30 years before Nomo, there was Murakami

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SAN FRANCISCO -- Before there was "Nomo Mania," there was "Mashy Madness."

Not that you ever heard much about it. "Mashy Madness" happened 30 years ago, without any shoe contracts or nightly ESPN highlights or officially licensed "Mashy Madness" merchandise. Nope, none of that.

Instead, there was just Masanori "Mashy" Murakami, a brave 19-year-old pitcher who flew across the Pacific Ocean and made history.

Murakami, a relief pitcher for the Giants, was the first Japanese national to play in the major leagues. He was also the only one -- until Hideo Nomo emerged as the Los Angeles Dodgers' minister of fastball diplomacy this season.

But if Nomo has felt immense pressure representing his country, imagine what life was like for Murakami in 1964, when he made his first major-league appearance before more than 40,000 people at Shea Stadium in New York. He struck out the first batter he faced and retired the side.

"Was I scared?" Murakami asked last week. "No. Not scared. Not nervous."

Why not?

"I did not speak much English," he said, "so I couldn't understand what anyone in the crowd was saying. I just tried to get batters out."

He told this story while digging into some breakfast eggs at a downtown hotel. The San Francisco Giants have invited Murakami and his wife to town this weekend for a special ceremony. Last night, the Giants were to honor Murakami at home plate and commemorate the 30th anniversary of his final season with the team in 1965.

"I am also pitching batting practice Friday," noted Murakami, still physically fit at 51 and now a part-time pitching instructor in Japan.

In struggling but determined English, he recalled his first trip to the Bay Area.

"I remember flying into California on the DC-8 plane for the first time and how very beautiful it was," Murakami said. "I didn't know so much about America at that time. I saw San Francisco. I saw Disneyland. My eyes were open so big."

At this remark, Murakami opened his eyes wide with his open palms alongside them and chuckled.

The two men know each other. Murakami also is a commentator for Japanese TV and has been the analyst of every game Nomo has pitched this year -- sometimes working from Japan and commenting over the video feed from the United States.

"I said last spring in Japan that if Nomo got into the Dodgers' starting rotation, he would get maybe 10 wins," Murakami said. "But you know, in Japan, a starter pitches only once every five or six days. Here, it is every four days.

"I also think that since May, Nomo changed his pitching form. He uses his hips better, has better balance. He will win more than I believed. And maybe more Japanese players will come here. I think today, there are 10 pitchers who can play over here."

If so, "Mashy" still always will be known as the first. Thanks to Nomo's fame, Murakami's brief career has received renewed attention. His statistics with the Giants were modest -- nine saves and five victories in 54 appearances with a 3.43 ERA -- but the anecdotes of his time here are priceless.

For example, when Murakami was in Fresno before being called up by the Giants, he once saluted a third baseman who made a good play behind him by running over and bowing to the infielder, cap doffed. Fresno also is where he gained his "Mashy" nickname, because his teammates had trouble pronouncing "Masanori."

But how did he get to Fresno in the first place? Trickery, mostly.

Japanese teams were -- and are -- protective of their native talent. But a Giants scout in Tokyo convinced Murakami's team in Nankai it should send him and two teammates to the Giants' spring-training camp to "learn baseball the American way."

However, when Murakami showed himself to be a superior pitcher -- the two other players never panned out -- the Giants decided to keep him. The Nankai team screamed foul, saying that wasn't part of the deal. The clubs compromised by allowing Murakami to pitch two seasons here before returning to Japan.

They were two memorable seasons. Murakami grew up in the small town of Otsuki, learning to play baseball in the rice paddies with a tennis ball and a bamboo stick. Picture that scene. Then picture a 19-year-old Murakami on the Fresno club, riding the buses to California League cities. He recalls being nervous about ordering a "chicken basket" because it might consist of cooked wicker -- an actual basket -- and he might have to eat it.

Murakami also recalls a night when he lost his temper at San Jose's Municipal Stadium, where he had a loyal following of about a dozen Japanese-Americans who showed up to watch him pitch.

"I gave up a hit and we lost the game," Murakami said. "After that pitch, I came off the field and got mad and broke the bench. I picked it up and slammed it and broke it."

That fierce competitiveness paid off after the Giants called him up in August. Murakami pitched 11 consecutive scoreless innings, struck out four batters for every one he walked, and even made Hank Aaron whiff. The Japanese-American community of the Bay Area embraced him.

Others didn't, however. Remember, 1964 was fewer than 20 years after V-J Day. This meant the occasional ballpark drunk would taunt Murakami with racial slurs and remind him just who'd won the war.

"It happened a couple of times, but I did not care," Murakami said. "I just listened and ignored them. If I said something, maybe people would get mad."

It all went by so fast, anyway, he said. After his two Giant years, he returned to Japan and pitched for 17 more seasons, accumulating 103 wins and 30 saves.

Some haven't forgotten. After breakfast Thursday, Murakami visited a senior citizens' center in San Francisco's Japantown, where a 77-year-old woman was waiting. She showed him a handkerchief Murakami had autographed for her in 1965 at a nearby restaurant where she'd been a waitress.

"That makes me happy to see you kept that," Murakami told her. "Thank you."

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