- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

Japanese baseball fans and officials no longer turn their collective nose up at Major League Baseball, according to the country’s ambassador to the United States.

“It’s true that the major league level is higher than the Japanese professional level,” Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki told The Washington Times on Wednesday. “People at first, at the beginning, were not happy that their very best were going to United States; they thought they are not patriotic, that they’re leaving just for money.”

That’s the backlash pitcher Hideo Nomo faced when he left Japan nearly a decade and a half ago. Viewed as a traitor - even his parents pleaded for him to stay in Japan - he left his homeland looking for work and eventually signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Nomo took Rookie of the Year honors in 1995, and his success won him some support back home, at least among fans. But the Japanese baseball establishment grew more protective of its players, and there remain many limitations on player movement from Japan to the United States.

It hasn’t stopped an exodus of elite players, though, as outfielders Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui and pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, among others, left in their prime - if not always on their own terms. And their success in the U.S., according to Fujisaki, has won over more fans back home.

And more top players are trying to mimic their success. “I think there is a tolerance for that,” the ambassador said.

They see them “accepted in American baseball community and really doing well,” Fujisaki said. “They feel like, [an American would feel if a local] high school player in my town went to the NFL. … that kind of psychology is there. I don’t think there is really much resentment.”



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