The year of the Nikkei baseball player

When you think of players of Japanese descent in the major leagues, many iconic names come to mind: Nomo, Ichiro, Matsui, Ohtani. Before them Masanori Murakami, a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, who only played two seasons in the majors.

Murakami, or “Mashi,” as he was called, broke the majors’ trans-Pacific barrier in 1964, ending his Giants (and major league) run in 1965 with an overall record of 5-1, a 3.43 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 54 games.

Some 30 years would pass until Hideo Nomo, a pitcher for the Kintetsu Buffaloes with a unique pitching delivery nicknamed “Tornado,” would truly blaze a trail for a new wave of Japanese imports. Since Nomo’s emergence in 1995 on the Los Angeles Dodgers, there has been a steady stream of Japanese baseball players in the majors, to the point where now all 30 major league teams have had a Japan-born baseball player on their roster. And, unlike the unexceptional Mukarami before him, Nomo was a dominating force, compiling a 123-109 won-loss record, a 4.24 ERA and 1,918 strikeouts — not to mention the 1995 Rookie of the Year award, an All-Star appearance and two no-hitters — in 13 major league seasons.

Nomo would be the standard bearer for Japanese baseball greatness until Ichiro Suzuki burst onto the majors, winning both American League MVP and Rookie of the Year honors in 2001, 10 Gold Gloves for defensive prowess, and a major league record 262 hits in 2004 en route to an indisputable first-ballot Hall of Fame career.

And then came Shohei Ohtani, a two-way pitching and batting freak of nature who can only be compared to the great Babe Ruth, rewriting history in the process.

But what about Japanese American players?

The year 2022 may be a rarity in that there were more Japanese American baseball players and managers in the majors than those from Japan. And some of them are at or near the top of the game, like 2018 National League MVP Christian Yelich of the Milwaukee Brewers, who had a breakout year of 36 home runs, 110 RBI and a .326 batting average in 2018 followed by a 44 HR, 97 RBI and .329 campaign in 2019.

Catcher Kurt Suzuki emerged as the Johnny Bench Award winner — the top collegiate catcher — for College World Series champion California State University, Fullerton in 2004. He was drafted by the Oakland A’s, and just finished his 16-year career at Oakland Coliseum in October, a bookend to a decent span that saw one All-Star appearance.

And while one Nikkei career was ending, another emerged. In a big way.

Steven Kwan, a mixed Japanese and Chinese American native of Los Gatos, Calif. who starred at Washington High School in Fremont, Calif., had an explosive start of his rookie season in 2022. The then-24-year-old reached base 18 times in his first five games, the most for a player since 1901. The 2018 fifth-round draft pick from Oregon State University went 116 pitches before swinging and missing, the most of any career start since at least 2000, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

But Kwan didn’t only have an explosive start. The Rookie of the Year finalist finished third in voting, and earned an American League Gold Glove as the best defender at his position. He also had 168 hits, 52 RBI, 19 stolen bases and .298 batting average in his rookie campaign. At this pace, Kwan could very well become the first Asian American in baseball’s Hall of Fame.

The storied New York Yankees have two multiracial Japanese Americans, 2020 American League Gold Glove-winning shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa and journeyman catcher Kyle Higashioka, while the Brewers also have 2017 First Round draft pick and Valencia, Calif. native Keston Wee Hing Natsuo Hiura at first base. Not to be outdone, rookie outfielder Lars Taylor Tatsuji Nootbaar of El Segundo, Calif. — a standout at USC during college — calls the St. Louis Cardinals his home.

And then there’s former player-turned-manager Dave Roberts, who was born in Okinawa, Japan to an American father and a Japanese mother, at the helm of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Roberts won the 2016 National League Manager of the Year award.

“Baseball has never been restricted by your size, height or weight like other professional sports,” Kerry Yo Nakagawa, executive director of the Nisei Baseball Research Project, told the Nichi Bei News. “With so many Asian players throughout MLB, it gives players hope that if they have the five tools (and) passion, they can raise the MLB bar up higher like (Lynn) Sakata, Ichiro, Ohtani, Yelich, (Don) Wakamatsu, Roberts, and the many other ballplayers and managers.”

According to Nakagawa, Japanese American baseball players were banned from major league baseball due to “Jim Crow” laws, but the Issei and Nisei “pioneers” became “our American ambassadors to Japan, Korea and China” in the early 1900s. “Imagine the Seattle Asahi traveling for ‘Goodwill tours’ as early as 1914, 1918, 1921 to Japan and many other semi-pro Nisei teams followed From Fresno, Los Angeles, San Jose, Stockton and Alameda. The Black all-star team the Philadelphia Royal Giants played the Fresno Athletic Club at Meiji Stadium in front of 10,000 fans. These early Nikkei tours sparked professional baseball in Japan in 1936.”

With the addition of new imports Japanese outfielder Masataka Yoshida on the Boston Red Sox and pitcher Kodai Senga on the New York Mets, the balance of Japan-born vs Japanese Americans may likely tip back to favor those born in Japan. However, the passing of the torch between one ending career in Kurt Suzuki and another rapidly emerging in Steven Kwan shows a surprisingly expanding field of dreams for Japanese Americans. It shows that major league aspirations, once unthinkable, may be attainable after all.

For that reason, the Nikkei baseball player is our Nikkei of the Year.

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