And it's likely in several seasons they'll become just as familiar with electric-armed pitcher Yu Darvish, 22, and speedy shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima, 27 – the cream of what might just be the next crop of Japanese professionals to make the jump to the majors.
This month's World Baseball Classic, which ended last week with Japan's thrilling extra-innings victory over South Korea in the championship game, gave international viewers a rare look these and Japan's other star players, including shortstop Munenori Kawasaki and relief pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa. The two-week tournament pits national teams against one another, for an Olympics-like match-up of the world's best players by nationality, not by where they usually play. The Japanese team features not only home-league pros but also Major League Baseball stars.
But it's Japan's rising stars that have the attention of hometown fans.
|In Pictures: Japan's up-and-coming baseball stars|
That's because, in the last few years, it's become increasingly common for the best Japanese players to leave – or abandon, as their fans would put it – the Japanese league for a lucrative U.S. contract, worth upward of $15 million for the best players. Reasons for this exodus include money, power and lifestyle.
While an MLB player like the newly signed Baltimore Oriole Koji Uhara can make $5 million, players in the Nippon Professional League, of whom 300 are on the big-league rosters at any one time, are lucky to make several hundred thousand. Baseball players often covet the chance to prove themselves in the world's most competitive league. And the MLB also offers a break from Japanese baseball teams' notoriously rigorous training schedules; American teams don't have as much practice after the fall season is over, and their spring training is shorter. It's a winning combination.
"The major leagues have too much to offer," says author Robert Whiting, a longtime Japan resident who has written several books on the subject, including an updated version of his classic about American players who join Japanese teams, "You Gotta Have Wa," which is due out March 24.
Because of the (some say protectionist) rules governing Japanese players' moves to the U.S., not every good player has the right to go. They must wait until they are free agents, which typically happens after seven seasons of 144 days of play apiece. Or their teams can offer them up for auction, called posting, in which the team sells the exclusive right to negotiate with the player. That's how Matsuzaka in 2006 reaped more than $100 million from the Sox for himself and his Japanese team, the Seibu Lions.
But it's not always that smooth. This year, pitcher Junichi Tazawa, 22, joined the Red Sox minor-league system after foregoing the Japanese pro draft, outraging Japan's baseball elders, who felt it was unseemly for him to decline to serve his country for the traditional seven years of pro play. No matter; he has a good chance of blasting out of the minors and into Fenway Park, says Andrew Gordon, a Harvard University professor who wrote a book on the Matsuzaka phenomenon.
Picking the Japanese players who might make the leap to MLB is a favorite parlor game among baseball fans. The name that's on everyone's lips this year is Darvish, the 22-year-old half-Iranian, half-Japanese pitcher who plays for Hokkaido's Nippon Ham Fighters team.
"Darvish is obviously the top pitcher, but he's too young. He's the next Matsuzaka," says Ira Stevens, who runs the Japan-based Web site ScoutDragon.com, which sells information on Asian players for MLB scouts looking to import talent from the region.
Other top prospects include Tokyo Yakult Swallows center fielder Norichika Aoki, 27, who is rumored to want to go, and the country's best catcher, Shinnosuke Abe, 30, of the Yomiuri Giants, Japan's answer to the Yankees. Hitoki Iwase, 34, a closer from the Chunichi Dragons who decided not to join the WBC team this year, has also said he's interested.
Not all the best Japanese players will take the plunge, of course. Some will flame out before they're allowed to seek an MLB post; others won't want to leave Japan.
But many will try to become the next Matsuzaka or Ichiro.
The top five:
- Major League Baseball
- Yu Darvish