The other night, I was watching the highlights from a New York Mets game in which Daisuke Matsuzaka saved the game as the latest contestant on ‘Who Wants to be the Mets’ Closer?’ Bobby Parnell started the season in the role but had season-ending surgery. Replacing Parnell was Jose Valverde and then he was bumped recently by veteran Kyle Farnsworth. With Farnsworth unavailable on this day, Dice-K received his chance to close a game.
Matsuzaka, who arrived in Boston a few years ago to much fanfare, got me thinking about some of hits and misses among Japanese players who came to the major leagues and wound up on baseball cards.
The first to reach the big leagues was Masanori Murakami, who due to a series of procedural errors, ended up pitching for the San Francisco Giants in 1964 and ‘65. His pitching statistics were decent enough and although he returned to Japan after the 1965 season, what he had already accomplished indicated he could have pitched several more seasons in the majors.
In terms of his baseball cards, the only cards of note issued while he was pitching for the Giants were his 1965 rookie card and the O-Pee-Chee version from Canada. Both cards are very popular with the Topps card still having a Beckett value of $40 and the O-Pee-Chee card booking even higher as it is in the very difficult third series. Keep in mind there are a lot of collectors and fans seeking the pioneering Murakami’s cards.
It took nearly three decades for the next Japanese player to make an appearance. Because of the baseball strike of 1994-95, there was not as much attention to the debut of Hideo Nomo 20 years ago Friday, but the story brought scores of Japanese reporters to North America. A Japanese player in MLB was still quite a novelty.
Nomo, much as Fernando Valenzuela had down in 1981, started off so strong that instead of Fernandomania in Los Angeles we had Nomomania. No manufacturer could produce current cards of him until he joined the MLBPA on Opening Day. Well. from that point through the rest of the 1995 season, every card company came up with innovative ways of picturing Nomo in their sets. Every company looked for the best way to use his popularity to spur sales of their products.
In a way he was a precursor to the 2001 season in how to use rookie cards to sell your release. Since 1995 was truly before the autograph card flood, there were no certified autograph cards for him in 1995. I guarantee you if that had been 2010, everyone available would have looked for a way to get Nomo to sign cards.
One of my great memories was attending the 1995 All-Star game in Arlington and seeing that Nomo made sure to greet every young kid who came on the field as part of the pre-game ceremonies. Yes, his start was so spectacular that there was no way anyone was leaving him off the National League roster. Nomomania was short-lived, however, and today his cards are mostly in the common box, but the parallel cards with very short print runs were eagerly snapped up by Japanese collectors and still trade far above the value of other similar player short print parallel cards.
A couple of years after that, the Yankees signed Hideki Irabu for a ton of money. The best part of his career was mercurial Yankees owner George Steinbrenner called him a “fat toad” in spring training. While Irabu's cards were popular in 1997 because of what was believed to be his potential, they quickly fade. Sadly, Irabu battled other post-career demons and later completed suicide.
Ichiro Suzuki’s arrival in Seattle 13 years ago was a huge deal. He was a major star in Japan and the first Japanese player who was almost expected to be a big offensive star. He didn’t disappoint, winning the American League Rookie of the Year and MVP in 2001 and is likely on his way to the Hall of Fame even though we missed the early years of his career. Between Japan and the major leagues Ichiro has amassed more than 4.000 career hits. And like Nomo, because no one could produce a card until he played in the majors, there is still a decent premium for his 2001 issues.
Another hitter who had success was Hideki Matsui. Between Japan and the U.S. major leagues, Matsui slugged over 500 homers. His shining moment came in 2009 when he was MVP of the World Series. While he's not likely to make the Hall of Fame, Matsui's place in Yankees history is secure and thanks to that big smile, he's still got a lot of fans in both countries who have good memories of his cards.
The following years saw So Taguchi and Kaz Ishii arrive. Ishii started 6-0 and looked like he would follow Nomo as a star but within a few years he was out of the majors. Taguchi had a few moments but neither of these players made much of a long-term impact.
And the final player in our memory tour will be the person we began this article with, Dice-K. Yes, he arrived with so much hype that we were all waiting for opening day so he could join the MLBPA and have his first official cards released. The "retail" team sets which came in blister packs of 14 were swooped up immediately and sold for a premium over the retail price. And yes, this was one of rare occasions in which you could guarantee a profit by going retail. Now, the Red Sox did win the World Series in 2007 and although Daisuke's future looked great, in reality he was pretty average.
It’s still too early to tell about the futures of Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka to see where they end up but the early returns are promising. The amazing thing about Darvish is how little demand there has been at the local Dallas card shows for his cards.
I remember chatting briefly with Dayton Stanphill, a local promoter who told me he did not remember selling any cards of Darvish and I think I've only sold 1-2 of them myself at local shows. Granted, I have not had any jersey or autograph cards of Darvish.
If his arm holds up, Tanaka could be the best of them all. So far, he hasn’t signed an autograph deal so we’ll have to be content with the smattering of base and parallel cards that are starting to hit the market now.
There have been a few other Japanese players who've played professionally in North America and if you want a real challenge, chase down the cards all of these guys appeared on in their home country.