Iwakuma not the first Japanese pitcher caught in tug-of-war


The on-going tug-of-war between the Orix Buffaloes and the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles over pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma reminds me of a somewhat similar situation that occurred a quarter of a century ago in Japanese baseball: the case of another right-handed hurler, Suguru Egawa.

The flamboyant Egawa was an outstanding pitcher with Tokyo’s Hosei University.

In 1977, at the age of 22, he was ready for the pros and billed as a “can’t miss” star, wanted by several Central and Pacific League teams. But Egawa made his intentions known; he would play only for the Yomiuri Giants.

Those were the days when the amateur draft was conducted as it should be. Teams drafted players in reverse order of the previous season standings, with the weakest club choosing first, the Japan Series champion team picking 12th and last.

The lottery system, whereby several teams could pre-select a first choice and hopefully be the lucky one to pull the card with the draftee’s name out of a bin, had not yet been introduced.

Neither had the reverse-designation procedure which allowed certain players to name their team prior to the draft.

Both the lottery and reverse-designation changes in the draft were made as a result of too many players following Egawa’s example and insisting they play only for a certain team, but let’s get back to 1977.

Egawa, despite his “Giants only” declaration, was drafted by the then-Crown Lighter Lions of Fukuoka, a floundering franchise in desperate need of a player of Egawa’s prominence and whose ownership apparently thought it could convince the pitcher to change his mind.

However, Egawa was adamant. He apologized to the Lions and said he would sit out a year as the rules dictated, and hopefully get drafted by Yomiuri in 1978.

He went to the U.S. and played wherever he could get a game, including Alaska’s Midnight Sun League.

When the draft of November of 1978 rolled around, Egawa’s “Giants or nobody” cry again went unheeded.

He was chosen by, of all teams, Yomiuri’s archrival, the Hanshin Tigers. Faced with sitting out yet another year and with no guarantee he would be drafted by his favorite team in 1979, Egawa was frustrated.

The Tigers insisted he was their player, but the Giants claimed the potential career of a promising young star was wasting away.

For two and a half months, the case dominated Japanese baseball news. Eventually it went to the Office of the Commissioner and was finally decided in late January, just prior to the opening of spring training, in 1979.

A “deal” was cut whereby Egawa would sign with the Tigers, then be traded to the Giants, despite a Japanese baseball rule prohibiting transactions involving rookies.

In exchange for Egawa, the Tigers got Yomiuri’s best pitcher at the time, side-arming right-hander Shigeru Kobayashi.

One report said Kobayashi was actually taken off the aircraft as the Giants team flight was about to leave the departure gate at Haneda Airport for Miyazaki, the Yomiuri spring camp site, and told he was going instead to Aki, Shikoku, for training with Hanshin.

Also, as part of the agreement, Egawa was not allowed to pitch for the Giants first team until June 1, 1979.

During April and May, his action on the field was limited to Eastern League farm games.

In addition, Japanese Commissioner Toshi Kaneko resigned “to take responsibility” for having broken the first-year player no-trade rule.

Kobayashi became the Tigers ace right away, racking up a 22-9 record and a 2.89 ERA in his first season with Hanshin.

Egawa struggled through his abbreviated rookie year, posting a 9-10 mark but with a fine 2.80 ERA. As expected, though, he went on to become one of the top pitchers in Japan, winning 20 games in 1981 and 19 in 1982, and helped the Giants win three Central League pennants and one Japan Series.

He retired, at the age of 32, following the 1987 campaign after he himself said he had “lost it.”

He compiled a 135-72 record over his nine-year career and is now a popular commentator for Giants games on NTV and Radio Nippon, and he also appears on TV variety and quiz programs.

While Egawa got his wish to play for the Giants 25 years ago, it remains to be seen if Iwakuma will have his desire fulfilled to leave the Buffaloes and join the Eagles, a rival Pacific League club.

It is too late now, but I wonder if Orix ever thought of posting the talented twirler and making him available to major league teams.

Not sure if the 23-year-old is ready mentally to challenge the American or National Leagues, but the MLB team scouts know all about him. They know he was 15-2 last season for the Kintetsu Buffaloes, posted a 3.01 ERA, a winning percentage of .882 and had 123 strikeouts and only 30 walks in 158 2/3 innings.

He also missed more than three weeks of the schedule in August while with the Japan national team at the Summer Olympics in Athens.

Posting him would have achieved three objectives:

First, Iwakuma would have gotten his wish to leave the Buffaloes.

Second, Orix would have received a huge chunk of money from the top-bidding major league club.

Third, the Buffaloes would have moved him out of the league. If he goes to Rakuten, he is bound to get at least four or five starts against Orix, and that is likely to mean four or five losses for the Buffaloes.

However, as I said, that is not possible now that the posting season is over.

So, will it be Orix or Rakuten for Iwakuma?

More than likely, he’ll go to Tohoku, as it is not a good thing to have a player playing for a team for which he does not want to play.