Two San Francisco Giants of Japanese descent, whose onfield heroics have energized the fan base to varied levels of frenzy, were welcomed to San Francisco’s Japantown May 7 in an invite-only reception of about 250 guests at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California.
Flanked by Giants owners Larry Baer and Duane Kurisu — said to be the only Japanese American owner in major league baseball — outfielders Norichika “Nori” Aoki and Travis Ishikawa, along with Aoki’s wife Sachi Ohtake, received a warm welcome at the gathering.
And, as his role as the keynote and emcee, Kurisu christened the new Giant Aoki, 33, with a new nickname, “Seaweed,” the literal translation of “Nori.” The name was met with laugher from those in attendance.
When asked by Kurisu who he looked up to growing up in baseball, Aoki named current Miami Marlins outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, former New York Yankee great Hideki Matsui, and pioneering pitcher Hideo Nomo.
“Nomo, when he played for Kintestu in Japan, they had spring training in Miyazaki, which is where my hometown is,” said Aoki through his interpreter. “So I have memories of him when I was younger.”
Although he arrived some 30 years after Masanori Murakami became the first Japan-born player in the major leagues with the Giants, Nomo is widely considered a pioneer who opened the floodgates for the current generation of players from Japan, earning the National League Rookie of the Year honors in 1995 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, pitching in an All-Star game and tossing two no-hitters along the way.
“After he came here and did well … It made me realize that there’s baseball over here in America as well,” said Aoki, who is having a breakout season as the Giants’ leadoff hitter.
Through 33 games, Aoki is hitting .276 with a .358 on-base percentage. The Waseda University graduate, now in his fourth MLB season, spent his first two years with the Milwaukee Brewers after six seasons with the Yakult Swallows of Nippon Professional Baseball.
Aoki, who spent last year with the Kansas City Royals — who the Giants beat in the World Series last season — is growing more accustomed to the Bay Area. He also has grown to appreciate the hometown crowd.
“As a player it’s exciting to feel their energy,” he said about Giants fans.
Despite growing up in the Seattle area, Ishikawa, a fourth-generation Japanese American, didn’t have a lot of Japanese culture in his life.
“I was kind of naive and ignorant to it, because my household, I grew up kind of American style, and I didn’t have a lot of friends who were Japanese,” said Ishikawa, who noted that when he did visit his Japanese American relatives in Southern California, those trips were more tied to amusement parks rather than culture.
He did have an opportunity to go to Japan on a sister city baseball tour, however.
“We got to experience the culture,” Ishikawa said. “It was a lot of fun. It was a blast.”
When asked about his role models in baseball, Ishikawa named Seattle Mariners legend Ken Griffey Jr., but also noted that Ichiro Suzuki arrived the same year his baseball team won the state high school championships.
Ishikawa witnessed Suzuki hit homeruns in batting practice in Suzuki’s rookie season, recalling that in seven swings, he hit five onto the second deck.
“I was floored. How could a guy this little hit the ball so far?”
Ishikawa, a journeyman who became the postseason hero for hitting a dramatic walk-off homerun that sent the Giants into the World Series last season, is currently on the Disabled List, with no definite return date.
“Backs stink. It’s not like a wrist injury, where you know the timetable,” Ishikawa disclosed. “I’ve woken up feeling great, and the next day I’ve woken up and can barely walk.
“Hopefully I can get back here by May 19 … Japanese Heritage Night,” he said to roaring approval. The Giants will be giving away a special bobblehead that night, depicting Ishikawa’s game-winning postseason homerun.
Paul Osaki thanked the Giants for their role in helping with the Northern Japan Earthquake Relief Fund before presenting the two with specially-made daruma dolls made in the earthquake-devastated Fukushima.
One family of centuries-old crafts people in Fukushima made specially-made darumas with the players’ name, uniform number and name on it, designed by Bay Area artist Rich Lee.
The reception ended with a raffle held for two prizes, based on invitations, as winners received signed balls and a photo with the two players. The winners were Mary Ishisaki and Sadako Kashiwagi.