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THE HOT CORNER: Once upon a time in America

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THE HOT CORNER: Once upon a time in America

by Jim Allen (Sep 10, 2009)

If Masanori Murakami's father had had his way, Hideo Nomo would have been Japan's first major leaguer. Murakami made his debut on Sept. 1, 1964 for the San Francisco Giants in New York--30 years seven months and one day before Nomo first pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Yet, if Nippon Professional Baseball had learned its lessons from Murakami's accidental major league career, it might be managing the current exodus of its best players in a more orderly fashion.

"The Japanese style, I'm afraid to say, is to see what happens and think about it then," Murakami said last week.

He got to the majors through the most roundabout route, beginning when he joined his middle school baseball club against his father's wishes.

"He wanted me to be a doctor," Murakami told The Hot Corner before an event honoring him on the 45th anniversary of his big league debut. "I was supposed to take lessons after school, but when the teacher called to ask why I was absent, my father went to my school.

"In the teachers' room, he confronted the club manager, who was maybe 31 or 32. He [my father] must have scared him."

It didn't deter the young Murakami, who eventually signed out of high school with the Pacific League powerhouse Nankai Hawks ahead of the 1963 season. After a year spent mostly in the minors, he was dispatched to the Single-A Fresno Giants in 1964.

"I never thought about playing in the majors, I was just enjoying playing minor league ball," he said. "On Aug. 25 or 26 the manager was talking to me and some other players. I didn't know about the American system, that the rosters expanded to 40 in September."

He and two other Hawks players, who weren't considered good enough for the PL, signed standard minor league contracts in order to play in the California League. These deals included an option allowing the team's parent club the right to purchase each contract for 10,000 dollars, an option San Francisco exercised with Murakami.

"On the 29th, the manager Bill Werle said, 'Mashi you're going to go up to the majors.' On the 30th, the Fresno owner handed me a United Airlines ticket from Fresno to San Francisico to Kennedy Airport and gave me the address of the Roosevelt Hotel in New York."

Expecting someone to meet him in San Francisco and New York, the 20-year-old lefty was out of luck. No one at the hotel's front desk had heard of him, either. Even after Murakami found his room, he had no idea where to get a meal.

"The woman whose home I'd stayed at in Fresno told me to be careful in New York because it was so dangerous," he said. "So I had this image of them finding my body in the river."

Murakami opted for the safety of the hotel restaurant, where he accidentally hooked up with future Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal and shortstop Jose Pagan and ate with them. Unable to read the menu, he shelled out a whole day's meal money asking for the same meal the two veteran big leaguers had ordered.

He wound up pitching nine games that September, striking out 15 in 15 innings.

Murakami's pilgrim's progress to the majors was followed by Japanese baseball's own accidental journey of international ignorance. The Hawks wanted him back, but he was property of the Giants--something Nankai never accepted. Murakami signed a Giants contract for the following season, then signed another with the Hawks upon returning to Japan.

A tug of war ensued that resulted in the Pittsburgh Pirates' scheduled tour of Japan being canceled, and was settled in a March compromise that returned Murakami to San Francisco for one season. After going 4-1 with eight saves and a 3.75 ERA in 1965, Murakami returned home to resume his career in Japanese ball.

The whole event should have taught NPB two lessons: 1) that Japanese players could compete in the majors, and 2) teams need to understand their contracts.

NPB learned neither and paid for it.

A loophole allowed Nomo to flee to the bigs in 1995, and his success created a new market for Japanese talent. Free agency, instituted here in the winter of 1993, allowed players to enter that market.

"Players have to make the most money they can and find the best place to play, and for many players, that's in the majors," Murakami said.

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