NPB: The Punk Meets The Godfathers

Baseball in Japan is fascinating, entertaining and cool, but most of all, it’s in Japan. Because folks in North America live so far away, the myths and misunderstandings have persisted for a very long time.

Beginning in 1977, Robert Whiting published a series of books that opened the door to fans, writers and analysts. He helped those who had a spark of curiosity develop a deep passion for the game.

While readers were discovering The Chrysanthemum and the Bat for the first time, the “Trinity of 1977″ debuted and was an instant success. It would not be long at all before personal computers started to become a part of everyday life.

During the 1977 regular season, Sadaharu Oh of the Yomiuri Giants crushed 50 home runs. Oh was featured on the cover of the August 15, 1977 issue of Sports Illustrated with a feature article by Frank Deford. His moonshot on September 3, 1977 was number 756. No player in baseball history would hit more than Oh.

1977 was the first summer of baseball for the Seattle Mariners too. The club would later feature the first MLB position player, first MLB catcher, first American League pitcher, first Most Valuable Player and the first two American League Rookies of the Year from Japan. The franchise would also have the first Japanese owner.

No one could have known that future interest in Japanese baseball would grow exponentially thanks to a quartet of seemingly unrelated developments in 1977.

Fast forward to 2014. These words are on a computer screen and an ace from Japan is the hottest commodity during the MLB hot stove season.

As technology has evolved, so has the reach of those with knowledge of the sport. The very latest report, blog or podcast from John E. Gibson is a click or two away. Articles by Jason Coskrey, Kaz Nagatsuka and Wayne Graczyk are all published on-line. The adventures of Deanna Rubin are simple to find. The work of Patrick Newman is available. Baseball reports in the Japanese press are curated by Gen Sueyoshi. The Chiba Lotte Marines and Tokyo Yakult Swallows are easy to follow with blogs in English from dedicated fans. Even NPB has a bilingual website.

A lot has changed in the intervening decades. Two gentlemen have been important parts of a bridge that spans the early days of NPB statistical research through the years of usenet to the emergence of the blog: Jim Allen and Michael Westbay.

Jim Allen first became interested in the writings of Bill James during his college days in the early 1980s. In Japan, Allen found that the sheer volume of published statistics was favorable to trying advanced analysis. Later, he used some of those research methods in a guide to baseball published annually during the 1990s. In addition to authoring books, he covered games as a beat writer and had a weekly column in the Yomiuri. Jim Allen currently works for the Kyodo News Service, continues to write and is the co-host of Japan Baseball Weekly, a podcast co-hosted and produced by John E. Gibson.

Michael Westbay has also been following the sport in Japan for decades. Michael has been at the hub of many connections between fans and professionals alike. Like Jim, his efforts have been an inspiration for a number of aspiring writers too. After launching the website almost two decades ago, he has seen it grow and evolve over the years to include Japan Baseball Weekly and contributions from a number of well respected baseball writers. Michael is involved with ScoutDragon. He also hosts The Pro Yakyu Report.

Following in the big warm footprints of Robert Whiting and Wayne Graczyk, Jim Allen and Michael Westbay were pioneers in the cultivation and growth of an international English speaking Japanese baseball community. Or, as Philip Riccobono put it, “The Godfathers of Japanese baseball in English.”

Philip did an extended interview with Jim and Michael that is essential listening for anyone interested in the game in Japan. Enjoy. It’s not 1977 anymore.

Tags: Nippon Professional Baseball

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