On March 21, 2019, Ichiro Suzuki, arguably the most famous Japanese-born Major League Baseball player in history, ended his 28-year career amidst an emotional scene in front of a sold-out Tokyo Dome crowd filled by his compatriots. However, this moment in baseball history overshadowed another.
Teammate Yusei Kikuchi was the starting pitcher for Ichiro’s Seattle Mariners that evening in Japan. What made that such a significant note was that he became the first Japanese-born player to make his major league debut in his country of birth. However, even he was overcome by the festivities surrounding Ichiro as he cried while hugging the legend during Ichiro’s goodbyes and while sitting in the dugout immediately following that moment.
What makes Kikuchi’s own historic moment so rare is due to the fact that major league games are not played outside the United States or Canada very often. The American and National Leagues were based solely in the United States with every game being played within its borders from their foundings in 1901 and 1876, respectively, until Canada’s Montreal Expos joined the NL in 1969 and the Toronto Blue Jays started playing in the AL in 1977.
It was not until 2000 when the first games were played outside of North America; the New York Mets and Chicago Cubs played a two-game set in Tokyo on March 29 and 30 of that year. The Mariners’ two games versus the Oakland Athletics in 2019 were the ninth and 10th to be played there.
Also, only 58 Japanese-born baseball players have seen time in the majors. The first one, Masanori Murakami, pitched for the San Francisco Giants in 1964 and 1965. However, it was another 30 years before a second Japanese-born player was in the majors – pitcher Hideo Nomo joined the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995 – but that rate has increase significantly since then as Kikuchi is the 58th.