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How Japan saved baseball in Seattle, and other tales from Nippon West

As the Shohei Ohtani hot stove heats up, let’s look back at the extraordinary legacy of the Japan-Mariners connection

Seattle Mariners v Oakland Athletics Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images

Two weeks ago, Seattle Mariners General Manager Jerry Dipoto made a trip to Japan. Searching for outside-the-box possibilities to fill out the M’s roster in 2018, he scouted several notable stars of Nippon Professional Baseball including veteran starter Hideaki Wakui and reliever Yoshihisa Hirano.

He also took a look at Shohei Ohtani.

If you are a regular reader of Lookout Landing, you already know that Shohei Ohtani is arguably the best baseball player ever to come out of Japan, a one-of-a-kind, two-way superstar who whacks dingers and throws 102 mph. Oh yeah—and he’s 23 years old.

We’ve discussed the possibility of Ohtani’s arrival in Seattle here, here, here, and most recently, here. In fact, it’s become something of an obsession of ours to devise cunning strategies for courting the so-called Japanese Babe Ruth. So, if you’re interested in writing him a gushy letter, or composing him a peppy song, or sending him a celebratory sack of salmon steaks, or creating macaroni art that depicts us all holding hands while the Ohtani-led Mariners win the World Series, it probably couldn’t hurt.

Needless to say, Shohei Ohtani would be a priceless addition to the team, and would almost certainly usher in a dynasty unlike any Mariners baseball—or likely professional sports—has ever seen, irrevocably altering the entire course of human history.

But this article isn’t about that. It’s about something even bigger. It’s about the existence of baseball in Seattle as we know it.

Amidst the flurry of shameless speculation about Shohei Ohtani’s future, we figured this is as good a time as any to look to the past. What follows is a brief exploration of the distinctly Japanese legacy of the Seattle Mariners, in which we unearth some neglected history, celebrate a few fan-favorite players, and humbly attempt to honor this unique aspect of the team’s identity.

Rangers v Mariners
You might want to limber up for this one
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Seattle is among the most prominent Japanese cultural hubs in the United States. In fact, there has been a large and thriving Japanese-American community in the Greater Seattle Area since the mid-1880’s, after the Chinese Exclusion Act opened the door for other East Asian groups to immigrate.

In the economic boom following WWII, Seattle flourished as a gateway between the U.S. and Asia, a key connecting point of commerce and industry along the Pacific Rim. Because of this association, in 1982, Japanese gaming giant Nintendo moved its American headquarters from New York City to Redmond, Washington. And 10 years later, in an precedented move that shocked the American baseball community, Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi purchased the floundering Seattle Mariners from Indianapolis-based radio tycoon Jeff Smulyan. The deal was highly controversial, as MLB commissioner Fay Vincent and a host of baseball executives remained skeptical of the sale of an American franchise to a non-American ownership group.

(This feature in Sports Illustrated from February of 1992 provides a comprehensive history of the build-up to the sale, including a discussion of the crucial role played by Slade Gorton, U.S. Senator from Washington state, in both establishing and preserving the Mariners. It’s required reading for anybody curious about this oft-forgotten but landmark piece of baseball history).

Hiroshi Yamauchi’s true motivations for purchasing the team are still debated. He reportedly had never attended a baseball game in his life, and even as owner of the franchise, would never make a single appearance at a Mariners game. Some regarded it to be little more than a corporate power play—a way to build prestige for Nintendo and a demonstration to both Japanese and American consumers that the company was a legitimate multi-national force. Others viewed the purchase as a gesture of thanks to the Seattle community for welcoming Nintendo of America to the area with open arms 10 years prior.

Motivations aside, the consequence of the purchase is not up for debate—Yamauchi’s acquisition singlehandedly kept the Mariners in Seattle. By 1992, the franchise was still without a profit in any of its 15 years of existence, and Smulyan was prepared to move the team to the Florida Suncoast Dome (now Tropicana Field) in St. Petersburg, a community hungry for an MLB franchise. Yet as a result of the Seattle Pilots fiasco in which future-MLB commissioner Bud Selig purchased and relocated the club to his hometown of Milwaukee after a single disastrous season in Sick’s Stadium, a provision was included in the team’s lease that mandated any sale must be to a local group, provided one could be found.

In that sense, with pressure from around the league to move the team to Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg, and no other Seattle-based groups stepping to the plate, it’s hardly hyperbole to say that Hiroshi Yamauchi saved baseball in Seattle.

Kansas City Royals v Seattle Mariners
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 23, 2013: A moment of silence is observed for Hiroshi Yamauchi, founder of Nintendo and former Mariners' majority team owner who passed away last week, prior to the game between the Seattle Mariners and the Kansas City Royals at Safeco Field.
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Of course, as anybody who has watched a Seattle Mariners game since 2000 can attest, the Japan-Mariners connection hardly stops there.

9 Japanese-born players have appeared for the Mariners throughout franchise history, the second most of any MLB club (only the Mets have had more at 12). Pitcher Mac Suzuki was actually the first to appear with the team, making his Mariner debut in 1996—becoming just the third Japanese-born player to play in the major leagues.

After closer Kazuhiro Sasaki’s electrifying arrival in 2000, the stage was set for the most hyped Japanese player ever to make the leap to the big leagues: a 27-year-old 7-time Pacific League batting champion by the name of Ichiro Suzuki. Many were skeptical that the slight outfielder could make the transition. But 242 hits, 127 runs, 56 steals, 116 wins, and one MVP award later, the rest is history.

Sasaki receives a high five from Ichiro
ANAHEIM, CA - APRIL 20, 2003: Kazuhiro Sasaki #22 of the Seattle Mariners receives a high five from teammate Ichiro Suzuki #51 after Sasaki saved the game against Anaheim Angels.
Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

The first Japanese-born position player in MLB, Ichiro took the league by storm in 2001 with his singular style and grace. And as he blossomed into a bona fide superstar over the next several seasons, the M’s front office made a concerted effort to add more Japanese players to the mix.

Reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa was brought over from the Angels, earning All-Star honors in 2003. (He’s also a scratch golfer, even qualifying for the U.S. Amateur Championship this past July—good on ya, Shiggy). Masao Kida made 8 appearances for the M’s in 2004 and 2005, though the righty never panned out as a long-term solution. Kenji Johjima made the leap straight from Japan and caught 462 games for the club from 2006-2009; according to fWAR, he’s still the third most valuable Mariners catcher of all time.

Meanwhile Don Wakamatsu—a bi-racial, 4th generation Japanese-American—became the first Asian-American manager in MLB history when the Mariners hired him in 2009. This exceptional Seattle Times article from Jerry Brewer delves into the story of Wakamatsu’s family, in the process confronting a painful and oft-neglected piece of American history: Japanese internment during WWII.

While Wakamatsu’s tenure as manager of the Mariners left something to be desired (he was fired in August of 2010 with the team en route to a 101-loss season), he remains highly respected as a coach and person throughout the league, while his legacy in baseball history as a trailblazer has already been cemented.

New York Yankees v Seattle Mariners
SEATTLE - JULY 10, 2010: Starting pitcher Felix Hernandez #34 of the Seattle Mariners gets a hug from manager Don Wakamatsu #22 after throwing a complete game and defeating the New York Yankees 4-1 at Safeco Field.
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Though Ichiro was shipped to the Yankees in 2012, (which is still a borderline excruciating sentence to type even five years later), a pair of fan-favorites kept the Japanese-Mariners connection intact.

With the help of translator Antony Suzuki (who has remained an essential member of the M’s staff since 2006), ebullient baseball sprite Munenori Kawasaki brought as much joy to a franchise as a marginal middle infielder could in 2012; Hisashi Iwakuma joined the club that same year, was an All-Star in 2013, and in 2015, became the second Japanese-born player to throw a no-hitter.

Baltimore Orioles v Seattle Mariners
SEATTLE, WA - AUGUST 12, 2015: Starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma #18 of the Seattle Mariners reacts after throwing a no-hitter to defeat the Baltimore Orioles 3-0 at Safeco Field
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Itinerant outfielder Nori Aoki joined Iwakuma on the Mariners for the 2016 season, tallying 409 quietly productive plate appearances as the M’s leadoff hitter. In the middle of the year, however, Nintendo sold its majority stake in the club to a local group helmed by telecommunications mogul and minority owner John Stanton. And with Iwakuma still recovering from a significant shoulder injury, his contract hinging on a club option for 2018, it’s likely he has already thrown in his final pitch in a Mariners uniform.

These changes would leave a void in an M’s roster that has featured, amazingly, at least one Japanese-born player every season since 2000, and has had significant Japanese involvement since Hiroshi Yamauchi purchased the team 25 years ago. (Nintendo of America retains 10% ownership of the club, but has removed itself from day-to-day operations following the majority sale last year).

So will Shohei Ohtani become a Seattle Mariner in 2018 to keep the streak alive? The short answer is—who the heck knows. And it only does us so much good to speculate.

Yet one thing is absolutely certain. From Hiroshi Yamauchi rescuing the team from its tragic (and decidedly sticky) fate of playing out its days in a humid Floridian stew and paving the way for the construction of Safeco Field, to Ichiro’s transcendent arrival in that magic season of 2001, to Kuma’s no-hitter 14 years later, baseball in Seattle wouldn’t be the same—or perhaps wouldn’t exist at all—without its Japanese contributors.

This connection is embedded deep within the DNA of the Seattle Mariners, as much a part of the identity of this franchise as “The Double” or Félix’s perfect game. It deserves to be honored and celebrated.

We also think it deserves to be continued.