The New York Yankees and Japan: A fascinating history

As the New York Yankees enter a hugely important offseason, where radical change is needed following another barren October, three of the best available free agents are Japanese. In the coming weeks, Shohei Ohtani, Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Shōta Imanaga will dominate baseball’s hot stove, and the Yankees need to be heavily involved – to improve their 2024 team, and to uphold their legacy as an international powerhouse.

The Yankees were once a sacred beacon in Japan, an illustrious totem of baseball domination. For decades, Japanese fans embraced pinstriped mystique with feverish passion. They worshipped the interlocking NY and every warrior who wore it. The Yankees matter in Japan – or at least they used to. This story explains why – from the conquests of Babe Ruth to the class of Masahiro Tanaka – and it offers a useful primer as the winter sweepstakes begin.

Lefty O’Doul, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and the genesis of Yankees fascination in Japan

Most iconic Yankee fables begin with Babe Ruth, but the team’s Japanese synergy actually starts with Lou Gehrig, his legendary teammate, and Lefty O’Doul, a former Yankees backup. Gehrig and O’Doul visited Japan in 1931 on a 17-game barnstorming tour arranged by former big leaguer Herb Hunter and sportswriter Fred Lieb. Several MLB stars – including Mickey Cochrane, Al Simons, Lefty Grove and Rabbit Maranville – joined the touring party, whose contributions helped solidify baseball as a popular pastime in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Gehrig was particularly enamoured with Japan. As detailed by Jonathan Eig in Luckiest Man, the definitive Gehrig biography, Lou returned from the trip with various trinkets and souvenirs, including a silk Japanese painting that hung above the fireplace his New Rochelle home. The Yankees’ erstwhile first baseman also bought a diamond necklace in Japan, later gifted to Eleanor, his wife, though some say it was intended for his mother.

Spurred by the success of their pioneering tour, Lieb and O’Doul made it an annual expedition, and in 1934, Ruth joined Gehrig on a 12-city romp through Japan. Ruth was accompanied by his wife, Claire, and daughter, Julia, while Eleanor Gehrig viewed the trip as a belated honeymoon. Contrary to the cuddly myths, Ruth and Gehrig actually endured a frosty relationship at times, including throughout the Japanese tour. That frostiness was exacerbated by rumours of an affair between the Babe and Eleanor during the trip, though such allegations have never been confirmed.

Undoubtedly, aged 39, the Great Bambino was past his inimitable best by that point, and many considered him a snarling malcontent. Indeed, Ruth was angry at Yankees management as the Empress of Japan left for Yokohama, carrying fine baseball cargo. The Babe wanted a pay rise, but Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert was reticent to open his chequebook for a star in decline. Ruth also sought a future gig as Yankees manager, but Ruppert remained loyal to the incumbent, Joe McCarthy. Thoroughly disgruntled, Ruth joined the Boston Braves upon returning from Japan, making the jaunt something of a strained farewell tour.

“The welcome was overwhelming in Tokyo, the site of the first four games,” wrote Leigh Montville in The Big Bam, his comprehensive Ruth biography. “The Babe and the All-Stars drew the full Lindbergh treatment in a tickertape parade through the Ginza witnessed by a crowd ranging in estimates from 100,000 to half a million people. A cold-shouldered diplomatic testiness that had developed between Japan and the United States, primarily over naval and trade issues, was missing. There was only warmth for the Babe. Polite little boys would knock at the door of his hotel room and ask Claire if they could meet ‘the God of Baseball.’ He was Babe Ruth, dammit. Yes, he was.”

The ultimate Yankee, Ruth was beloved throughout Japan, where baseball became a national obsession. To this day, there is a statue of Ruth in a Sendai zoo, placed on the landing spot of his first home run on Japanese soil. A cap worn by Ruth on the tour later sold for $300,000, a testament to his enduring appeal, while many credit the Babe with easing diplomatic tensions between the US and Japan with virtuoso performances in Tokyo, Kobe, Sendai further afield.

In one exhibition, before 60,000 fans at Meiji Jingu Stadium in Tokyo, Ruth hit a mammoth home run off Eiji Sawamura, a 17-year old phenom. Sawamura became the greatest pitcher in Japanese baseball history, a prominent award named after him à la Cy Young in America, but Ruth’s vaunted blast off the starlet gained a legendary patina among yakyū afficionados. There was an epistemic mysticism to Ruth and the Yankees, and Japanese admirers lapped it up.

The Japanese team that faced the American All-Stars was managed by media mogul Matsutaro Shōriki, who embraced professionalism and entered the squad into an independent league following the tour. Initially known as The Great Tokyo Baseball Club, the team adopted a new moniker – the Tokyo Giants – in tribute to O’Doul and his New York roots. Winning 22 championships in the coming century, the Giants became known as ‘the Yankees of Japan,’ adored by a large national fanbase. That majestic legacy can be attributed to Ruth, Gehrig and their touring compatriots.

Of course, shortly after the 1934 tour, Japanese-American relations deteriorated, to a point of all-out war. The US opposed Japan’s invasion of China in 1937, and President Franklin Roosevelt imposed sanctions on Japanese imports. In repost, Japan allied with Germany and became embroiled in World War II. When Japanese air fighters bombed Pearl Harbor, a US naval base in Hawaii, on 7 December 1941, Roosevelt declared war on Japan. A deadly escalation ensued, culminating in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

According to legend, before rushing into battle against their American counterparts, Japanese soldiers adopted a common war cry: ‘To hell with Babe Ruth.’ Indeed, such was Ruth’s eminence in Japan – his enduring grip on the Japanese imagination – US war planners considered using the Babe in vital communications. According to Montville: “A friend told him [Ruth] that, because of his popularity in Japan, one plan had been submitted that he be flown to Guam and put on a destroyer to broadcast to the Japanese people about the wisdom of surrender before the United States unleashed its nuclear bomb. Nothing ever came of it.”

Lefty O’Doul, Joe DiMaggio and baseball as a diplomatic tool in US-Japanese relations

Japan did surrender following the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and US forces occupied the country for seven years. General Douglas MacArthur ordered the reintroduction of baseball to boost national morale, and American GIs taught the game as a common language. To that end, newly ensconced as a manager, O’Doul took his San Francisco Seals on a goodwill tour of Japan in 1949. O’Doul also helped develop a functional league system for Japanese baseball, including the upstart Central League. Lefty even enlisted the help of prominent big leaguers, including Joe DiMaggio, a fellow Seals alum, to grow baseball overseas. DiMaggio made frequent visits to Japan, where he was feted as a baseball behemoth. 

“In 1950 Tokyo, where all things American were considered to be modern, correct and highly fashionable (more than fashion – almost a state-sanctioned religion), baseball and O’Doul-san were hugely admired,” wrote Richard Ben Cramer in The Hero’s Life, his Joltin’ Joe opus. “But what startled Joe was the adulation for DiMaggio-san. In Japan, everybody seemed to know him. He was, for one thing, the spiritual son of Father Baseball (who had trained him, as a youth, with the Seals of San Francisco). But also, he was a great and victorious warrior of the diamond in his own right. Was he not the heir to the immortal Bay-ba Ru-tu? Was he not the exemplary samurai of the champions Yankees? ‘DiMaggio! Banzai!’” 

Indeed, the Yankees’ cache grew exponentially from the prime of Ruth to the pomp of DiMaggio. By the time Joe made his inaugural visit to Japan, in 1950, the Yankees had 13 World Series titles to their name – more than any other MLB team. News of those exploits – those championships and their architects – made it back to Japan, and locals considered it a profound honour to host great American ballplayers. Especially great Yankees. Especially the great DiMaggio.

“Their plane made the Tokyo airport at dusk,” wrote Cramer of DiMaggio’s first Japanese visit. “Magnesium flares lit the skies to signal the arrival of the diamond gods. They were driven in a cavalcade of open cars to the middle of town – the Ginza – where pandemonium ensued. A storm of paper scraps fluttered down from windows on all sides. Raking spotlights and fusillade of flashbulbs lit the startled Americans in stroboscope freezeframes. College boys and high school girls flung themselves onto the cars. Lefty and Joe were in the lead convertible, which was finally stopped dead by a million screaming fans: Banzai DiMaggio! Banzai O’Doul! Japanese police and US soldiers had to plea with the crowd to let the car move.”

Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe honeymoon in Japan

DiMaggio retired in 1951, a nine-time World Series champion and inner circle Hall of Famer. A legendary brooder, DiMaggio struggled to adapt post-retirement, missing the acclaim and adulation. In 1954, DiMaggio married Marilyn Monroe, perhaps the most famous woman on earth, and a complicated unease blanketed their relationship. Paradoxically, Joe yearned for the validation of incessant limelight, yet resented the shade cast on his baseball heroics by Marilyn’s nonchalant celebrity. In many ways, theirs was an incorrigible love, and strains were visible from the start.

DiMaggio was already scheduled to join O’Doul in Japan immediately after the wedding, instructing ballplayers in Central League training camps. Taking a leaf from the Gehrig playbook, Joe reworked his Japanese trip to double as a honeymoon. As such, some of the stormiest episodes of the Monroe-DiMaggio marriage took place in Japan. Their stay was fraught and stormy, laying the groundwork for a premature divorce.

“At the Tokyo airport, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe could not leave the plane on which they had arrived,” wrote Cramer. “In the early winter darkness, five thousand Japanese fans – mostly youngsters – blew past the Japanese cops, stormed onto the tarmac, and besieged the Pan American Stratoclipper. US Air Force MPs were called in to reinforce the police lines, but Mr and Mrs America were still pinned in the plane for forty-five minutes – and thereafter could only debark through the rear baggage hatch.”

One of the most infamous scenes of the DiMaggio-Monroe marriage occurred on that visit to Japan. While Joe taught baseball to agog locals, Marilyn performed for US troops in South Korea. “Joe, you never heard such cheering,” she said upon returning to her husband in Tokyo. “Yes I have,” replied DiMaggio, mawkish resentment flooding a troubled union. The couple allegedly fought in the Imperial Hotel (the same hotel that once hosted Ruth and Gehrig), and journalists were told Marilyn had pneumonia when they inquired about her unavailability. Within eight months, Mr and Mrs America divorced.

Mickey Mantle and the Yankees’ 1955 Japan tour

As DiMaggio drifted into the sunset of an extraordinary life, a strapping young buck from Oklahoma replaced him at the nucleus of public attention. Joe begrudged the meteoric emergence of Mickey Mantle, the wholesome caricature destined to replace him, but America fell in love with the next great Yankees hero. With blonde hair, blue eyes and Bunyanesque biceps, Mantle eventually surpassed many of DiMaggio’s records, and news of his rapid ascent captivated Japan.

So much so, in 1955, Mantle and the Yankees were invited to tour Japan courtesy of the Mainichi Newspaper Company. Japanese prime minister Ichirō Hatoyama wore a Yankees cap while welcoming the team. Mantle enjoyed his 24th birthday in Tokyo, receiving a cake from local dignitaries, and the Yankees played 16 games across the country, including a scrimmage at the famous Koshien Stadium. One contest was held in Hiroshima, rather poignantly, as the pinstripers once again lent support to international diplomacy. “The Yankees certainly still are the champs to Japanese baseball fans,” concluded one local newspaper. Even World Series defeat to the crosstown Dodgers did not dampen that enthusiasm.

Interestingly, according to this comprehensive archive, Mantle grew homesick on the Japanese tour and was advised by teammate Billy Martin to feign the labour of his wife. Thinking their star was about to become a father, the Yankees allowed Mantle to end his tour prematurely and fly home. Mickey’s son, David, was born seven weeks later. When the Yankees found out, they fined Mantle for subversion. So much for growing the game overseas.

Why the Yankees are so popular in Japan

Nevertheless, a few months later, in March 1956, Sports Illustrated was sufficiently interested in the Yankees’ Japanese popularity that it dispatched writer Jimmy Jemal to the Itami Air Base in Osaka to learn more. “Why do you like the Yankees?,” Jemal asked everyone he could find. The answers, outlined in an epochal feature, explained the esoteric allure of pinstriped baseball:

  • "Because Yankees have great heroes like Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth. All Japanese heard of them, know them good. Batters very powerful.” – Yae Utsumi.
  • "Yankees are very complete ballplayers. They show us great baseball and with great showmanship. But they are complete players. They show sportsmanship, too. Like the same spirit in judo matches. Great men, the Yankees. They beat us badly in baseball. But we beat them in judo." – Tomoko Hatanaka.
  • "Yes, Japanese like great New York Yankees. Why? Because Yankees are fine people. They smile with us. They shake hands with us. They walk and eat with us. That head man, Stengel, he is the funny man. Japanese head man never funny. Stengel he no smile, but he make you laugh." – Yasuo Togo.
  • "That is easy. Simple like ohayo [good morning]. Mickey Mantle the big reason. He great slugger. Japanese love great men, big men, great sluggers. No Japanese hit like Mickey Mantle. No Japanese play like second-base fielder, Martin. My town, Osaka, is crazy for Yankees." – Hiroshi Mashita.

Nobusuke Kishi, Japanese prime minister, throws first pitch at Yankees game

Such was the Yankees' enduring popularity in Japan, the team continued to surface periodically as a diplomatic pawn. In 1957, for instance, Japanese prime minister Nobusuke Kishi visited the US to address a joint session of congress. During the trip, Kishi made a detour to Yankee Stadium, where he took in a doubleheader against the Chicago White Sox. Wearing a Yankees cap, Kishi threw out the ceremonial first pitch from his front row seat and received a rousing ovation from the crowd.

How the original Yankee Stadium foul poles wound up in Osaka, Japan

Returning to the aforementioned declarations of love, Osaka does seem to be a hotbed of Yankees fascination in Japan. For instance, when Yankee Stadium was partially demolished for renovation in 1973, various items were auctioned, and interest flooded in from across the Pacific. “The Osaka baseball team in Japan paid $10,000 for the foul poles and $30,000 for the lights,” wrote Michael Gershman in Diamonds, a history of ballparks. “An employee of Japan’s Daimaru department store spent $4,000 on memorabilia he intended to resell in Japan, even the box of diapers left behind by one of the players’ wives. It turned out the Japanese were crazy about the Yankees because of Babe Ruth’s visit.”

Exactly which Osaka ballclub – the Kintetsu Buffaloes, Hanshin Tigers, Nankai Hawks or perhaps a minor league team – bought the Yankee Stadium foul poles is lost to the passage of history. Nevertheless, it is fun to consider such an obscure wrinkle in this rambling tale. Maybe those foul poles are still out there somewhere, ensuring the Bronx and Japan are forever entwined. At the very least, this is a fun fact to share with your friends at the bar.

Joe Pepitone in Japan

Another link emerged almost simultaneously, as a former Yankees star made a far more indelible – if negative – contribution to Japanese culture. Once considered an heir to Mantle’s crown, Joe Pepitone was a three-time All-Star who failed to realise his enormous potential in pinstripes. The Brooklyn native washed out of the major leagues in 1973 and accepted a two-year, $140,000 contract to play for the Tokyo Yakult Atoms. Pepitone played just 14 games in Japan, hitting .163 with a singular home run and two RBI.

True to form, Pepitone skipped games and practice sessions with phantom injuries, only to be seen carousing in Tokyo nightclubs. Pepitone refused to cut his hair, per Japanese customs, and often moaned about the cost of living in Tokyo. In his autobiography – Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud – Pepitone said he endured diarrhea during one Atoms game after drinking six eponymous yogurt drinks supplied by Yakult. Many Japanese observers were shocked that this guy once played for the Yankees – and with distinction. To the locals, Pepitone became something of a joke. 

“Although his Japanese tenure lasted just a handful of games, Pepitone did not fail to leave a lasting impression in the Far East,” wrote Bruce Markusen in a Hardball Times retrospective. “In an era long before cell phones, he left behind an astronomical phone bill, which he never paid. Presumably the Japanese authorities are still on the lookout. He also became responsible for creating a new slang word in Japanese – a ‘pepitone.’ Translated roughly into English, the word means ‘goof-off.’”

Katsuhiro Maeda, the first Japanese player signed by the Yankees

The Yankees were purchased by boisterous shipping magnate George Steinbrenner in 1973, and though he promised absentee ownership, The Boss soon became a renowned meddler, often hurting his team more than helping it. After winning consecutive championships in 1977 and 1978, the Yankees entered a prolonged funk, without a further title until 1996. The glistening Yankees brand took a hit through the fallow 1980s, and George knew drastic action was needed to restore equilibrium.

Ever the imperialist, and keen to end a gathering drought, Steinbrenner became preoccupied with the idea of signing a Japanese star in the mid-1990s, after enviously watching the rise of Hideo Nomo with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Nomo was the first modern Japanese player to join an MLB team, and his early success spawned ample marketing opportunities for the Dodgers. Steinbrenner wanted a slice of that pie, and Yankees functionaries were tasked with procuring a Japanese star, post-haste. Such a pursuit lacked patience, and a rushed approach yielded unsatisfactory results.

Admonished by The Boss, in May 1996, the Yankees paid $350,000 to the Seibu Lions for the right to negotiate with Katsuhiro Maeda, a 25-year old pitcher with little upside. Maeda signed a $1.5 million deal with the Yankees, despite never winning or saving a single game in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league. Branded ‘a sort of Dennis Rodman of Japanese baseball’ by Jack Curry of the New York Times, Maeda dyed his hair pink, silver and purple at different times, yet struggled to parlay excellent velocity into a comprehensive arsenal. Maeda topped out as the Yankees’ number five prospect and never made the major leagues. Steinbrenner went back to the drawing board.

The complicated life of Hideki Irabu

One long-forgotten scheme saw the Yankees partner with the Nippon Ham Fighters between 1997 and 2002. “For years, Fighters players and coaches attended minicamps in the States,” recalls Japanese baseball expert Jim Allen in this blog post. “And when Nippon Ham announced its team would move to Sapporo, they signed longtime Columbus Clippers manager Trey Hillman to run the club.”

Alas, the Yankees-Fighters partnership did not yield tangible improvements in New York. According to some detractors, Steinbrenner resorted to brute financial force while searching for his headline Japanese star – strategic relationships be damned. Hideki Irabu, ace of the Chiba Lotte Marines, was widely considered the next great NPB pitcher, and the Yankees worked hard to recruit him. However, in March 1997, Irabu was signed by the San Diego Padres, who struck a bilateral agreement with the Marines. Perhaps enchanted by the pinstripes or lured by the underhanded promise of a bigger bonus, Irabu told the Padres he would only play for the Yankees, and an ugly impasse ensued.

Ultimately, San Diego had little choice but to trade its new import to New York – for Rafael Medina, Rubén Rivera and $3 million. Steinbrenner then gave Irabu a four-year, $12.8 million contract, finally securing his Japanese star. Many critics accused Steinbrenner of tampering throughout the Irabu sweepstakes. Indeed, a new posting system – requiring NPB teams to make players available to all MLB teams for open bidding during defined periods each year – was introduced to mitigate such market manipulation.

Irabu made his hotly-anticipated Yankees debut in July 1997, and attendances doubled in the Bronx on days he pitched. Nevertheless, an acrimonious relationship unfurled between the hurler and his new team. Irabu was perpetually agitated by the hordes of media that followed his every move, and performing in the glare of New York limelight became a joyless ordeal.

Irabu stayed with the Yankees through 1999, winning two World Series rings despite pitching in just one postseason game, and Steinbrenner chastised his underperforming pitcher at every turn. When Irabu failed to cover first base during a spring training game, for instance, Steinbrenner called him a ‘fat pussy toad’ to reporters. Irabu was rightly hurt by such a degrading insult, and he returned to Japan in 2003 following erratic stints with the Expos and Rangers. 

Alas, Irabu lived a complicated life that became even messier post-retirement. Arrests for assault and DUI came in 2008 and 2010, while substance abuse derailed his personal life. Sadly, in July 2011, Irabu was found hanged in his Los Angeles home at the desperately young age of 42. According to Fox Sports, a marital breakup left Irabu alone, unable to communicate with his two daughters. The pain became too much for the tortured enigma, who succumbed to suicide in comparative anonymity.

New York Yankees and Yomiuri Giants strategic partnership

After failing to integrate Maeda and Irabu, and having pilfered Alfonso Soriano from the Hiroshima Carp in a controversial move, by the new millennium, the Yankees knew a fresh approach was needed in Japan. To that end, in August 2002, despite the existing Ham Fighters partnership, Yankees president Randy Levine wrote to Yomiuri Giants* owner Tsuneo Watanabe seeking a strategic partner in Japan with whom they could share commercial opportunities. The powerful Giants were a natural fit, and Watanabe invited a Yankees delegation to Tokyo a few months later.

*The Tokyo Giants became known as the Yomiuri Giants in 1947 for commercial reasons. The team is owned by Yomiuri Shimbun Holdings, a major Japanese media conglomerate.

After brief discussions, the Yankees and Giants signed a partnership agreement that called for the sharing of scouting report, industry insights and baseball best practices. Giants games would be shown on YES, the Yankees’ television network, while interlocking NY regalia would be sold in Tokyo stores. “The sole purpose of this agreement is to form a working relationship,” said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. “We’re both smart enough to recognise we can learn a great deal from each other.”

Hideki Matsui, the Yankees’ first Japanese superstar

Though pleasingly poetic, many felt the Giants-Yankees alliance was a ruse to give New York the inside track on Hideki Matsui, the prized Yomiuri slugger – nicknamed Godzilla – who became a free agent that winter. Indeed, just five weeks after the partnership was announced, Matsui signed a three-year, $21 million deal with the Yankees. Yomiuri offered Matsui an NPB record contract extension, but he took less to join the storied Yankees. Tokyo threw a parade to celebrate his landing in pinstripes.

Cashman dubbed Matsui ‘the Tom Cruise of his country.’ In fairness, that was probably an understatement. Others likened Matsui to Michael Jordan, such was his outsized influence on Japanese culture. Matsui was the face of innumerable brands and products in Japan, and his move to America – and, more specifically, his move to the Yankees – captured the national imagination. Everyone wanted a piece of Matsui, a man at every moment watched. 

“Due to the holidays, Matsui didn’t travel to New York for his physical and introductory press conference until the middle of January,” wrote Jerry Beach in Godzilla Takes the Bronx, a niche chronicle of Matsui’s first MLB season. “And the scene upon his arrival looked like some hybrid of The Beatles’ movie A Hard Day’s Night and a Tom Clancy spy novel.”

Around 150 reporters greeted Matsui at Newark Liberty Airport. A further 500 media members attended the introductory press conference, held in a lavish Times Square ballroom. “This was the Beatles arriving at JFK back in ’64,” wrote Mike Vaccaro in the New York Post. “This was Sinatra at the old Paramount, clogging the streets with crazed bobby soxers. This was every massive media photo op you’ve ever seen, multiplied by 40.”

Keen to capitalise on Matsui-mania, the Yankees struck a deal to have all their home games carried live on Japanese television. As such, Matsui’s first spring training game was broadcast throughout his homeland, despite a 03:15 am first pitch. Still, millions watched. In fact, per ESPN, when Matsui hit his first spring training home run, more than 33% of all TVs in Japan were tuned to the game – an astonishing statistic. Moreover, Yankees games often outrated Giants games in Japan – and Giants contests were carried by two national broadcasters simultaneously. Matsui was clearly a big deal in Japan, and so were his Yankees.

To further accentuate those connections, the Yankees agreed sponsorship deals with prominent Japanese companies, including Sony, Canon, Sharp, Fujifilm, Komatsu and Yomiuri. The team even opened a business office in Japan, according to Forbes, as international merchandise sales rose by 30% throughout 2003. The head of that office, former Irabu translator George Rose, became something of a local celebrity. “Last summer, Rose walked into a Tokyo sushi bar wearing his 1998 World Series ring,” reported Forbes. “Hearing that the American worked for the Yankees, the Japanese chef noted how far behind the team was in the standings, quoting the club’s stats.” Japanese fans were that invested in the Yankees.

While hitting for less power in the US than he did in Japan, Matsui transitioned well to MLB, posting a .287 batting average, 42 doubles and 106 RBI in his rookie campaign. Matsui played every game that year, as the Yankees came two wins shy of a fifth World Series crown in eight seasons. Durable, classy and understated, Matsui was exceptionally team-orientated, telling captain Derek Jeter to let him know if the media hordes became too much of a distraction. Matsui just wanted to win. He knew what it meant to represent his country, and to represent the Yankees. He did a brilliant job of both.

“Matsui’s respect for the game, and indeed for the Yankee organisation, could be seen in an interview he did with a Japanese newspaper some years later,” wrote Marty Appel in Pinstripe Empire, the definitive Yankees tome. “While extolling the honour of playing for the Yankees, he expressed shock that some of his teammates could be seen spitting their gum on the Yankee Stadium field. It was, to him, a dishonour to the historic ballpark.”

Yankees’ 2004 trip to Tokyo, Japan

In 2004, Matsui led the Yankees to Japan, where they played the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in a two-game series to open the MLB regular season. The Yankees’ 115-member travelling party stayed at the Hotel New Otani in Tokyo, as conveyed by George King in the New York Post. How is that for an offseason omen?

The Yankees’ trip began with a Tokyo Dome exhibition against the Yomiuri Giants, their kindred spirit. Indeed, for many locals, the New York-Yomiuri scrimmage was the headline event – Jeter and A-Rod returning 70 years after Ruth and Gehrig to play the venerable Giants. Yogi Berra attended the game, as did Japanese prime minister Junichi Koizumi. Yankees and Giants players swapped caps on the field before their duel, a neat moment of symmetry. Matsui then thrilled the masses by launching a 420-foot home run deep into the right field bleachers, as the Yankees ran out 6-2 victors.

A further exhibition, against the Hanshin Tigers, saw the Bombers lose, and a season-opening defeat to Tampa Bay perplexed an overwhelmingly pro-Yankees crowd. Nevertheless, Matsui came up big again in the final contest, mashing another home run as the Yankees notched a 12-1 win. “Hopefully we can have many more games like this,” Matsui told a cheering crowd from a podium behind home plate after the final out. “Everybody really enjoyed this, and the fans were great.” 

Why the Yankees missed out on Dice-K Matsuzaka, Junichi Tazawa and Yu Darvish

Of course, later in 2004, the Yankees choked unbelievably against the rival Boston Red Sox, losing a notorious ALCS despite once leading three games to none. The humiliating collapse was symbolic of a changing Yankees age. Once so comfortable on Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez and David Cone, the pinstripes weighed heavily on Matsui, Jason Giambi and Alex Rodriguez. Another mini-drought stretched through the 2000s, and the Yankees struggled to parlay the success of Matsui into a dominant global strategy.

In some ways, another Japanese outfielder, Ichiro Suzuki, outshone Matsui in the major leagues. Yes, Matsui was a very productive player, but Suzuki was a phenomenon with the Seattle Mariners. Elsewhere, too, Japanese players began to succeed with other teams, including Kaz Matsui with the Mets; Tadahito Iguchi with the White Sox; Kenji Johjima with the Mariners; and Takashi Saito with the Dodgers. New York no longer enjoyed a monopoly on Japanese baseball talent.

Indeed, the Yankees’ dwindling might was confirmed during the unprecedented chase for Daisuke Matsuzaka, hyped by many as the greatest NPB pitcher of the modern age. Known to all as Dice-K, Matsuzaka dominated Japan with a vast array of pitches, including a mysterious ‘gyroball,’ which baffled hitters with bullet-like spin. Matsuzaka was posted by the Seibu Lions after the 2006 season, and several MLB teams registered an interest in signing him.

Beneath the vociferous speculation, Matsuzaka was long considered a fit for the Yankees. Like many in Japan, he rooted for the Bombers, having watched Irabu and Matsui perform in Gotham. Matsuzaka even attended a Yankees-Braves World Series game in 1999, such was his interest. In Japan, many felt Dice-K saw pinstripes as his eventual destiny. To that end, Mike Plugh, a Yankees fan in Akita, made an entire blog chronicling Matsuzaka’s links to the Bombers. The move seemed inevitable.

New York did bid $33 million for Dice-K, but when he eventually signed with the rival Red Sox – for six years and $52 million, plus a $51.1 million posting fee – many onlookers were stunned. Boston also nabbed Hideki Okajima, a fine reliever, that winter, en route to another world championship in 2007, as the balance of power continued to tilt.

For their part, the Yankees did sign a Japanese pitcher that offseason, but Kei Igawa struggled to impress in New York. A former MVP and Sawamura Award winner in Japan, Igawa inked a five-year, $20 million contract after the Yankees paid the Hanshin Tigers a $26 million posting fee. Right from the jump, Cashman downplayed the deal, warning fans not to compare Igawa to Dice-K. A 6.66 ERA over two seasons in the Bronx probably justified that caution, but the Yankees’ dubious success evaluating Japanese players – Matsui aside – left many frustrated.

That frustration grew in 2008, when Boston again beat New York to a highly-touted Japanese pitcher – Junichi Tazawa. Undrafted out of high school in Japan, Tazawa regrouped in the independent leagues and later chose to forego the NPB draft to pursue an MLB career aged 22. An unspoken agreement had long governed such anomalies, with MLB teams informally agreeing not to target NPB prospects, which posed an existential threat to Japanese professionalism. While scouting Tazawa, Cashman said he would honour that agreement, only for Boston to swoop in and land the pitcher for $3 million over three years.

Nevertheless, the Yankees returned to form in 2009, winning their 27th world championship. Matsui played a leading role in that title drive, adding an epic playoff performance to his metronomic greatness during the regular season. Aged 35, Matsui was named World Series MVP after hitting .615 with three home runs in six Fall Classic games. Millions watched that World Series back in Japan, reaffirming the national fascination with Godzilla and his Yankees.

Still, the changing financial landscape of MLB led to greater parity, and marquee franchises no longer enjoyed the upper hand in international negotiations. The Yankees let Matsui join the Los Angeles Angels in free agency, for example. Then, in 2011, New York submitted a bid for Yu Darvish, the next generational ace off the NPB production line, but the Ham Fighters star signed with the Texas Rangers. Gone were the days of Japanese wunderkinds pining for pinstripes. Other options were now on the table, and the Yankees had to compete just like everybody else.

Ichiro Suzuki with the Yankees

For the old guard, however, Yankee mystique proved timeless. That was shown in 2012, when the aforementioned Ichiro Suzuki, perhaps the greatest Japanese player of all, expressed a desire to play in the Bronx. A loyal servant to the Mariners, with whom he shattered myriad records, Ichiro became too costly as Seattle looked to rebuild. As the trade deadline approached, Ichiro asked Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik to consider possible trades. Zduriencik asked his franchise icon where he would prefer to be dealt. Ichiro put the Yankees top of his list, and a deal was quickly agreed.

There was a certain ineffable magic to Ichiro Suzuki in pinstripes. Sure, the master was passed his best. At 38, Suzuki should not have been an everyday outfielder. However, it was just special to watch Japan’s finest baseball exponent ply his trade for America’s most illustrious ballclub. Rolling back the clock, Ichiro hit safely in his first 12 games as a Yankee, tying a team record. He generally performed well throughout his time in the Bronx, hitting .281 in 360 games over parts of three seasons. There was a lyricism to Ichiro Suzuki, New York Yankee, that defied its contemporaneous context, and I’m glad we got to witness such a classy collaboration.

For one fleeting moment in 2012, the Yankees had three Japanese players on their active big league roster – Ichiro; solid starter Hiroki Kuroda; and reliever Ryota Igarashi. The latter pitched just three innings for the Yankees, sporting a 12.00 ERA, but Kuroda was a durable asset for three seasons. Matsui even signed a one-day contract to retire as a Yankee in 2013, affirming the team’s Japanese connections at every turn.

How the Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka

The Yankees leveraged those connections – and the looming presence of Suzuki and Kuroda – to lure another Japanese star after the 2013 season. Fresh off a 24-0 season with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, Masahiro Tanaka was anointed the next great Japanese pitcher, inheriting the crown crafted by Darvish, Matsuzaka, Irabu, Nomo and Sawamura. Some said Tanaka was better than all of those compatriots, and a free agent frenzy enthralled the baseball world.

“In January 2014, Tanaka’s agent, Casey Close, rented the Beverly Hills home of one of his colleagues, a basketball agent, to host two ‘recruiting days’ for Tanaka,” wrote Tom Verducci in The Cubs Way. “Representatives from 10 teams, waiting in black SUVs on the street for their one-hour turn over the two days, literally lined up in America’s leading neighbourhood of $10 million homes to convince a 25-year-old pitcher, fresh off a flight from Japan and eating sushi on a couch inside one of the mansions, to take nine digits worth of their money…The Yankees sent eight people to Beverly Hills. They brought a video presentation that included a recruitment pitch from former Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui and a tour of Yankee Stadium done in the style of MTV’s Cribs. Twelve days later, Tanaka took the Yankees’ money: $155 million over seven years.”

The Yankees followed a familiar playbook with Tanaka, landing bespoke advertising and endorsement deals with Japanese brands, including Yankee Stadium billboards featuring Japanese text. More than 200 reporters gathered for an introductory press conference, where Tanaka declared, in flawless English, “I’m very happy to be a Yankee.” His starts became appointment television across Japan, as a new generation discovered the allure of pinstriped baseball. 

To that end, in March 2015, another visit from beloved Yankees made a big impression with Japanese kids. Masui returned to his Tokyo Dome roots while staging a charity ballgame for Tohoku students. Jeter, his heralded teammate, joined Hideki for the contest, which raised funds for those devastated by a 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 15,000 people in northeastern Japan. Jeter had been retired for six months by that point, but the locals were thrilled by his presence. Matsui thanked Jeter for making such an effort.

I had a similar experience with Tanaka a few years later. Masahiro started the first baseball game I ever saw live – against the Red Sox in London, as MLB visited my homeland for the first time. Tanaka struggled in the Olympic Stadium bandbox, and London bore witnessed to the shortest outing of his career, but it was a privilege to watch him warmup from the bullpen rail. Tanaka was – and is – one of my favourite Yankees of all-time, and seeing him up close, in the flesh, was a treat I never thought possible.

The Yankees’ pursuit of Shohei Ohtani

Even before landing Tanaka, however, Cashman had his heart set on another Japanese superstar: two-watch sensation Shohei Ohtani. The Yankees GM began scouting Ohtani as a high schooler, back in 2012. A two-way juggernaut redolent of Babe Ruth himself, Ohtani held the potential to eclipse even the Bambino as baseball’s greatest ever player. Cashman left no stone unturned preparing for Ohtani’s eventual NPB free agency – even visiting Japan to watch Ohtani play for the Ham Fighters. 

Ultimately, though, despite recruitment efforts from Tanaka and Matsui, Ohtani signed with the Los Angeles Angels in December 2017. Shohei wanted to settle on the west coast, with shorter travel routes back to Japan, and the opportunity to play with – and ultimately outshine – Mike Trout appealed to his competitive instinct. The Yankees made every attempt to sign Ohtani, but did not progress to the second round of his sweepstakes.

Since then, the Yankees have been in something of a holding pattern regarding Japanese talent. They passed on Seiya Suzuki, who joined the Cubs. They had preliminary interest in Masataka Yoshida, but watched him sign for Boston. Meanwhile, Kodai Senga, an underrated pitcher, joined the crosstown Mets. The Yankees have not had a Japanese player since 2020, when Tanaka returned to Japan with the Golden Eagles. By all accounts, Masahiro wanted to stay with the Yankees, but a contract offer was not forthcoming.

Some industry insiders believe Cashman has been biding his time and preparing for this offseason since losing out on Ohtani the first time. Indeed, the Yankees announced significant strategic investment from tech billionaire Soichiro Minami in April 2023. Minami became the first Japanese minority partner in franchise history, and his arrival just happened to coincide with the visit of Ohtani and the Angels for a series at Yankee Stadium. “It’s a beautiful field, passionate fans,” said Ohtani via an interpreter in the Bronx. “I always look forward to playing here. It’s really fun playing here.”

Incidentally, Ohtani grew up idolising Matsui, and the two shared a wholesome moment while filming a recent ESPN documentary on Shohei's rise. "Considering how far he's come as a player, and how huge his presence is in MLB, to hear Shohei Ohtani looked up to me like that when he was a little leaguer - I'm humbled by that," said Matsui, while signing a baseball for Ohtani. Upon receiving the gift, Ohtani seemed taken aback. "This is awesome," said Shohei. "I'm not the kind of person who likes to ask for favours, but I will treasure this."

Yankees linked to Yoshinobu Yamamoto

Cashman has seemingly pursued parallel tracks with Ohtani and Yamamoto. The latter inherited Ohtani’s mantle as an all-world NPB ace, dominating with the Orix Buffaloes. A two-time NBP MVP, Yamamoto has also won three straight Sawamura Awards; three straight Triple Crowns; and pitched two no-hitters in Japan. Just 25, Yamamoto has already won a Japan Series championship with the Buffaloes, in addition to Olympic gold and a World Baseball Classic title with the Japanese national team. Through seven NPB seasons, Yamamoto has posted a 70-29 record with a 1.82 ERA. Some say his ceiling is unprecedented among Japanese pitchers. 

Comparison of select NPB pitchers

Pitcher

NPB seasons

NPB IP

NPB ERA

NPB WHIP

NPB W%

NPB K/9

NPB posting age

Yoshinobu Yamamoto

2017-2023

897

1.82

0.935

70.7

9.3

25

Shōta Imanaga

2016-2023

1002.2

3.18

1.118

56.1

9.2

30

Kodai Senga

2012-2022

1089

2.59

1.115

66.4

10.3

29

Yusei Kikuchi

2011-2018

1010.2

2.77

1.169

61.3

8

27

Shohei Ohtani

2013-2017

543

2.52

1.076

73.6

10.3

23

Kenta Maeda

2008-2015

1509.2

2.39

1.048

59.1

7.4

27

Masahiro Tanaka

2007-2013
2021-2023

1773

2.66

1.129

63.9

8

25

Hisashi Iwakuma

2000-2011

2019

1541

3.25

1.204

60.7

6.9

30

Yu Darvish

2005-2011

1268.1

1.99

0.985

70.9

8.9

25

Hiroki Kuroda

1997-2007

2015-2016

2021.2

3.55

1.246

54.1

6.5

32

Daisuke Matsuzaka

1999-2006

2015-2021

1464.1

3.04

1.165

63.6

8.7

26

Kei Igawa

1998-2006

2012-2014

1387.2

3.21

1.262

56.3

8.3

27

Takashi Saito

1992-2005

2013-2015

1575

3.75

1.241

52.9

7.6

36

Hideki Irabu

1988-1996

2003-2004

1286.1

3.55

1.317

51

9

28

Hideo Nomo

1990-1994

1051.1

3.15

1.317

62.9

10.3

26* (retired from NPB)

 

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

 

Cashman travelled to Japan to watch Yamamoto in September 2023, naturally intrigued by an NPB star who wins more than Matsuzaka; whiffs more than Tanaka; and manages traffic better than Darvish. Rising to the occasion, Yamamoto pitched a no-hitter with Cashman in attendance, also extending a scoreless innings streak to 42. Sat in the front row, Cashman partook in a standing ovation, and Yamamoto tipped his cap. Yankees fans got goosebumps watching the footage.

Why the Yankees need to land Ohtani or Yamamoto

This, after all, is a reminder of the stakes that lie ahead. For the three Japanese stars about to become available – especially Ohtani and Yamamoto – this is what they would inherit: an evocative synergy between the Yankees and Japan, and incredible marketing opportunities derived from playing in New York. And for the Yankees themselves? For the beleaguered Cashman and aloof Hal Steinbrenner? This represents a lifeline. By landing one of these elite Japanese talents – again, especially Ohtani or Yamamoto – they can save face and begin to restore the Yankees’ jaded lustre. They can become the Evil Empire again, tentacles wrapping around the globe. They can extend a championship window on life support.

Sure, there are risks tied to all free agents, and the current stable is no different. Yamamoto has never pitched a big league inning, while Ohtani’s stock was knocked by elbow and oblique injuries in his walk year with the Angels. Nevertheless, it is time for the Yankees to honour their rich Japanese heritage. It is time for the Yankees to reel in a big fish. It is time for the Yankees to act like the Yankees. Banzai, Brian. Get it done.

Sources


Buy me a coffee

If you enjoyed this article, please consider leaving a digital tip. I do not believe in ads, subscriptions or paywalls, so please buy me a coffee to show your support. All contributions are greatly appreciated. Thank you.



Subscribe for free to receive all my writing straight to your inbox.

* indicates required

More from Ryan Ferguson

Notes + Scribbles 6
On the continued dominance of Baseball Twitter; the AI debacle at SI; the Paul Mullin-Micky Mellon feud; the Tranmere ta
Read Now
Notes + Scribbles 5
On the gradual resuscitation of Tranmere; the difference-making acumen of Nigel Adkins; the rise of Rob Apter; the immor
Read Now
Notes + Scribbles 4
On the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes; the Cardinals’ journeyman pitchers; the Yankees’ lack of retained wisdom; the MLB Lond
Read Now
Notes + Scribbles 3
On the death of Peter Seidler; the Astros hiring Joe Espada; the waning prime of Gerrit Cole and Aaron Judge; the Athlet
Read Now
In search of Boston’s ‘Reverse the Curse’ Red Sox road sign
How I almost found an urban masterpiece, 20 years later.
Read Now
Paul DePodesta deserved better as Dodgers GM
Defending the Moneyball protégé chased from Los Angeles.
Read Now
The Seattle Mariners are my spirit animal
On the strange comfort of rooting for a team that never wins.
Read Now

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

Social Proof Experiments