Sports

Karl Lindholm: Yoshida, Koji, Ohtani — and Horace Wilson

Who is that fellow playing left field for the Red Sox this season? He bats left-handed and throws right-handed and is hitting .327 with six homers and 22 RBI after a slow start and has led the Red Sox recently on an eight-game win streak — and has hit safely in 16 consecutive games at the time of this writing.

No, it’s not Ted Williams who played left magnificently for two decades. Ted was tall (6’3”) and this fellow is not (in fact, he is diminutive, 5’8” 175 pounds). Nor is it another great leftfielder, Carl Yastrzemski, who like Teddy Ballgame and the new man, also batted lefty and threw righty.

About this new leftfielder, 29-year-old Masataka Yoshida, Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy wrote on March 30, “(He) looks soft. Is this what the Sox get for $105.4 million? There was no weaker clean-up man in the bigs in the first three weeks. Maybe it will get better.” 

Well, it did get better. One of the hottest hitters in baseball, Yoshida is now leading the surprising Red Sox (21-15) in the tough American League East. On March 23, Yoshida hit two homers in the eighth inning, one a grand slam, in a 12-5 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.

Wouldn’t it be great if Yoshida won the Rookie of the Year Award as his countryman, Ichiro Suzuki, did in 2001? Ichiro was the first Japanese position player to play in Major League Baseball.

NEW RED SOX leftfielder Masataka Yoshida set a record for RBIs for the Champion Japanese team in the 2023 World Baseball Classic with 13 in seven games.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves here — it’s way too early to anoint Yoshida as the next great Boston leftfielder. He certainly built an impressive resume in his seven years playing for the Orix Buffaloes in the NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball), Japan’s equivalent to the MLB in the States. 

In his last three seasons for the Buffaloes, he hit .336 .353, and .336 again. His style of play is particularly well-suited for the changes in the MLB game this year: he puts the ball in play, rarely striking out. In his career in Japan, he had 120 more walks than strikeouts. 

If you followed at all the World Baseball Classic this spring, you saw his great skills at the plate as he batted .429 with two homers, setting the WBC record for Runs Batted In with 13 in seven games for the Champion Japanese team. He struck out just once in those seven games and was named to the All-World Baseball Classic Team. 

Sixty-seven Japanese players have played in the Major Leagues and eight are currently on MLB rosters. There are no Japanese players in Baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown — yet! Ichiro will qualify in 2025 and is a certain first ballot inductee.

THIS RECENTLY PUBLISHED book chronicling the long Red Sox history, chose for its cover the joyful celebration of Japanese relief pitcher Koji Uehara and catcher Jason Varitek after Uehara struck out Cardinal Matt Carpenter for the last out in Boston’s 2013 World Series victory.

If Shohei Ohtani plays at a level anywhere near his performance to date, there will be statutes of him in Cooperstown at the Hall of Fame, one hitting and one throwing! 

The Red Sox have been active in signing Japanese players. The first was Hideo Nomo, who pitched a no-hitter in his first start for the Red Sox on April 4 in 2001, his only year with the team. 

The most popular Japanese player in Red Sox history is undoubtedly the exuberant Koji Uehara, whose popularity was second only to David “Big Papi” Ortiz himself in the Red Sox improbable run to the World Series Championship in 2013.

Papi, Koji, and a wild Band of (Bearded) Brothers brought joy to Boston that summer in the wake of the shocking Boston Marathon bombing on Patriot’s Day (April 15). Koji’s infectious enthusiasm was tonic. As one Boston writer put it, “He was a joy to behold and a nightmare to hit.”

Uehara became the Red Sox closer by default when the two pitchers designated for that role went down with season ending injuries. He was devastatingly effective, ending up with 21 saves, a 1.09 ERA, the American League Championship Series Most Valuable Player Award, and a World Series ring. 

A slender righty, Koji did not throw hard. His best pitch was a split-finger pitch that darted down and away from a right-handed batter — it was, in the parlance of the great Satchel Paige, a “bat dodger.”

                               

Recently, I received a note from a former student of mine from my very first year teaching, way back in 1968, at the Kents Hill School in Maine. He asked me if I knew that the man who introduced baseball to Japan was a Mainer who went to Kents Hill.

AMERICAN HORACE WILSON from Gorham, Maine, is the acknowledged “Father of Japanese Baseball” for introducing the game to Japan in 1872.

Well, I knew of Horace Wilson, who is credited as the progenitor, but I didn’t know we shared that association: I was the baseball coach at Kents Hill for two years. 

Acknowledged as the “Father of Japanese Baseball,” Wilson was enshrined in Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame in 2022 when Japan celebrated its baseball sesquicentennial. 

Wilson was born in Gorham, Maine, in 1843 and attended Kents Hill School where he presumably played the fledgling game of base ball (two words in the 19th century). He left Maine to fight in the Civil War and then headed for Japan in 1871, “one of the many outsiders to teach the ways of the West to the country as it emerged from two centuries of isolation.” 

A schoolteacher, Wilson taught the game of baseball to his students in 1872 as a diversion from their studies at what later became the University of Tokyo. The game caught on like wildfire there in the decades after the Civil War, just as it did in the United States. Wilson was not in Japan long, returning to the States in 1877 and spending the rest of his life (he died in 1923) in the San Francisco Bay area.

                        

It may be, you know, that the greatest player in the history of baseball, America’s pastime for a long time, is a Japanese player in the game today: Shohei Ohtani.

The Red Sox have a lot of money (Forbes reports the franchise is worth $4.5 billion) and they have this positive history with Japanese players — maybe Shohei will end up in Boston with the Red Sox when he becomes available in the next year. 

That would be fun. 

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Karl Lindholm, Ph.D., is a retired dean and faculty member at Middlebury College. Contact him at [email protected].

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