Clash of the TitansThere is no baseball figure more revered in Japan than Shigeo Nagashima. The former Tokyo Giants third baseman was a teammate of Sadaharu Oh during the 60s and 70s and helped to lead the famous club to 9 consecutive Japan Series titles. Nagashima hit a home run in the first game attended by the Emperor, and will always remain as an icon of Japanese fighting spirit, long after he's gone. Nagashima was a very popular manager of the Giants and was scheduled to lead the 2004 Japanese Olympic Baseball Team before falling ill before the trip to Sydney. A young Daisuke Matsuzaka would hit 100 on the radar gun and absolutely dominate the Australians in a 1-0 losing effort that stunned Japan and the international baseball community.
Nagashima's stroke and his limited involvement in the day to day operations of the Giants, and baseball in general, reminds us that all legends eventually fade, at least in the physical world. Hideki Matsui would have been the natural successor to Nagashima as the cleanup batter of the famous Yomiuri club, and a 55 home run slugger. Had he continued to play for Kyojin, Matsui may well be thought of as that eternal hero and the embodiment of the Japanese fighting spirit that Nagashima, his former manager, sought to pass along to him. One thing has sidetracked that lineage. Ichiro Suzuki.
No one could have ever anticipated that a Japanese player would cross the Pacific to play in the Major Leagues when Oh and Nagashima were dominating the sport, all those years ago. Even in the modern era, it would have seemed far fetched to imagine that the first player to boldly test those Major League waters would immediately win an MVP award. Ichiro so captured the imagination of the Japanese, that he wears the pride of a nation like his Mariners uniform every time he takes the field. He is 2000's embodiment of Japanese fighting spirit. Bold, excellent, and international. I highly recommend you read The Meaning of Ichiro: The New Wave from Japan and the Transformation of Our National Pastime by Robert Whiting. His books just keep getting better each time out.
Daisuke Matsuzaka is the same kind of person for the Japanese. He transcends mortal man in a way, because he has forged his own legend on the biggest stages in baseball. Koshien, Rookie of the Year, the Sawamura Award, the Japan Series, and finally the World Baseball Classic. All that remains is a Cy Young and a World Series championship. Matsuzaka has the potential to mean as much to Japan as Ichiro. Ichiro was the pioneer and the trailblazer, but Matsuzaka is the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Yamato. He walks the path that Ichiro cleared, but he does it as an anointed national treasure. A kind of royalty.
The upcoming series between the Red Sox and the Mariners carries with it a significance that perhaps will not be understood until both heroes have retired. I was at the first meeting between Ichiro and Matsui, and it was electric at Yankee Stadium. This meeting, in contrast, is a direct confrontation, where the Yankees and Mariners series was merely a sideshow act. When Matsuzaka takes the mound in the top of the first and stares down Ichiro it will be watched by more people that you can possibly imagine. It will be scrutinized more than any at bat has ever been scrutinized in the history of the sport, perhaps. Japanese television will run the highlights, not for days, but forever. This will be the Japanese people's living and breathing irresistible force meeting the flesh and blood immovable object.
The two players have faced one another before. When Ichiro was a bonafide superstar for the Orix Blue Wave, Matsuzaka was a wet behind the ears rookie straight off the dirt of Koshien. They met for the first time on May 16, 1999 at the Seibu Dome. In what has to be one of the most remarkable and memorable performances of his career, an 18-year old Matsuzaka struck out the legendary Ichiro Suzuki the first three times they faced one another. The fourth and final at bat that day saw Ichiro draw a walk. If you watch video of that faithful day with a 2007 mindset, you'll marvel at the youth and power of Daisuke Matsuzaka, noticeably smaller than the present day version. Ichiro looks the same, but also appears a bit smaller and younger. It must be the hamburgers in America, right? Fortunately for all of us, this moment has been preserved for our enjoyment at YouTube, and I proudly offer it to you here for your viewing pleasure:
The following chart is a complete account of the at bats between these two players. Ichiro managed an 8-34 (.235) lifetime record against Matsuzaka with 1 home run. The three consecutive strikeouts account for 3 of the 4 that Daisuke managed against the hard-to-fan outfielder, which adds some mystique to the performance.
It has been said, although I have no hard evidence of it, that Matsuzaka had no interest in playing for the Mariners when he asked to be posted. He didn't want to share the spotlight with Ichiro, instead making his mark on his own without distraction. Proving his ability on the highest stage would be an individual accomplishment that should stand on its own. He did say in February, however, when posed with a question about Ichiro joining him in Boston, “I played with Ichiro-san on the same team at WBC (World Baseball Classic) last year for the first time. I was so impressed by him. I felt that I could trust him. If I could play with him on the same team, I could never feel more confident than that. But this is his decision to make after all.”
Whatever the relationship between these two icons has been, it is about to change again. The evolution of Japan's participation in Major League Baseball gets more interesting all the time. We'll all be there to watch it together, and for a moment in time both the US and Japan will be holding their collective breaths.