This year marks the 150th anniversary of Japanese baseball, and I am grateful that the Tampa Bay Rays are celebrating that milestone Thursday at Tropicana Field. I am pleased to note that Shohei Ohtani — the most talented two-way player since Babe Ruth and the American League MVP — is expected to be the designated hitter for the visiting Los Angeles Angels. This puts me in a difficult position, however! As consul general of Japan to Florida, for which team should I root?
As Japan’s representative to Florida, this anniversary is an occasion to both recount the history of deep friendship engendered in our two countries through baseball as much as to reflect on our values and the challenges to them in the present day.
Baseball has been and remains one of Japan’s most widely played and loved team sports. It was 1872 when an expatriate American school teacher named Horace Wilson introduced the sport to his students in Japan. It quickly spread across Japan together with the modernization of the country. In 1934 when baseball was already one of the most popular sports, a goodwill tour from the U.S. major leagues took place with star players such as Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth touring Japan. This visit was the first act for Japanese professional baseball as those who had played against the U.S. team would evolve into the first Japanese professional baseball team, which is now Yomiuri Giants.
Japanese Professional Baseball has continued its friendly exchanges with the U.S. league down through the decades. There have been numerous players from both countries playing for each others’ leagues. In Japan’s Professional Baseball League there have been at least 10 Americans who were even chosen as MVPs.
Florida and Tampa Bay have indeed loomed large in this relationship. One only has to think of Orestes Destrade Cucas — Big “O” — who is the official announcer of the Tampa Bay Rays and a veritable legend in terms of Florida-Japan baseball. Having played for the Seibu Lions, he won Japan Series MVP in 1990 and later was one of the first Miami Marlins. As of now, such players as Enny Romero, Adeiny Hechavarria and Matt Andriese, who were with the Tampa Bay Rays, are in Japanese leagues to build up their careers.
Tampa Bay has also been no stranger to players from Japan, and many great Japanese players joined the Rays. I am very proud to see this list includes Hideo Nomo (2005), a Japanese pioneer player to the MLB, who recorded no-hitters twice (American and National League each), and Hideki Matsui (2012), a legendary clean-up hitter of New York Yankees, who won World Series MVP 2009. You may remember Akinori Iwamura (2007-9) who contributed in getting the Rays to their first World Series in 2008.
Baseball is an elegant sport in which one must be brave in the face of challenges as well as generous in participating in a game of interchange according to agreed-upon rules. During the game, players must believe in values such as playing by rules, honesty, mutual respect and exchange with the other. These same values undergird the U.S. and Japan’s commitment to democracy, human rights and respect for the rule of law. They are the core values that strongly bind us together.
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However, in Ukraine, the Xingjian Uyghurs, Hong Kong and Taiwan, we are facing brutal challenges to those important values by actors who believe that “might is right.” Japan and the U.S. are united in standing up to this challenge firmly as now, more than ever, our Japan-U.S. alliance is crucial in defending, upholding and promoting said values.
I can assure you that Japan is committed to this alliance as much as to our love of baseball. On this 150th anniversary, let us celebrate the baseball which has brought us together in the past, commemorate great players who have served to build up our ties, and the friendship between our two countries which will carry us into a bright future.
Kazuhiro Nakai is the consul general of the Consulate-General of Japan in Miami.