Passing the Torch: Considering Legends, Kuwata and Matsuzaka

It’s official, says Paul Meyer of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

The all-Japanese pitching matchup anticipated [today] won’t happen. Neither the Pirates’ Masumi Kuwata nor Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka is scheduled to pitch when the Pirates play the Red Sox in Fort Myers.

No, instead of the venerable Japanese starter, Zach Duke and Ian Snell will trot out for Pittsburgh. But that doesn’t mean that this game will fly under the radar; the Japanese media will treat the contest with the same pomp and circumstance as game seven of the World Series—if not more.
The significance is magnificent. In one corner, the 5’8″, 176 lbs. soft-tossing legend, reliant on smoke, mirrors and pinpoint control. In the other, a 6’0″, 190 lbs. phenom, a $100 million import with (or without) a gyroball. A man whose career spanned decades, a Giant in his homeland, celebrated as simply the best. A boy with the potential—and right arm—to rewrite all the records. And, as if drawn from a storybook, an elegant parallel: Both Masumi Kuwata and Daisuke Matsuzaka are attempting to carry their legacies on to American soil. Together, but separately.
The fuss started with a fervor this time last year, as The Monster tore up the inaugural World Baseball Classic, leading the Japanese squad to the championship and garnering Most Valuable Player honors. Matsuzaka’s name was mentioned on and off—mostly on—for the majority of the 2006 season. With a 17-5 record (along with a 2.13 ERA and 9.67 K/9) overseas, Dice-K made it clear that the winning bid for his services would be an astronomical figure.
The Boston Red Sox made it official on November 14th: They would pay $51.1 million (nearly ¥6 billion) to the Seibu Lions just for the rights to negotiate with the 26-year-old right-handed pitcher. A month later, Matsuzaka agreed on a six-year, $52 million deal having never thrown a pitch in a Major League Baseball game. How many players are worth $103 million, sight unseen?
Masumi Kuwata made his trip state-side a bit more quietly. There was no bidding war, no front page headlines. Having thrown just over 200 innings since 2002 (his last above-average season), and with a damaged pitching arm, he had only a few teams tender contract offers. He opted to join the Pittsburgh Pirates (Babel Fish translator here), as they offered the best chance to reach the majors.
Two men with the same dream of proving themselves in the world’s most competitive league, light years apart in their careers. Take a look at the stats from their primes, though:

 

Year

IP

G

W

L

ERA

K

Kuwata

1/’87

207.2

28

15

6

2.17

151

Matsuzaka

1/’99

180.0

25

16

5

2.60

151

Kuwata

2/’88

198.1

27

10

11

3.40

139

Matsuzaka

2/’00

167.2

27

14

7

3.97

144

Kuwata

3/’89

249.0

30

17

9

2.60

155

Matsuzaka

3/’01

240.1

33

15

15

3.60

214

Kuwata

4/’90

186.1

23

14

7

2.51

115

Matsuzaka

4/’02

73.1

14

6

2

3.68

78

Kuwata

5/’91

227.2

28

16

8

3.16

175

Matsuzaka

5/’03

194.0

29

16

7

2.83

215

Kuwata

6/’92

210.1

29

10

14

4.41

152

Matsuzaka

6/’04

146.0

23

10

6

2.90

127

Kuwata

7/’93

178.0

26

8

15

3.99

158

Matsuzaka

7/’05

215.0

28

14

13

2.30

226

Kuwata

8/’94

207.1

28

14

11

2.52

185

Matsuzaka

8/’06

186.1

25

17

5

2.13

200

Hideo Nomo made baseball history when he left Japan for the United States in 1995. Kuwata had the stuff to follow him; that is, until he suffered a debilitating injury in—you guessed it—1995. At the time, Nomo’s leaving for America was viewed as a disgraceful act.  Times have changed.  Now, over a decade later, the 38-year-old Kuwata is finally trying to realize his dream of throwing at the highest level.
What do the Pirates have to gain, though, from offering a washed-up Japanese player a chance to throw in a MLB game? A world of publicity for a few hundred thousand dollars. Consider this reader submission from a recent Dejan Kovacevic question and answer session for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

While there is a lot of interest in the man, there still are a lot of doubters here [in Japan]. They are proud that he’s gone to the majors. But many of my Japanese friends and co-workers wonder why he’s there now. Because “he’s not young.” I get the sense that the Japanese want to see him pitch in the majors and just get one, good, tough win. You don’t know how much it would mean to this whole country.

Or this entry from Rob Biertempfel’s Tribune-Review Bucco Blog, excerpted here:

There is a flock of about 25 Japanese reporters in camp following every move made by Masumi Kuwata, a 38-year-old pitcher trying to break into the majors with the Pirates. Kuwata is something of a baseball god in Japan because he put up amazing stats in the Central League. Here, he’s a longshot to make the 25-man roster; he’ll start the season in the minors.
The flock follows Kuwata everywhere. They careen around Pirate City and McKechnie Field at full speed, camera cords and laptops in tow, recording his every grunt during warmups, every pitch, every time he sits, walks or talks.

You’d better believe that, barring injury, Kuwata will get his chance at a big-league win when MLB rosters are expanded in September (if not sooner). The feel-good story is too much to pass up, and that applies to most any team, not only the Pirates. Think of it as a spin-off of For Love of the Game. The sensei won’t square off against the student this afternoon in Fort Myers, but that’s no reason to forget about him. They haven’t in Japan.

Author: Randy Linville

Randy is currently living and thriving in suburban Dayton, OH with his wife and two kids. He was raised in Cincinnati, OH and attended Anderson High School. He went to Miami University (Ohio) and received a degree in Paper Science Engineering from MU. He is a devout Christian and a pop culture buff. He coaches his son’s baseball and basketball teams and his daughters softball and basketball teams. Randy has been a Pirates fan since the late 1970s and has fond memories of the 1979 World Series team. He began blogging for Most Valuable Network in 5/2004 after stumbling across a help-wanted sign for a Pirates blogger. He wrote for Pittsburgh Lumber Co. until the site merged with Pirates Prospects in 2/2011.

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  • http://www.bucstradewinds.net/ Dave

    To bad Boston doesn’t play the Pirates in inter league play, the Pirates could make it a real circus by calling up and throwing Kuwata against Matsuzaka.
    I figure Kuwata will get a chance against the Yankees and Matsui. There is my bold prediction for the year!