MLB/ Ohtani and Yamamoto are unbelievable in any language. Japanese has several words for them

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MLB/ Ohtani and Yamamoto are unbelievable in any language. Japanese has several words for them

MLB/ Ohtani and Yamamoto are unbelievable in any language. Japanese has several words for them


March 19, 2024 at 13:40 JST

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Photo/IllutrationLos Angeles Dodgers' designated hitter Shohei Ohtani, right, and pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto, left, chat prior to the exhibition game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Kiwoom Heroes at the Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul on March 17. (AP Photo)

SEOUL--If you’re a fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ billion-dollar duo of Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto, you might want to learn a couple of Japanese adjectives.

Try these as the Dodgers and Padres are in South Korea to open the MLB season.

There’s “shinjirarenai,” which translates as “unbelievable” or “incredible.” Or the milder “subarashii,” which can mean “awesome” or “amazing.”

Of course, the Japanese mega-stars are about unprecedented spending, flair, and commercial appeal. But there’s more to it.

They’ve stirred pride in almost every Japanese, marked 150 years of baseball evolution in the country, and provided an antidote for political ills like the recent announcement that Japan’s economy has slipped to No. 4 behind Germany. It was No. 2 until 2010 when it was overtaken by China.

Baseball in Japan is known as “yakyu,” literally field ball. But by any name, this is about beating the North Americans — and Latin Americans — at their own game.

With full respect to Masanori Murakami, who played briefly with the San Fransisco Giants in 1964-65, Japan’s odyssey in the Majors began with pitcher Hideki Nomo, the National League Rookie of the Year after joining the Dodgers in 1995.

As many Japanese recall, Nomo was must-see television whenever he pitched.

Then came Ichiro Suzuki, a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer for the Class of 2025. About a dozen Japanese players will play in MLB this season, adding to a list has reached about 70 since Murakami.

Baseball was introduced into Japan in 1872 by an American professor. It took root so firmly that in a game between Japanese and Americans in 1896, Japan won 29-4 and many of the players were from Samurai families.

The victory was front-page news locally, and it’s credited with giving Japan confidence as it modernized after centuries of isolation and showed the country could compete with the industrially advanced West.

This followed just a few generations after American Commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan to open up — under the threat of force — in 1854. There were similar attempts earlier by Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and the Chinese.

Ohtani came up in Japan’s regimented baseball system at Hanamaki Higashi High School in largely rural Iwate prefecture in northeastern Japan. This is the general area in 2011 where a devastating earthquake, tsunami, and the meltdown of three nuclear reactors killed more than 18,000 people.

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Yusei Kikuchi attended the same high school a bit earlier.

Ohtani is frequently lauded in Japan as “kanpeki na hito” — the perfect person, highlighting his character and dedication. You will also hear “suteki” to describe him — he’s cool. He’s also married, a shock announcement he made a few weeks ago.

Ohtani’s high school coach was Hiroshi Sasaki, who gets some of the credit for developing Ohtani. His own son 18-year-old Ritaro Sasaki will attend Stanford University this spring. The left-handed hitting first baseman is skipping the Japanese baseball draft and heading to the United States.

This could involve NIL compensation — short for name, image and likeness — and threatens Japanese baseball culture and the country’s ability to control its best players.

Japanese high school baseball includes countless practices, emphasizes teamwork and self-sacrifice, and some dirty work for the star players. Several reports have suggested Ohtani was made to clean toilets in high school. This is not so unusual. Public schools in Japan have small cleaning staffs and students are expected to do much of it.

Robert Whiting, in his book “The Samurai Way of Baseball,” quotes former Japanese baseball commissioner Ichiro Yoshikuni: “The teamwork involved in baseball fits in perfectly with the national temper of the Japanese. It did not always fit the temper of the Americans.”

Japanese culture and politics feel more shaky than they were a few decades ago. The Japanese economy has slipped to No. 4 behind Germany. The birthrate in Japan is among the world’s lowest, and the country was shocked when former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated in 2022.

Japan has the “Cool Japan” image abroad, and many things funciton remarkably, but there is uncertainty on many fronts and they include an on-going corruption scandal around the Tokyo Olympics — held in 2021 because of the pandemic — and the tense relationship with Asian rival China.

Baseball has become an antidote.

It also was in 1934 when Babe Ruth and other American all-stars headlined a playing tour of Japan.

Four Japanese players are expected to be on the rosters when the Dodgers open the MLB season on March 20 in Seoul, South Korea, against the San Diego Padres. Ohtani and Yamamoto with the Dodgers and Yu Darvish and fellow pitcher Yuki Matsui with the Padres.

Yamamoto is slated to start the second game in South Korea, the official MLB debut for the most expensive pitcher in baseball history — a 12-year, $325 million contract.

If so, fans may be able to see his unusal pre-game training routine, which includes throwing a javelin. This is a practice he began after injuring his elbow as an 18-year-old rookie in Japanese baseball.

The challenge for Yamamoto will be pitching once every five or six days after pitching just once a week in Japan. Many will also question his size, which is listed at 5-feet-10 — 1.78 meters — small for a pitcher in North American baseball.

Yamamoto caught the baseball world’s attention in last year’s World Baseball Classic, where he pitched two games and gave up two runs in 7 1/3 innings. Japan defeated the United States 3-2 in the deciding game.

Pitcher Roki Sasaki is just 22 and many see him as the next big thing out of Japan — maybe a better prospect than Yamamoto. He signed a one-year contract earlier this year with the Lotte Marines of Japan’s Pacific League. But there is no doubt where he is headed.

“I have the desire to play in the U.S. major leagues in the future,” Sasaki said according to the Kyodo news agency. “I’ve been communicating every year. I believe the club understands it too.”

Sasaki pitched a perfect game on April 10, 2022, against the Orix Buffaloes and struck out 19 — 13 in a row at one point. In the next start on April 17, he pitched eight perfect innings against the Nippon-Ham Fighters before he was pulled for cautionary reasons. He had 14 strikeouts in that outing, including striking out the side in the eighth and showing off a 101-mph fastball.

Japanese players need nine years of service time in their major leagues to become a free agent. They can move to MLB earlier under an agreement between Nippon Professional Baseball and MLB.

However, a player under 25 who has not reached six years of service in a foreign major league is subject to MLB’s international amateur signing bonus pools, which set a hard cap and limit him initially to a minor league contract.


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