-to-throw- the-curveball-in- Japan player.

Oh, yeah! you want to say. You know all about Hideo Nomo and Nomomania and all the rest of it.

Wait a minute! Who said anything about Hideo Nomo? We’re talking a pioneer here, a ground breaker, not this Johnny-come-lately Hideo Nomo. We’re talking Masanori Murakami.

Nomo wasn’t even born when Masanori (Mashi) Murakami came to the big leagues in 1964. Murakami never inspired any kind of mania. Clouds of photographers didn’t follow his every move, Japanese television didn’t flash his every pitch back to the homeland. He simply put on his uniform with No. 37 on the back and went out to the mound in the closing innings to try to save the game for Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, Ron Herbel or the San Francisco Giants generically.

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How good was he? Well, he struck out Henry Aaron. How good is that? He won five big league games in his two seasons, saved nine, and struck out 100, which came out to 1.1 batters an inning. Nolan Ryan struck out only 1.06 per inning; Roger Clemens’ average is 0.92.

And Murakami was only 20 years old his first season. No telling how good he might have become. He had good stuff, he was fearless, had a high threshold of pain. And he had two baseball commissioners fighting over him. In fact, he had two countries fighting over him.

Murakami loved it. The rawest of rookies, he cheerfully signed every piece of paper put in front of him, unaware he was pledging to pitch in two places at the same time--with the Pacific Ocean in between.

So far, no tug of war has broken open for Nomo’s services. That’s largely because the Dodgers lured him with a $2-million offer up front to sign. All they offered Murakami was a pen.

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Nomo took dead aim on U.S. baseball. Murakami, so to speak, came in through a crack.

Nomo, more or less, feigned retirement so he could sign with the Dodgers. In 1964, Murakami was sent by his parent team, the Nankai Hawks, to Fresno of the California League to hone his skills for Japanese baseball.

But Fresno was a San Francisco Giant farm club and when they got a load of what they had, they were loathe to let Murakami go back.

He was a sensation. “He was too good for the league,” his Fresno manager, Bill Werle, was to observe. He had a 1.78 earned-run average, an 11-7 record and was rookie of the year. The Giants called him up. He made his major league debut against the Mets in Shea Stadium, and he was to pitch 10 scoreless innings before any big league team got a run against him.

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The baseball commissioner at the time, Ford Frick, got in a semi-brawl with the commissioner of Japanese baseball over Murakami till a compromise was worked out in which he could pitch one more season in San Francisco and then decide on his future.

It was heady stuff for a kid, but Murakami headed home after ’65, succumbing to homesickness and a contract double what the Giants offered.

Murakami is back in the United States this summer. He does the telecasts back to Japan on the exploits of his successor, Nomo.

Does he wish he had stayed on in San Francisco all those years ago? Murakami smiles. “Oh, yes,” he says. He reflects a moment. “In 1965, we lost the pennant to the Dodgers by only two games. And I missed one month. I had a 1.80 ERA against the Dodgers. If I pitched more, we would have won the pennant. “

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Does the Nomo success surprise him? Murakami shakes his head. He explains in halting but adequate English. “They play a power game here. And you are going to be hurt by the home run now and then. But not as often as by the single or double.”

The home run hitter, he explains, is often a wild, indiscriminate swinger. He is eminently pitchable. “In Japan, the style of the game is different. If you throw ball four--or even ball one or ball two--they will not swing at it. They swing only at strikes there. Here, they try to hit everything out. They do not require that the ball be a strike.”

Pitchers love those big free swingers who will offer at waste pitches, Murakami says. “I liked pitching to them,” he grins. “And don’t forget, I was a rookie. Nomo is a professional. This is his sixth season.”

Does this mean the American baseball market will now be flooded with Japanese imports, that ballplayers, like Toyotas, will be all over the place?

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Murakami thinks not. “A Japanese player has to wait 10 years for free agency. By then, you don’t want to move. Moving is for 20-year-olds, not 30-year-olds.”

It’s not that they’re incapable. “There are 10 pitchers over there who could pitch [as effectively] as Nomo. Some are better than Nomo. I thought when he came here, he’d win, maybe, 10 games. He has done much better. He has shown others it can be done. There are hitters [in Japan] who could hit for average but maybe not for power.”

If it’s a boon for American baseball, it’s also a boon for Japanese baseball. Nomo has ministered to its self-esteem immeasurably. No one expects it soon, but the day might come when the Los Angeles Dodgers, sporting some Japanese players, meet the Tokyo Giants, sporting some American ballplayers, in a World Series.

Nomo has moved that likelihood along. While Murakami and I sat, a young player in a Giant uniform sidled up next to him and conversed earnestly. “Do you think you could arrange it so I could play in Japan? I would like to.”

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Murakami gravely took his name, his vital statistics, batting average, foot speed, experience. Despite Kipling, the twain are meeting.

The irony is, no matter how widespread the mania for Nomo, no matter how many victories and one-hitters he amasses, Murakami will still be the best bet for the Hall of Fame. Nomo may be the best but Mashi was the first. He can look at Nomo and say, “Been there, done that.”


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