Mariners Magazine | Hisashi Iwakuma and Norichika Aoki, Reunited
Hisashi Iwakuma and Norichika Aoki are thrilled to be teammates again and honored
to build on a tradition in Seattle.
The following article is from the April issue of Mariners Magazine. Pick up yours today at any Mariners Team Store, or subscribe to receive all six issues (April-September), plus a free 2016 Mariners Yearbook, delivered to your home or office. Each issue is filled with great action photography, up to date news, player stats and feature interviews.
On April 6, Norichika Aoki headed out of the visitors dugout in Texas in the bottom of the first inning to take his position in left field in his second regular season game with the Mariners. Taking the mound that evening for Seattle was starter Hisashi Iwakuma.
That these long-time close friends, who grew up in Japan and starred for years in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), would even end up as teammates in the U.S. speaks volumes about the journeys both men have made to pursue the highest level of the sport they love.
“It’s a great thing and I’m very happy to have him on our side,” said Iwakuma, through his interpreter Antony Suzuki during Spring Training. “We go a ways back. We played together in 2009 for our country. We are really good friends. He is the same age as me so we have a lot of things in common.
“You look at him as a player, he is a great leadoff guy. He grinds out at-bats. He doesn’t give away outs. He takes a lot of pitches. He gets on base. He has all the tools. That’s something that we needed the last couple of years. And, you look at the back of his baseball card, it shows how disciplined he is as a player. That will apply very well here in Seattle.”
Making It Happen
Such a heartfelt expression would not have been possible without a series of events that took place during the early part of this past offseason. First, general manager Jerry Dipoto signed Aoki on December 3 after the left fielder spent one season with San Francisco that was shortened by two trips to the disabled list. Dipoto recognized, however, that the veteran free agent of four seasons with Milwaukee, Kansas City and the Giants offered multiple benefits that the Mariners needed.
From 2012 through 2015, Aoki batted .287 and posted a strong .353 on-base percentage. Moreover, the 5-foot, 9-inch left-hand hitter owns one of the sharpest eyes in the game, having struck out just 169 times in nearly 2,000 at-bats entering this season.
“Adding Nori addresses our desire to be more athletic in the outfield, as well as more contact oriented in the batter’s box,” said Dipoto. “His consistency, versatility and energetic style of play will fit us very well.”
At that time, though, it appeared Iwakuma would not be wearing a Mariners uniform alongside his friend. After four terrific seasons in Seattle, during which he posted a stellar 47-25 record, the Tokyo native was a free agent who looked headed to the Dodgers. But then, less than two weeks after Aoki came on board, the Los Angeles deal fell through and Dipoto quickly resigned Iwakuma, much to the delight and relief of Seattle fans, players and coaches.
“Glad we got him back from the Dodgers,” said Felix Hernandez. “We definitely need him. He’s a good friend and a good pitcher. He’s grown a lot. Good presence out there; goes about his business and gets it done.”
Added pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre: “When we got Kuma back, I actually sent Jerry [Dipoto] a note and said, ‘Thank you, Santa Claus!’ We all understand what Hisashi means not only to the club, but to the rest of the rotation – especially the young pitchers – and the [pitching] staff and coaches. He’s been a solid fixture here and does all the right things.”
For his part, Iwakuma recognized the value of returning to Seattle, the city that welcomed him as one of its own, soon after he arrived from Japan in 2012.
“I felt love, I felt passion and I felt needed here more than anything else.”
A Growing Tradition
The opportunity for Aoki and Iwakuma to play together this season simply extends the growing tradition of players from Japan who have found their way to the U.S. to play in the Majors, and in particular with Seattle. Aoki is now the ninth player from Japan to play for the team since pitcher Makoto (Mac) Suzuki first donned the Mariners uniform in 1996. [See “Seattle-Japan Connection” on page 24.]
At his press conference in December, the 34-year-old native of Hyuga City, about 650 miles south of Tokyo, introduced himself in English, saying with a smile, “Hello, Seattle, I’m Norichika Aoki, nice to meet you. I came to Seattle for the coffee. And also to win a World Series.”
More recently, he shared with Mariners Magazine: “Especially since I was young, the Mariners had players like Ichiro [Suzuki] and [Kazuhiro] Sasaki. They are a team that I used to watch in Japan and it’s an honor to be able to wear this uniform.”
Now, it is Aoki who is leading off for the Mariners, 15 seasons after Ichiro electrified the Majors with his otherworldly talents en route to the 2001 American League Rookie of the Year Award.
Antony Suzuki has spent the past 11 seasons with the Mariners serving as an interpreter to Japanese players, starting with catcher Kenji Johjima in 2006 and later with Ichiro and now Iwakuma. He noted that while Masanori Murakami was the first Japanese player in the Majors – with San Francisco in 1964 – and was followed by Hideo Nomo’s historic breakthrough with Los Angeles in 1995, it was Ichiro’s instant and ongoing success that opened the floodgates for the next generation of Japanese players.
“It was unique,” recalled Suzuki, of his time as Ichiro’s interpreter from 2010-12. “When you look at Ichiro, from my perspective coming from Japan, he is a living legend, kind of like the god of baseball. It was like being in the spotlight day in and day out. And, looking at his numbers, he still produced pretty much every day.
“Of course, one year before Ichiro, you had Sasaki who was the AL Rookie of the Year in 2000. And then in 2001, it was Ichiro. You talk to the younger guys – Iwakuma, Aoki, [Munenori] Kawasaki – and ask them, ‘What is Major League Baseball to you? What made you want to play here in the Big Leagues and with the Mariners?’ And they say, ‘Seattle is the team, when we were growing up, that had the impact because of those big names. A lot of the games were aired in Japan because of them, so it is an honor now to play for Seattle.’”
Not only do Iwakuma and Aoki feel honored to play for Seattle, they also feel an obligation to carry on that tradition in a positive way.
“You’re proud of the history,” said Iwakuma. “We’ve had Ichiro, Sasaki, Kenji and others. Obviously, I want to keep that history alive. To do that we have to prove what we can do now, not what we did in the past. We can only control now and prepare and be ready for the future.”
While Mariners fans are thrilled to have Iwakuma and Aoki in Seattle, this isn’t the first time the two have been teammates. Seven years ago they were members of Japan’s team that won the 2009 World Baseball Classic. At that time, most American baseball fans recognized a handful of stars from the Japanese roster, including Ichiro, Johjima and Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka, thanks to their careers in the U.S.
And, sure enough, in the Classic it was the megastar Ichiro who hit the two-run single that lifted Japan to a 5-3 victory over South Korea in the Championship Game. And it was Matsuzaka, then at the height of his fame with the Red Sox, who won the WBC MVP award.
“For me, it’s an experience I treasure a lot,” recalled Aoki. “Ichiro really set an example for the high level of how we should play. Just being able to be with him on the same field was an honor.”
Far less well known to most fans outside of Japan at the time were the other players on that championship roster, many of whom were established stars in NPB. Five of them would eventually leave their country to play for Major League Baseball, including Yu Darvish (Rangers), Masahiro Tanaka (Yankees), Kawasaki, Aoki and Iwakuma.
In fact, it was Iwakuma who started the Championship Game, tossing 7.2 innings and finishing with the lowest ERA in the Classic among pitchers with at least 15 innings pitched. And it was Aoki who led Japan with a .324 batting average and tied Ichiro with a team-best 12 base hits. For their superior play, both Iwakuma and Aoki were named to the 2009 All-WBC Team. Looking back, it hardly seems surprising that Japan won it all.
“When you look at that 2009 team as a whole, there were the guys in the big leagues, but most of the players were unknown here,” Suzuki noted. “Now, seven years later, they all have performed with success on this [MLB] stage. That tells you just how good of a team they were.”
Making the Leap
Flush with international accolades, Iwakuma and Aoki easily could have played out their careers as superstars in Japan. But as Iwakuma explained to Mariners Magazine during his first season in Seattle in 2012: “I wanted to try to play in the U.S., to see how I could do at a high level. Baseball in Japan and in the United States is really different; there is more speed here and it is more powerful. I feel that Japanese baseball is more complex, with more focus on the fundamentals. I think this is a natural feeling to want to play here, because it is new and I want to compete with Major League Baseball players. That is why I decided to come.”
His good friend, Norichika, was of a similar mindset.
“It was special that we came over to MLB at the same time,” added Aoki, who signed with Milwaukee on January 30, 2012, just 25 days after Seattle signed Iwakuma. “We are the same age. I feel a close bond with him in that sense. And, him being my friend, as well.”
Nevertheless, even with a handful of countrymen playing in the Majors, moving to a new country presented a range of challenges and adjustments for both players. Baseball-wise, in the U.S., the regular season runs 162 games compared to 144 in Japan; the baseball is slightly bigger, smoother and has higher seams, making for a different feel in the hand; the mound is somewhat harder; and, the field dimensions are generally larger. But, as Aoki pointed out, those are almost the easier issues to overcome.
“It’s not just baseball, it’s everyday life. It’s getting used to the culture over here. I grew up in Japan, I had a career in Japan, and then all of a sudden I came here. The food is different, the language…. Maybe around my third year, when I was with Kansas City, I started getting used to everything over here.”
Iwakuma added: “I think the biggest thing, first and foremost, is confidence. You need confidence, and the desire to want to become better, to show what you can do here. If you don’t have that, it’s very difficult to succeed. The second thing is you need to be able to make adjustments. You need to adapt to the environment. Not just in baseball, but in making a living here.”
Now in their fifth season in the Majors, Iwakuma and Aoki have adjusted, adapted and thrived. And now they’ve been reunited. Certainly not to recount the good old days, though those may be enjoyed on occasion. And definitely not just to pal around while Aoki drinks his coffee.
Their aspirations are much bigger and exist in the present. Aoki played in the 2014 World Series for the Royals when they lost to the Giants. He is determined to help Seattle get there this year. And prior to this season Iwakuma emphasized that the Mariners “goal as a team in 2016 is to build a championship team.” Knowing Aoki so well, Iwakuma understands exactly what his friend, countryman and teammate brings to the table. Now the two get to pursue their shared goal together.
Kieran O’Dwyer is a freelance sportswriter based in New York.