Yu Darvish just the latest hyped foreign player

The Texas Rangers just spent over $100 million to land pitcher Yu Darvish, first winning a bidding war and then signing him to a six-year contract. They’re investing a good chunk of the franchise’s future on the Japanese superstar, who will be asked to make up for the loss of former ace C.J. Wilson to divisional rival Los Angeles.

Darvish is just the most hyped recent import in American sports. While the NFL is still completely dominated by U.S. athletes, other American pro leagues have been globetrotting to poach the best players from other countries, beginning as early as the 1970s, when Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff were lured to play in the now defunct-North American Soccer League.

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Slideshow: The most-hyped foreign players

That experiment helped bring fleeting interest in soccer in the U.S., but when those legends walked away the league was doomed. MLS, the successor to the NASL, relied much more on homegrown talent, though it did make a splash by bringing in English star David Beckham to the L.A. Galaxy. Beckham has boosted the league’s profile, helped his team win a championship this past season and decided to return for two more years – most likely to the end of his career.

While those soccer legends came to America at the end of their careers, in the past decade or so the imports tend to be in their prime, or even just as they enter their prime. Baseball has raided the Japan League, hockey a vast number of European players and basketball the world over, from China to Spain to the republics in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

New Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish wears his team's jersey after a baseball news conference at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas, Friday, Jan. 20, 2012.
(AP)

As soon as the Iron Curtain fell, players in the former Eastern Bloc countries began to trickle into the NBA. There was Arvydas Sabonis, the Lithuanian center who led the Soviet Union to an upset win over the U.S. in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Drazen Petrovic and Vlade Divac led a parade of talented former Yugoslavian players to America in 1989. But because of a “finesse” label unfairly attached to them, NBA teams at first weren’t willing to invest high first-round picks in European players. That changed in 2003 when Darko Milicic was taken second overall by the Detroit Pistons, ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.

But the sport that’s made the most of poaching a rival foreign league is baseball. After Hideo Nomo exploited a loophole in his contract to leave Japan and sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers, a floodgate opened. Japanese stars Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Irabu and Hideki Matsui, among others, would follow suit. The exodus endangered the existence of Japanese baseball so much that a new posting system was put in, resulting in the recent auctions for stars such as Daisuke Matsuzaka and Darvish as a way to financially compensate Japanese clubs.

All these players arrived with tremendous hype and huge contracts. Some lived up to them while others not. A number of those players are still active, including the Timberwolves’ Ricky Rubio, who’s just getting started. We made the distinction of only choosing athletes who have previously starred in foreign leagues, so baseball’s numerous Latin players are not included on this list, since nearly all of them came up through MLB teams’ academy programs. And for the NHL, only players not from North America are considered.

The list:

Ricky Rubio, Minnesota Timberwolves (NBA)
Hideo Nomo, Los Angeles Dodgers (MLB)
Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (NHL)
Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners (MLB)
Darko Milicic, Detroit Pistons (NBA)
Daisuke Matsuzaka, Boston Red Sox (MLB)
David Beckham, Los Angeles Galaxy (MLS)
Hideki Matsui, New York Yankees (MLB)
Pele, New York Cosmos (NASL)
Yao Ming, Houston Rockets (NBA)

Updated Sunday, Jan 29, 2012