Monday, July 6, 2015

Masanori Murakami revisits the site of his major league debut

Masanori Murakami was 6,000 miles away from his home while visiting New York City this week, but the famed Japanese pitcher was welcomed with open arms as he returned to the site where he made history over 50 years ago as the first Japanese player in Major League Baseball. What started with a book signing in Manhattan on Tuesday and finished with him throwing a strike from the mound at Citi Field on Thursday, has left Murakami with a sense of adulation that has been absent since his playing days.

“[They have been] the best so far,” Murakami said during an interview on Wednesday. “Maybe half the people didn’t see me pitch, but [the people] are friendly, very kind, and nice. I’m having a good time.”

Masanori Murakami / N. Diunte
Murakami made his groundbreaking debut with the San Francisco Giants on September 1, 1964 against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium. Entering the game in the 8th inning as a relief pitcher for Alvin Dark's squad, the 20-year-old lefty quickly shut down the side for a scoreless slate.
His mound appearance at Citi Field coincided with the release of his autobiography, “Mashi: The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanori Murakami, the First Japanese Major Leaguer.” The book is authored by Rob Fitts, who previously wrote two other works on Japanese baseball. Guiding “Mashi,” on his tour, Fitts has encountered tremendous excitement from fans eager to catch a pillar of baseball’s past.

“There has been so much enthusiasm from fans,” Fitts said in a Wednesday interview. “We’ve done three events so far and there were 100 people at each event. People are just coming up and saying, ‘I saw you pitch when I was 10 years old, or I was wondering about you for 30 years and I got the 1965 baseball card when I was eight.’ A lot of people knew he was in the major leagues, but didn’t know much about him. These events have been great having people meet him for the first time and hear his story for the first time.”

One of those excited fans was Chicago Cubs pitcher, Tsuyoshi Wada. The 34-year-old Japanese pitcher is in his second season with the Cubs. After being alerted to Murakami’s presence in the ballpark, Wada dashed from the clubhouse to greet his countryman with a ceremonial bow and handshake. Speaking with the help of a translator, Wada showed reverence for his predecessor.

“I have respect for him as he is the first pitcher who came here,” Wada said at Citi Field on Thursday. “He’s also left-handed, so I [also] relate to him that way. I had no idea that I was going to meet him today, but it has been a real lovely experience. … I would love it if more people knew of Mashi.”

Murakami presents Wada a signed copy of his book / N. Diunte
Murakami was equally delighted to see a familiar face on the field. The two exchanged pleasantries and even autographs during their meeting.

“Wada played on the Hawks, same team [as I did] before,” he said. “He’s a good guy. I was very happy to see him. I got some autographs to bring back to Japan after the season for my charity golf tournament to auction to make money to help the Special Olympics.”

Murakami was introduced to the greater American baseball public on September 1, 1964 at Shea Stadium as a member of the San Francisco Giants. Down 4-0 to the New York Mets, Giants manager Alvin Dark thought that this low pressure situation was the perfect time for the 20-year-old to make his debut. A half-century later, Murakami recalled the details of his entry.

“I [was] very relaxed, not tight,” he said. “We finished the 7th inning [and] Alvin Dark called to the bullpen, ‘If 8th inning [there are] no runs, Mashi goes in.’ Then the 8th inning, nothing [no runs]. We were behind four runs. The umps called me and I was walking to the mound to the Sukiyaki song. They [the fans] were all watching me, but I didn’t notice. I talked to the catcher and [went over] the signs. First pitch, outside corner, nice strike, and then Charley Smith I struck out.”

He finished his debut with a clean slate, surrendering only a single while striking out two batters. Even though his performance that day could be categorized as magical, the events leading up to his arrival on the mound were chaotic, starting with his flight from Fresno.

“From Fresno to here, [it was] very tough because nobody was taking me to the hotel,” he said. “I did it by myself. I was only here for six months, I didn’t know much English. I remember, the first night, I ate roast beef with Juan Marichal in the hotel.”

It didn’t get any better for Murakami when he got to the ballpark. Although he signed his release from Fresno, he never formally signed a major league contract with the Giants. Confused by being asked to sign what he thought was a duplicate contract, Murakami had to iron out the formalities of his major league contract only minutes prior to the first pitch.

“Before the game Chub Feeney the general manager called to me to sign the contract,” he recalled. “There was a little bit of trouble because I didn’t know that. I can’t read it, contracts are very tough. [He told me] to sign over here. I said, ‘No, no, no. I don’t understand.’ He sent to the stands to get a Japanese guy [who helped translate] and then I said, ‘Oh, I understand.’ Then I signed.”

Murakami finished the 1965 season with a 4-1 record for the Giants, but decided to honor a commitment he made to the Nankai Hawks to return to Japan. He continued to pitch in Japan until 1982 with the Nippon Ham Fighters. Returning to the United States in 1983, Mashi tried to finish an unfulfilled dream by vying for a spot on the Giants roster.

“I thought I could play against the left-handed hitters,” he said. “I never played in major league spring training, only the minor league. … [I told the Giants] I would like to try spring training and if my arm is good, I would like to sign the contract.”

Unfortunately, his comeback with the Giants in 1983 was short lived. He was released at the end of spring training, but stayed in San Francisco to be the team’s batting practice pitcher for the duration of the season.
In the 50 years since his debut Murakami has seen a lot of changes, especially with how pitchers are handled. When he started his career, Japanese managers were notorious for running their pitchers into the ground; now their staffs have a lot more depth.

“Pitchers rotation before over here was three days,” he said. “Over there [Japan], if you are a good pitcher, maybe [one day you are] starting, maybe next day, [if the team might] win, ‘Okay, you get the ball.’ The Lions number 24 [Kazuhisa Inao], he had 42 wins [in a season]. He threw every day. Over here it’s mostly rotation. Maybe number one pitcher goes to relief one or two times only [per season]. Next day is day off. Now the rotation is four or five days … in Japan it is six days; one week, one time.”

With a new system in place for Japanese players to sign with Major League teams since Murakami broke ground with the Giants, many players, especially pitchers have enjoyed vast salaries and opportunities for their exploits. He is hopeful that their top prospects will have the chance to play on the stage he once occupied.

“[Kenta] Maeda from the Hiroshima Carp and [Shohei] Otani, the young boy who is about 6’5”, he’s 20; he does both the pitching and hitting. I hope he comes over here, but he will be a pitcher. I hope every pitcher can [come here] and pitch well.”


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