Nomo, Ripken are hits in Japan Heroes: Hideo Nomo, the Los Angeles Dodgers' pitching ace, is a hit back home in Japan. But so is Oriole shortstop Cal Ripken, because he broke the consecutive-games-played record once held by a Japanese iron man.

Sun Journal

November 09, 1996|By Jonathan Herskovitz | Jonathan Herskovitz,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

TOKYO -- In the downtown bar, heads turn when Cal Ripken Jr. appears on the TV screen for his first at bat in this month's Japan-United States exhibition baseball series.

"That's the guy who has broke Kinugasa's consecutive-game streak," says Wataru Idei, as Ripken faced the pitching ace of the Tokyo Giants, Masaki Saito, with the U.S. squad down by five runs in the opening game of the eight-game series.

Before Idei took a bite of the barbecued beef he was holding in his chopsticks, Ripken hit a Saito pitch into right field, reached first base and advanced Brady Anderson from first to third.

An American legend thus met expectations in Japan.

Ripken and Anderson are among the Major League All-Stars who arrived here to play an all-star Japanese team in an exhibition series that began Nov. 1 in Tokyo and will travel to four other cities.

For the Japanese players, the series is an opportunity to show that the level of their game rivals Major League Baseball; for the Americans, the series is the opportunity to translate their fame on the field into commercial success in the East.

For baseball fans in Japan, the big names on the visiting U.S. team are pitcher Hideo Nomo and catcher Mike Piazza, of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Each time Nomo pitched for the Dodgers, the game was broadcast live on national television.

Sharing the stage with them now is Ripken. Nomo, Piazza and Ripken appear together in interviews, and they are the players who receive the largest ovations when the players' names are announced at the games.

"Cal Ripken is the ambassador of the Major League," says Katsuya Nomura, the manager of the Yakult Swallows, the 1995 Japan Series champion, and one of the managers of the Japanese all-star squad. "Ripken still moves well and he plays like such a young guy -- but he should try to learn some of the names of the players over here."

Ripken earned his way into Japanese baseball folklore by breaking the consecutive-game streak of Sachio Kinugasa, who played for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp from 1970 to 1987.

Apart from the games with Nomo, the only other Major League games shown live on nationwide television in Japan were the playoffs, the World Series -- and the two games the Orioles played against the Kansas City Royals in mid-June, when Ripken tied and then surpassed Kinugasa's mark of 2,215 consecutive games.

Ripken has the same nickname in Japan as in United States, once language differences are taken into account: He is "Tetsujin," the iron man. And he has continued to earn the respect of fans for his aggressive play.

In the third game of this series, Ripken broke up a double play with a hard, clean slide into second base, accidentally deflecting the throw to first. Two innings later, Ripken belted a home run.

"I just love to play baseball," Ripken was quoted as saying. "This might be the last go-round for me [in Japan] and I wanted to see the country again."

U.S. baseball teams and players have been playing exhibition games here for more than 90 years. The Royal Giants of the Negro Leagues went 17-0 during a tour in 1932; Babe Ruth led a team of all-stars (including Lou Gehrig) on a tour in 1934. The Orioles have been to Japan twice: in 1971, when the team went 12-2, with four ties, and in 1984.

What is different about this exhibition series is players are using the international competition to gauge varying kinds of potential. Japanese players want to learn if they are fast enough to steal a base off Texas Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez, or skilled enough to hit a fastball from Cleveland Indians reliever Jose Mesa.

Ten years ago, the Major League All-Star team compiled a 6-1 record during its exhibition tour, defeating its Japanese opponents with a cumulative score of 59-21. Now, though the U.S. squad is again dominating the series, the margin is smaller.

So the players in Japan have gotten better, and more of them are thinking about playing in the United States.

After Nomo went to the Dodgers, Japanese teams eliminated the loophole in the contract that had allowed him to leave Japan. One team here was so fearful that its pitching ace would jump ship if he impressed Major League scouts during this series that the team forbade him to play. The Americans? They are trying to prove themselves in the marketplace.

Japan has proved itself as a lucrative place for endorsement contracts for Nomo and Piazza, so some of the Americans have '' brought their agents with them.

Nomo has endorsement deals with four major companies in Japan: Toyota, Kirin Beverage, Sumitomo Insurance and an international long-distance carrier, IDC.

Nomo is believed to receive about $10 million a year from these deals, compared with a three-year, $4.3 million contract he signed with the Dodgers.

Following on Nomo's success, Piazza has signed on with heavy equipment manufacturer Komatsu and underwear maker Gunze, endorsements believed to be worth $2 million -- money not available to him in the United States.

According to the most recent list compiled by Forbes magazine of athletes with the richest endorsement packages, no baseball player was in the top 10 of 1995.

Basketball star Michael Jordan topped the list and was followed by golfers, race-car drivers and football, hockey and basketball players -- all ahead of the first baseball player on the list, Cal Ripken, No. 16.

Pub Date: 11/09/96

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