Thursday, May 18, 2017

Almost Breaking Barriers - A Brewers Spring Training Story

 As I've mentioned before, I write a Brewers history column for a local weekly paper here in Milwaukee. Occasionally, I'll cross-post these pieces here. My latest is below.

In September 1964, Masanori Murakami became the first Japanese-born player to ever appear in the Major Leagues when he debuted as a relief pitcher with the San Francisco Giants. Although Murakami pitched well, he returned to Japan after the 1965 season, his presence with the Giants soon relegated to a footnote in Major League history. Twenty years later – and a full decade before Hideo Nomo appeared with the Dodgers and took baseball by storm – the Milwaukee Brewers quietly signed legendary Japanese hurler Yutaka Enatsu, giving him a chance to make baseball history.

Although Murakami had already broken baseball’s east-west barrier, he had not done so with the intention of playing in the Majors. He had been sent to the U.S. as a sort-of baseball exchange student to gain experience in the Giants’ minor league system. But when his Japanese team, the Nankai Hawks, neglected to call him back to Japan, the Giants promoted him, signing his Major League contract without being able to read any of its contents. After the promotion, the Hawks insisted that the pitcher be returned, but the Giants refused. An arbitrator decided that Murakami would play one more in San Francisco before returning to Japan.

The left-handed Enatsu debuted in Japan shortly after Murakami came home. He was a force from the start, setting a world record in 1968 with 401 strikeouts. He remained among the best starting pitchers in Japan for the next decade, after which he moved to the bullpen and became one of the nation’s most dominant relievers, twice winning league MVP awards and setting the career record for saves.

But Enatsu also had a reputation as a loose cannon. He had been involved in a wide-spread game fixing scandal in the 1969-71 that resulted in several star players being suspended or banned for life. Ensatsu was let off with a stern warning. In 1984, he left the Nippon Ham Fighters, a team he had led to the Japan Series in 1981, for the Seibu Lions. It ended up being a down season for the 36-year-old Enatsu and a quarrel with his manager over the pitcher’s health and off-the-field activities led to an in-season suspension and effectively ended his Japanese career.  

The 1984 season had also been miserable one in Milwaukee. Less than two years removed from a World Series appearance, the Brewers lost 94 games. That off-season, with director of player development Ryan Poitevint thinking outside of the box (the team had signed pitcher Ted Higuera from the Mexican League the year before and he had since become one of the team’s top prospects) and with Enatsu having declared he was done with the rigors of Japanese baseball, the Brewers decided to give the lefty a shot.

Enatsu pitches for the Brewers

Enatsu’s appearance in training camp for the Brewers in 1985 was treated as a minor curiosity in the states, but was national news in Japan. A group of 30 Japanese reporters followed him to camp that spring. Even with his recent trouble, Enatsu was a national icon in Japan and had been the highest-paid pitcher in the league in 1984. But now, he was working out in the hot Arizona sun, trying to shed some excess weight and fighting for the last spot on a pitching staff of a last-place team.

Enatsu opened the spring with a series of impressive appearances, but began to struggle as the team tried to stretch him out for multi-inning appearances. Long past his days as a flame-thrower, Enatsu was now working with pure finesse. His fastball topped out in the mid-80s, but a looping changeup registered in the mid-60s, helping him to keep hitters off-balance.
His sly sense of humor also kept followers off-balance. Asked by American reporters if he was learning English, he suggested that it might be easier if they all learned Japanese. Asked about his weight, which had been a concern since he arrived in camp, he gestured to a long-time Brewers employee who was often kidded about his 300-pound frame, saying that his own troubles didn’t look so bad by comparison. The language barrier between the Japanese press, some of whom spoke English, and the Brewers also made for some fun moments. Asked by a Japanese reporter if Enatsu was at “Fingers’ level,” Brewers manager George Bamberger struggled to figure out what he assumed to be a metaphorical question involving the human hand. After a confused exchange, the reporter clarified, “Do you think he is at the same level as Rollie Fingers?”

On April 2, the last day of camp, already knowing that Enatsu would not make the team, Bamberger inserted the pitcher in a game against the California Angels so that he could fulfill his dream of pitching to Reggie Jackson (the results of the match-up were not recorded in the newspapers following the game). That afternoon, the team announced that Enatsu would not make the team and would not be offered a spot with AAA Vancouver. Nearly 37, Enatsu had pitched well enough for an assignment (he recorded a 4.91 ERA in 11 innings), but had a limited future in the big leagues, if any. Enatsu said he was disappointed with the news, but was glad for the chance. Unable to find work with another club, Enatsu retired shortly after his release.

1 comment:

  1. Never knew about this, I always assumed Nomo was the first Japanese player to get a shot at the bigs after Murakami. Would've been great to see what Enatsu could've done had he made the club. Great article!