Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Ryan Doherty excelling as a beach volleyball pro after minor league baseball career

Walking around the beach volleyball courts at last weekend’s AVP New York City Open at Hudson River Park, seven-foot-one Ryan Doherty seemed like the most obvious choice for a volleyball player. Long and lean with a standing reach that easily extends way over the net, Doherty appears to the casual observer that he’s spent a lifetime developing his volleyball skills. Little would they know that Doherty is a relative newcomer to the sport who only started playing once the door was closed on a burgeoning professional baseball career.

Doherty grew up in Toms River, New Jersey where baseball was king. A standout high school pitcher, he was a two-sport athlete at Toms River East until his senior year when he gave up basketball to focus solely on baseball. His inspiration for the decision came from newly minted Hall of Famer, Randy Johnson.

“I started to fall in love with baseball right around the time Randy Johnson was making a name for himself with the Mariners,” Doherty said to ESPN in 2002. “I had a hero for life.”

Ryan Doherty / Yakima Bears
Doherty took his talents on a baseball scholarship to Notre Dame where he earned third-team All-American honors in 2004. Armed with a fastball in the low-90s and a release that put the ball seemingly on top hitters before it left his hand, Doherty was set on a path to the major leagues. He was so eager to get to the show that left Notre Dame before his senior year to sign as an undrafted free agent in 2005 with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“Those long arms and legs will eventually be a consistent advantage because when he's right, he's actually releasing the ball closer to 50 feet from the plate, rather than the 52 or 54 feet most pitchers are releasing the ball from,” one scout remarked.

From the moment he stepped on the mound, Doherty made history. As the tallest player in professional baseball, he was determined to show the baseball world that he was more than a footnote in the record books. In his second professional season in 2006 with the South Bend Silver Hawks, he posted a 9–1 record with a 2.59 ERA. Based on his outstanding performance, the Diamondbacks moved him up to their advanced Class-A team in Visalia, California to start the 2007 season.

Surrounded by a team filled with heralded prospects, Doherty surely was on the right track. He spent time with his pitching idol Johnson, who was in Visalia rehabbing his way back to the major leagues. He opened the season by pitching three scoreless innings. Heading out of the gate with what seemed to be a strong push, Doherty’s train suddenly came to a screeching halt. The Diamondbacks abruptly released him, saying they didn’t see him projecting as a major leaguer. Not a single major league organization reached out for his services. He finished the 2007 season with the independent River City Rascals of the Frontier League with his baseball career in the rearview mirror.

“I left the Diamondbacks organization and it wasn’t my choice; I was released,” Doherty said at the New York City AVP Open. “I basically was an ex-athlete all of a sudden. I wasn’t a baseball player and I was 24 years old.”

So how did Doherty, who never played beach volleyball in his life, start the transformation from a flame-throwing pitcher to stymieing his opponents in the sand?

“When I was living with a friend of mine [Steve Johnson] down in South Carolina, we just happened to find a beach volleyball court and I fell in love with the sport,” he said. “I played it as much as I possibly could. It was a new great competitive outlet for me. I decided that I wanted to play this every day as long as I can.”

Initially, Doherty struggled mightily, serving as easy fodder for all comers. Playing with Johnson on the beach, the two former baseball players were out of their league even against low-level amateurs on the sand.

"We were terrible," Johnson said to Scott Stump in 2013. "Here we have a former D-I athlete and a former pro athlete, and we're getting embarrassed by the worst players on the beach."

Not one to be deterred by his early failures with the sport, Doherty was bit by the volleyball bug. In 2009 with only $5,000 to his name, he packed up his car and headed out to California with aspirations of making the professional tour. He made ends meet by delivering pizzas on a bicycle, managing the little money he had similarly to when he played in the minor leagues, making a dollar stretch in a variety of ways.

“I was very good at being poor from years of practice,” he said. “I didn’t have any money, but I knew that if I was going to play beach volleyball, I wasn’t going to do it for the money; I was going to do it because it is a great life. It’s something that would keep me engaged and passionate.”

With a work ethic born out of enduring the daily grind of a baseball season, Doherty hit the beach daily early in the morning to build his skill set. Once in awhile, he would get invited to play in high level games while working out at the beach because players didn’t show up. Despite his height (which earned him the nickname “Avatar”) being a tremendous asset in volleyball at the net, the many finesse areas of his game were lacking and easily exposed.
“It was definitely all of the skill aspects [that were hard to learn],” Doherty said. “Being seven feet tall, the height was easy — hitting, blocking, the serving. The things that were difficult were passing the ball, controlling sets, things like that. Those are the things that I have to work on much more than the others. Thankfully, I’ve had a lot of people willing to help me out and give me good advice, tips, and tricks. After a lot of practice reps, I’m able to say that I can now compete with most of the guys on those skill aspects. I’m not going to be the best ball control guy on the beach, but I’ve gotten much better and I still think I can improve in those areas.”
Two players who were instrumental in helping Doherty advance quickly in the sport were Olympic Gold Medalist Todd Rogers, and tour veteran Casey Patterson. Patterson took Doherty under his wing in 2012, and together they made the volleyball world take notice when the pair upset Rogers and Phil Dalhausser in the finals of the National Volleyball League tournament in Baltimore.

Rogers shortly parted ways with Dalhausser and picked up Doherty as his partner for the 2013 season. Rogers, whom Doherty compared to Cal Ripken Jr. with his skill, knowledge, and longevity, mentored him with the hopes of tuning up his game the same way he did with his former Olympic partner Dalhausser.

“Phil and I had gone our separate ways after the 2012 season, and I needed a new big guy,” Rogers said to Stump in 2013. “Ryan was the biggest on the block. I also wanted to work with a guy that needed to be taught, as I enjoy the coaching aspect of the game. I had taught Phil everything I knew, and I missed coaching. Ryan was a perfect fit for me.”

As Doherty progressed in his new sport, he carried the bulldog mentality that he had on the mound to the sand, when he would force feed hitters a steady diet 90-mile-per-hour fastballs and sloping curve balls until they showed they could make an adjustment. On the court he has applied that mantra to his offensive approach.
“One of my smartest baseball coaches said, 'Don’t change anything until they show you they can beat it.’ That’s what I took into volleyball,” Doherty said. “If I am swinging to the high deep middle of the court and that ball goes down, I’m going to keep swinging there until somebody does something to where it doesn’t work. I’ve had matches where I’ve swung to the same spot 15 times and that was the only spot I hit, but they didn’t defend it, so I’ll take it. That’s a smart thing for younger players, develop one thing so that they have to make an adjustment, and then you can go to your next. Don’t try to play a chess match if you can just play checkers.”
Ryan Doherty at the 2015 AVP Open / N. Diunte
Sitting in the player’s tent in between matches, Doherty reflected on the opportunity to be able to play in front of his family and friends, with only 70 miles separating them from the venue. He hopes that the tour makes Manhattan a permanent stop due to its incredible atmosphere.

“The East Coast tournament is always my favorite one of the year just because my friends and family get a chance to come out,” he said. “Now that I live in California, I don’t get to see them nearly as much as I like. This New York City tournament has been fantastic so far; it’s one of the coolest backdrops to a beach volleyball tournament you’ve ever going to see. I’m really hoping that this one sticks around for awhile so that we can stay here many more years.”

Doherty and his partner John Mayer finished in second place in the NYC AVP Open, losing a highly contested match in the finals to the team of his former partner Patterson and Olympian Jake Gibb in three sets, 21–19, 15–21, 12–15. Their excellent showing only furthers the argument that Doherty and Mayer’s team are in contention for a spot in the 2016 Olympics. While Doherty feels that is a lofty goal due to the short time that they have played together, he’s not going to rule out the possibility of it happening.

“The 2016 Olympics are going to be very tough,” he said. “Johnny Mayer and I are in the 5th spot for the US and only two teams can go. … We just want to play and develop as a team. He’s a fantastic player. It’s our first year together; I think us trying to set an Olympics goal was a little out of reach considering how good all of the American teams are. Never say never, but we’re both going to be young enough that 2020 is not out of the picture.”

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Anthony Iapoce returns home to Queens roots as a member of the Chicago Cubs

Anthony Iapoce, the current special assistant to Chicago Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer, returned to his Queens roots in a major league uniform just prior to the All-Star break at Citi Field. Iapoce was in the dugout sporting a major league uniform to keep an eye on the Cubs prospect rich lineup that included Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Jorge Soler.

Anthony Iapoce / N. Diunte

The 1991 Monsignor McClancy graduate and Hall of Famer took a few minutes to sit down with me to discuss his current role with the Cubs and what it meant for him to be on the major league field so close to where he grew up.

"Astoria native Iapoce hits the big leagues." - TimesLedger Newspapers

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Lou Boudreau Documentary: Covering All The Bases

Lou Boudreau was a rarity in Major League Baseball. A talented shortstop with Hall of Fame credentials, he was the last player-manager to win a World Series, earning MVP honors in 1948 as his Cleveland Indians bested the Boston Braves in that year's Fall Classic. During his 15-year playing career, Boudreau led the American League eight times in fielding at shortstop, while posting a career .295 average with a walk-to-strikeout ratio of greater than two-to-one.

Lou Boudreau (r,) with Satchel Paige (l.) / Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

His granddaughter Jessica Boudreau created a wonderful tribute to her grandfather entitled, "Covering All the Bases: Lou Boudreau Documentary." The video features an in-depth interview with Ernie Banks, personal family photos, and explains how his grandchildren have kept the legacy of his number five alive after his 2001 passing.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

How Fritz Peterson was inches from bringing the American League to victory in the 1970 All Star Game

With Cincinnati poised to hold its fifth Major League Baseball All-Star Game tonight, a new crop of history makers will emerge from the contest. Some 45 years ago, the Queen City was the site where baseball lore was written when Pete Rose barreled over Cleveland Indians catcher Ray Fosse to score the winning run in front of the home crowd at the 1970 All-Star Game. Rose emerged from the collision triumphantly in victory while Fosse suffered a shoulder injury that ruined a promising career. If one of the participants in the game could have taken one pitch back, Rose’s infamous moment might have never happened.

Fritz Peterson with Earl Weaver and Ray Fosse at the 1970 All Star Game
The American League had a 4-1 lead with one out in the ninth inning but with the left-handed Willie McCovey of the San Francisco Giants due to bat, manager Earl Weaver called down to his bullpen for New York Yankees left-hander Fritz Peterson to shut the door. As Peterson approached Fosse and Weaver on the mound, the Orioles manager was confident that the Yankee would do the job.

“I don’t know McCovey; he’ll get him [expletive],” Weaver said during the exchange. “I ain’t worried about him.”

In his recently released autobiography, “When the Yankees Were on the Fritz: Revisiting the Horace Clarke Era,” Peterson recounted his memorable experience with victory so close in reach.

“I’ll never forget my role in that All-Star Game,” Peterson said in his new book. “It was the ninth inning with the American League ahead by one run when I was called in from the bullpen to replace Catfish Hunter to face Willie McCovey with a man on first and one out. I felt pretty good out there since McCovey had never faced me before and I was pretty tough against left-handers, especially tall ones with big swings.”

As Weaver predicted, Peterson quickly had the upper hand. Staring down McCovey ahead in the count 0-2, Peterson threw his patented slider with the intent of inducing the Giants slugger into a game-ending double play. Unfortunately, a mere few inches separated his dreams from reality.

“I got ahead of McCovey 0-2 and threw him a slider on the outside corner which he hit for a ground ball base hit just past Davey Johnson’s outreached glove at second,” he recalled.

Still some 45 years later, of all the pitches Peterson threw in his 11-year major league career, his offering to McCovey was one that he wished he had a mulligan for. An inch off the plate to McCovey and a few inches closer to Johnson, Peterson could have changed the course of baseball history. One would have remembered how Peterson closed the door for the American League without Rose ever having the chance to run over Fosse on Jim Hickman’s game-winning hit.

“I have replayed that pitch thousands of times in my mind over the years and want it back for a ‘do over,’” he said. “I planned on throwing that pitch a little bit off of the plate, but instead got it over the plate and Willie hit it through the infield. One foot closer to our second baseman Davey Johnson and we get a double play—game over! Instead, the game went into extra innings after Roberto Clemente hit a sacrifice fly off of Stottlemyre that tied the score. Memories!”

Monday, July 13, 2015

Mahlon Duckett, a tribute to the passing of a Negro League legend

Mahlon Duckett, one of the last living members of the Philadelphia Stars in the Negro Leagues, passed away Sunday at a Philadelphia area hospital. He was 92.

Duckett, a Philadelphia native who starred in track at Overbrook High School, was recruited an infielder with the Stars after playing semi-pro baseball for a local team. He shored up their infield for a decade from 1940-49 and finished his career in 1950 with the Homestead Grays as the league was on the decline. He was signed with the New York Giants in 1951, but whatever hopes he had of making the major leagues was derailed by a case of rheumatic fever right before he was to head out to training in Arizona. Sidelined for a year by the illness, his career was over.

Mahlon Duckett (center) at the 2008 Judy Johnson Tribute Night / N. Diunte

I first met Mr. Duckett in 2007 at the Wilmington Blue Rocks annual tribute to the Negro Leagues. Gregg Truitt, one of the chairs of the Judy Johnson Foundation graciously had me as a guest at his home for a pre-event ceremony with the players and their families. I sat down with him and after being greeted with a smile and handshake, we immediately connected. At the time, I was playing for the Roxborough Bandits, a semi-pro team in Philadelphia’s famed Penn-Del League. Once we started talking about the intricacies of playing the middle infield positions, I knew that I had made a friend.

Mahlon Duckett (r.) with the author in 2007 / N. Diunte

For the rest of the evening, I became Mr. Duckett’s go-to-guy, helping him get around the ballpark and on-field ceremonies. After the pre-game honors were done, I accompanied him to the autograph area, where I sat with him as he signed autographs for seven innings as a continuous stream of fans approached the table. During breaks in the action, we continued to talk baseball, as Duckett took pauses from signing just so he could finish telling me some of his vast encyclopedia of stories.

We stayed in touch after that evening, exchanging some photos from the event, a few letters in the mail, and subsequent phone calls. When I returned the next year, he told me that people who visited him at his assisted living home would always remark about the young gentleman in the photo with him. He said he was proud to display it.

In the following years, it became more difficult for Duckett to travel and slowly he watched his crew of fellow Philadelphia Stars dwindle with the passings of Bill Cash, Stanley Glenn, and Harold Gould. He made his final public appearance last month at the opening of the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Philadelphia.

We last spoke in 2013 and our talk returned to his career. Only 17-years-old when he joined the Stars, he told me that he was left to figure out most of the game by himself.

“In the Negro Leagues, you just played on your natural ability, that’s all,” he said during our 2013 telephone interview. “A couple of guys told me a lot of things that they thought would help me, but I never had any one individual say, ‘I’m taking you under my wing and teaching you this that and the other thing.’”

Some seventy years later, he chose to share one of his favorite stories that involved the great Satchel Paige. At an age when most ballplayers were trying to figure out graduating high school, an 18-year-old Duckett approached the plate with the game on the line against arguably the best pitcher in baseball history.

“I hit a game winning home run off of Satchel in Yankee Stadium in 1941,” he said. “I’ll never forget that; it was a great day, Yankee Stadium, about 45,000 people there. There were a lot of great things that happened in the Negro Leagues that a lot of people don’t know about. It was a great league with great ballplayers.”

For an excellent in-depth interview with Duckett, check out Brent P. Kelley's, "Voices From the Negro Leagues."

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Catching up with Brooklyn Dodger Don Demeter

Don Demeter was just 21 years old when he made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956. Called up in September after hitting 41 home runs at Fort Worth in the Texas League, Walter Alston sent Demeter to the plate as a pinch hitter on September 18th. Overwhelmed by the experience, Demeter went right back to the dugout after three pitches.

"I didn't even take a swing," he said in Jonathan Arnold's SABR biography.

Determined not to repeat his statuesque figure at the plate, he told himself that he would swing at the first offering the next time he was up. The next day, the Dodgers were routing the St. Louis Cardinals 15-2 by the 8th inning. Alston went to his bench and inserted him in center field. At the bottom of the inning, he led off against Don Liddle. With the count 2-1, Demeter took a mighty swing at a fastball and deposited it in the stands. 

"The next night I got to pinch hit again and the first swing I took, I hit a home run," he said. "They put me in the Ebbets Hall of Fame because I have a .500 average in Ebbets Field."

Demeter made one more appearance for Brooklyn as a pinch hitter against the Pirates. It would be his last in a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform. He had another stellar season in the minors in 1957, but with his St. Paul club going deep in the playoffs, there were only a few days left in the major league season when he finished. There would not be enough time for Demeter to play again in Brooklyn before they headed to California.

Starting in 1958, Demeter played the next 10 seasons in the majors, also spending time with the Phillies, Tigers, Red Sox, and Indians. He retired in 1967 with 163 home runs in 1109 games. Upon his return to Oklahoma City, Demeter entered the ministry, where he is now a pastor at the Grace Community Baptist Church.

Don Demeter (l.) with Tommy Lasorda (r.) in 2014 - David Greenwell
In 2014, he appeared with Tommy Lasorda to announce the Los Angeles Dodgers moving their Triple-A team to Oklahoma City. At the time of this writing, he's the third youngest living Brooklyn Dodger, with only Brooklyn natives Sandy Koufax and Bob Aspromonte (who ironically debuted in Demeter's home run game) as his juniors.

Below is a video with Demeter from grandson Kendrick, where he discusses his major league career and his transition to a man of the faith.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Narciso Elvira, former Brewers pitcher, rescued from kidnapping in Mexico

Narciso Elvira, the former Milwaukee Brewers pitcher who was reported missing in June, was rescued Friday, July 10, 2015 in Catemaco, Veracruz. The 47-year-old retired pitcher went missing almost a month before being safely returned from captivity from the authorities.

Click here to read the full English version of the details of Elvira's rescue.

Narciso Elvira with the Brewers in 1990

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Buddy Hicks, 87, played with the Detroit Tigers in 1956

Clarence “Buddy” Hicks, a former switch-hitting infielder with the Detroit Tigers in the 1950s, passed away December 8, 2014 in St. George, Utah due to complications from a fall. He was 87.
Buddy Hicks with the Dodgers in 1949
Hicks started his professional baseball career with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1944 after being plucked from the sandlots in California. He was signed before he was even old enough to vote.
“I was just 17,” Hicks said during a 2008 phone interview from his home in Utah. “I was scouted by the Dodgers playing sandlot ball in Montebello, California. I went to Montreal and sat on the bench waiting for my assignment. I started with Trenton and went to Newport News.”

The talent rich Dodgers organization was filled with bonafide prospects. Branch Rickey’s keen eye for scouting placed Hicks on the same 1944 team in Newport News with future Dodger mainstays Duke Snider, Clem Labine, Tommy Brown, and Bobby Morgan. The group of budding stars first met at training camp in upstate New York during World War II.

“It was at Bear Mountain that the embryonic ballplayers appeared in the war time training camp,” Bo Gill recalled in a 1968 edition of the Evening News. “Duke Snider, Bobby Morgan, Buddy Hicks, Clem Labine and Steve Lemo [sic], 17, and Tommy Brown and Preston Ward, 16, were to be the stars of the future as the Dodgers, under Leo Durocher, made the change from age to youth.”

Hicks (front center) with Dodgers teammates in spring training
As soon as the 1944 season ended, Hicks and Snider traveled cross country to return home to California. With the war escalating, Snider knew that their days as civilians were numbered.

“I made the trip back to the West Coast with my Newport News roomie, Buddy Hicks,” Snider said in his autobiography, "The Duke of Flatbush.

“We didn’t need to be reminded there was a war on; the evidence was all around us. The train was filled with uniformed servicemen and women traveling home on leave or returning to camp or—worst of all—being shipped overseas. I was looking forward to a few more months of good times, but the Selective Service System didn’t fool around in those days. With more than ten million people in uniform and the manpower needs growing all the time, your friendly neighborhood draft board had a way of letting you know you were always in its thoughts.”

Hicks joined the Navy and didn’t return to baseball until 1947. Upon his arrival, he encountered a flood of ballplayers that finished their service and were looking to regain their places in the organization.

“When I got out of the service, I went back and played some sandlot ball to get me back in shape,” he said. “There were 800 of us in spring training with the Dodgers coming back from the war.”

Used almost exclusively a shortstop in the minor leagues, Hicks was stuck behind Pee Wee Reese on the Dodgers. When the Dodgers tried him out at second and third base, he was looking up to Jackie Robinson and Billy Cox respectively. While he couldn’t crack their major league lineup, the Dodgers thought enough of his abilities to keep a high asking price on his services.

In 1949, when Reese got hurt in spring training, Hicks attracted the eyes of Chicago Cubs scout Red Smith. Dodgers manager Burt Shotton held firm to the Dodger creed that if other teams wanted their players, they would have to dig deep in their coffers.

“Sure we’ve got the men they want. … But they can’t get them for a dime. … We haven’t got that kind. They’re going to have to come up with their prices if they want our boys,” Burt Shotton was quoted as saying in Bob Mack’s “Bird Hunting in Brooklyn.

The fact that the Dodgers were playing hardball with moving Hicks to another organization frustrated him. He always felt that the constant movement in their farm clubs, combined with their outrageous asking prices, hindered his rise to the major leagues.

“There were a lot of guys coming down from the majors and then working their way [back] up,” he said.
“The Dodgers had 27 farm clubs that year, all the way from Class D to AAA. They had three AAA farm clubs. The Dodgers tried to draft talent, and if they couldn't use them, they would sell them. I learned later that the Washington Senators were interested and the Dodgers wanted $100,000; that ended things for me.”

A knee injury in 1950 hampered his performance with Hollywood of the Pacific Coast League. Hicks batted only .239 and in October, the National League Champion Philadelphia Phillies purchased Hicks’ contract from Hollywood. Finally, there was a team willing to meet the Dodgers asking price.

Quickly, Hicks’ fortunes were about to turn. No longer buried deep in the Dodgers farm system, there was immediately opportunity for him at the big league level with the Phillies. On July 3, 1951, the Phillies recalled Hicks from Atlanta of the Southern Association. Now there was more for him to celebrate other than Independence Day; however, his glee was short lived.

For two weeks, Hicks sat on the bench and never once did manager Eddie Sawyer call for his entry. On July 17th, the Phillies returned Hicks to Atlanta without him ever playing in a major league game. Despite this tease of major league immortality, Hicks pressed on.

His contract was sold to the Boston Braves organization the next year and then to the Detroit Tigers to start the 1953 season. For two more seasons, Hicks battled at the Triple-A level, waiting for his break. Finally in 1956, his efforts were vindicated when the Tigers kept him on the roster after they broke from spring training.

“Joe Gordon was instrumental in getting me up there,” Hicks said. “He said if he was managing, I would have been playing short and Harvey Kuenn would be in the outfield. What got me up was when Frank Bolling came out of the service. I spent most of my career at shortstop and I had trouble making the transition from short to second. I think the throw from second more than anything was the hardest thing for me. You have your back to the runner trying to make a double play. It just didn't work out for me.”

Hicks recalled how he could hardly keep calm during his first major league at-bat. It was in the 9th inning with the Tigers down 2-1 to the Kansas City Athletics.

“My first at-bat was a disaster,” he stated. “I was a really good bunter. My knees were shaking so bad, I could hardly stand up. They sent me in to bunt the person over from second to third and I popped the damn thing up to the catcher. That was very disastrous for me.”

Hicks played in 26 games for the Tigers in 1956 at every infield position except first base, handling 52 chances without an error. He hit only .213 and was sent down to the minor leagues in July. It was his final call to the majors.

“I went from Detroit to Charleston,” he said. “I played the first year-and-a-half, and then I was a player coach under Bill Norman.”

He continued as a player-manager through 1962, spanning 17 seasons in which he amassed over 1,700 hits in the minor leagues. Overlapping with the end of his playing career, he spent 10 seasons as a minor league manager in the Braves and Senators systems from 1960-1969 before calling it quits. He then spent the next 20 years working first in sales, and then managing an automobile parts business in California before retiring in 1990.

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, 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
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 [in the] 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] Ohtani, 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.”