Saturday, November 9, 2013

Ma-kun & the Numbers

Across the Pacific, a phenomenal pitching talent put together a jaw dropping historic run. For thirty consecutive decisions, it was automatic. Masahiro Tanaka was inked on the lineup card, took the hill, and delivered a win.

Around Nippon Professional Baseball, fans of opposing clubs both dreaded and looked forward to his starts. Although it meant a likely loss, as the game unfolded, it became easier and easier to root for Ma-kun. A natural reaction to baseball excellence seemed like betrayal in the moment, but it could not be helped.

When the last out of the 2013 regular season was recorded, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles were atop the Pacific League. Masahiro Tanaka had a 24-0 record with 8 complete games and a save tossed in at the end for good measure.

Major League scouts saw a lot to like during the campaign. What began as idle speculation in 2012 had developed into a story during the World Baseball Classic. As the calendar flew through summer, there was solid interest from teams in the United States. By the end, speculation about the eventual stateside destination of Tanaka had reached a rolling boil.

Even though a new posting agreement between NPB and MLB had not been finalized, nor had the Rakuten Eagles made a definite statement that Tanaka would be posted, it quickly became a foregone conclusion that he would play in North America. Lists of free agents were assembled and Tanaka was discussed without many caveats.

While the Climax Series unfolded, the tangled complications that have held up negotiations between leagues were all but forgotten. The current contract Tanaka has with the Eagles wasn't even a footnote for a lot of fans in their haste to imagine him delivering baseballs for their hometown nine. 

By the time a Japan Series crown was won in Miyagi Stadium, followers of clubs mentioned in rumors were largely convinced he was already on his way. Even MLB treated his posting and availability like a done deal. It may be why you are reading this very moment.

Full stop.

There are some things Major League Baseball fans ought to know.

All over Japan, and especially in the Tohoku region, the amazing run of Tanaka and the Eagles has meant a whole lot more than just the satisfaction of a first Pacific League crown and Nippon Series championship. It still does.

Skipper Senichi Hoshino knew how important the team was to millions of people at such a difficult time in history. He expressed those thoughts after the Rakuten Eagles triumphed with an exciting game seven shutout of the defending champion Yomiuri Giants:
"When I became manager there was the Tohoku Earthquake and when I saw all the survivors and hardships they were experiencing, I wanted to provide some comfort by winning a Nippon Series.  I felt that was the only thing I could do, and for three years I fought with that in my mind.  There are still many people still struggling.  I hope this can provide some of those people with comfort, if even to the smallest degree."
On October 10, 2013 new figures from Tasukeai Japan showed the current number of displaced people standing at 282,111. In American terms, that means roughly the population of Toledo, Ohio are still living in temporary accommodations. Toledo has a baseball team.

On that same day last month, the National Police Agency of Japan released an updated list of victims. If those who perished, are still missing, were injured, and children who lost one or both parents in the disaster are included, the sad total climbs to 308,375. That is a few thousand more than the number of people who live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh has a baseball team.

At the peak of evacuations, an estimated 475,000 people were without homes in the wake of the earthquake, tsunami and radiation. Or, approximately the same number of folks with a place to call their own in Sacramento, California. Sacramento has a baseball team.

Take a quick glance at this list of a dozen cities that hosted a Major League Baseball team in 2013. 8 of these clubs had a playoff chance with a 162 game schedule in the books. A pair met in game number 163. The remaining 7 teams were part of an exciting postseason.

  • Kansas City, Missouri
  • Atlanta, Georgia
  • Miami, Florida
  • Oakland, California
  • Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • Cleveland, Ohio
  • Arlington, Texas
  • Anaheim, California
  • St. Louis, Missouri
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Cincinnati, Ohio
  • St. Petersburg, Florida

Now, read it again with the knowledge that the list is made up of cities with populations that are progressively smaller than the reported number of people whose lives were directly impacted in almost incomprehensible ways on March 11, 2011.

Beyond the documented suffering, there are untold thousands more who lost loved ones, friends, neighbors, classmates, colleagues, home towns, earthly possessions and their livelihoods. For those who survived that fateful day, and those who continue to live in fear of what is happening down the coast in Fukushima, the Rakuten Eagles have been a steady source of both pride and comfort.

Jim Allen covered the Eagles return to Miyagi Stadium on April 29, 2011. Masahiro Tanaka threw a complete game and won an emotional homecoming. On Japan Baseball Weekly, Jim spoke with colleague John E. Gibson about a baseball game being anti-climactic after spending time with local survivors. He distilled the moments into The Hot Corner column published on May 5, 2011. After sharing the thoughts and stories of strong willed people who were carrying on in spite of it all, he wrote:
"Baseball people are fond of saying their season is not a sprint but a marathon. Yet, when the Eagles' marathon ends, so many of those struggling to rebuild lives will still be closer to the start than the finish. A ball club can only help so much, provide a rallying point, a beacon in dark times. But there are times when people need all the help they can get."
When it comes to Masahiro Tanaka, one should not consider the individual numbers without taking the numbers of individuals into account. Along with Hisashi Iwakuma and other Eagles teammates over the last three seasons, his performance on the field had an impact that can't be measured in baseball terms, but can be seen on the faces of thousands of children at the ballpark.

Marty Kuehnert is Senior Advisor to the Eagles and has been involved with the team since their inception. A few days ago, Marty was interviewed by John E. Gibson for the latest Japan Baseball Weekly. They discussed the bonds that developed between the ballclub and the people of the Tohoku region in the wake of catastrophe. The entire podcast is essential listening. Here are a few things he shared:
"Our players spent a lot of time visiting evacuation centers and giving out food and needed supplies.... We've continued to do things with people from the most affected areas... We're the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, not the Miyagi or Sendai... the adjoining prefectures have pretty much adopted the ballclub and we've adopted them."
This past week, the Japan Times ran a piece by Kaz Nagatsuka (with an assist from Jason Coskrey) that gives great insight into the relationship between the Eagles and their fans. Go read it if you haven't yet. The following quote from a former MLB arm was included in the article.

When Sendai native Takashi Saito started his NPB career in 1992, there was no team in the area. He played down in Yokohama and stayed with the BayStars through 2005. He spent seven campaigns stateside with the Dodgers, Red Sox, Braves, Brewers and Diamondbacks, before coming home this year to pitch for the Eagles. After the final victory for Tohoku, Saito spoke to NHK:
"Those people suffering have been praised for their persistence from all over the world, not just from inside Japan, even before we became the Japan Series champions. Maybe we could say this is their second championship. Without them, we couldn’t have become the champions."
Without comparing the relative impacts of intensely tragic events, fans in North America should be able to understand the range of powerful emotions that still linger in the raw fall wind that blows through Miyagi Baseball Stadium in Sendai.

After a horrific attack on marathon competitors and fans in the streets not far from Fenway Park, "Boston Strong" became a rallying cry the Red Sox carried through a World Series championship.

Trophies were held high when saves from Koji Uehara and Masahiro Tanaka ended the final games. Smiles spread across millions of faces. Baseball had bound communities together. It left a trace of magic in the air where there once was choking dread and sorrow.

In November, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles will be competing in the Asia Series from the 15th to 20th. Fan Appreciation Day is scheduled for the 23rd. A victory parade will be held on the 24th. It would be nice for millions of fans all over Japan to be able to savor those days before MLB teams swooped in on their ace.

If circumstances dictate that Ma-kun stays on the Eagles roster and defends the NPB championship in 2014, folks on this side of the pond will just have to hold their horses. After all, if he were one of your hometown heroes, that is exactly the outcome you would fervently wish for, right?

Perhaps the breathless faithful in the United States will channel some of that eagerness into a list of nice things to do for the many people still suffering in Japan who found beauty and a bit of solace watching Masahiro Tanaka win ballgames.

For now at least, everyone in baseball should let the Eagles and their fans enjoy this moment at the top. It was earned in ways that can't be fully explained with numbers, or words for that matter.

[Updated 11/11 to include thoughts of Marty Kuehnert in JBW interview. Gratitude to Gen Sueyoshi, Jim Allen, John E. Gibson, Kaz Nagatsuka and Jason Coskrey.]