Thursday, July 11, 2013

New on import

More than perhaps any other sport around, today's baseball is indeed a melting pot.

Despite its label as America's national pastime, the game includes quite an array of different cultures.

Of course, many of today's stars hail from lands such as the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. Not to mention a great deal of other Latin countries.

With guys like Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera (among many, many others), their entry into the game was undoubtedly pivotal.

However, I've always been fascinated by ballplayers that come from Europe and Asia. Their presence in today's game is much rarer than their Latin counterparts.

As I've learned from my dad's record collecting ways, import albums are coveted my most vinyl enthusiasts.

In a way, though, I guess I've started my own little "import" collection in cardboard.

Baseball has long been Japan's most popular sport. In recent years, many Japanese stars have come across the Pacific to play in our big leagues here in America.

While not the first to do so (that honor goes to former Giants pitcher Masanori Murakami), Mr. Ichiro Suzuki has emerged as the greatest Japanese "import" in big league history.

I don't think there's any denying that.

Other than Ichiro, though, not many Japanese stars have had much long-term success in the bigs.

The awesomely nicknamed "Godzilla", Hideki Matsui, is probably next on the Japanese depth chart after Ichiro. He parked 175 homers over his 10 seasons in the bigs.

Tadahito Iguchi and Kaz Matsui had a few good years before eventually leaving the States. Tsuyoshi Shinjo, as some might remember, was a complete bust in his three big league seasons.

Kazuhiro Sasaki did have a few dominant years as a Mariner closer, but he returned to Japan after just four seasons in the majors.

Shingo Takatsu had one nice season on the South Side of Chicago before fading into relative obscurity. I nabbed this literal "import" piece out of a dime box a couple years back.

From BBM's 1997 release, the above card was issued a full seven years before Takatsu made his way to the States. As far as sheer oddness goes, it's one of my all-time greatest dime box gets.

However, guys like Yu Darvish and Munenori Kawasaki look to be among the best of a new breed of Japanese "imports".

I'm praying Topps gives Kawasaki a spot in this year's Update checklist.

Korea has seen its fair share of big leaguers as well.

A one-time All-Star, Chan Ho Park was the first player to come out of South Korea in 1994. While he had his better years as a Dodgers starter, he hung on as a reliever in the bigs until 2010.

Hee Seop Choi was a much-hyped "import" who sadly never achieved much success here in the States. His '04 Topps issue is certainly a head-turner, though.

Mr. On-Base Percentage himself, Shin Soo Choo, is establishing himself as a star in today's game. New Dodger signee Hyun-Jin Ryu looks to be the real deal thus far as well.

From the looks of it, baseball seems to be the game of choice over in South Korea.

However, I've always been far more fascinated with big leaguers who hail from Europe.

For the most part, baseball is a relatively overlooked sport in most European countries.

As someone whose roots largely lie in Italy, I can tell you that baseball is probably the fourth or fifth most popular sport in the country, at best.

According to my research, though, a total of seven big leaguers were born in good ol' Italia. Before Alex Liddi came along, the last active Italian in the majors was Reno Bertoia, an infielder who retired in 1962.

While once a much-hyped Mariners prospect, Mr. Liddi is now toiling in the Baltimore minor league system. No matter what, though, you can bet I'll be rooting for him.

It's the least I can do for a fellow paisan.

Jack Quinn pitched in the bigs for a whopping 23 seasons.

In fact, his career crossed the four-decade mark. Twenty-three years his debut with the Yankees in 1909, he'd hang 'em up for good after a stint with the Reds in 1933.

Not bad for a guy from (what is now) Slovakia.

I didn't even know they played baseball over there.

This particular card is the stuff of legend amongst collecting circles.

While Glenn Hubbard isn't a "binder guy", you can bet his '84 Fleer issue will long be a frankenset staple.

Adding to the awesomeness of this particular card, though, is the fact that Mr. Hubbard was born on an Air Force base in Germany. As was former reliever Will Ohman. And current Cub Edwin Jackson.

All in all, though, German "imports" are a rare breed in the bigs.

Jurickson Profar and Andrelton Simmons are both highly-touted prospects in today's game.

Coincidentally, both just happen to be from the Dutch-controlled nation of Curacao.

Sporting past stars such as Andruw Jones and Randall Simon, the country seems to be an under-the-radar baseball powerhouse. (Okay, maybe using the term "star" in describing Randall Simon is a stretch.)

Apart from that, though, only a few big leaguers hail from the actual island of the Netherlands. As far as recent players go, Rick Vanden Hurk and the late Greg Halman are the only names I recognize from the list.

Most baseball fans are probably familiar with Dutch native Bert Blyleven, though. As one of the more consistent pitchers in history, "The Flying Dutchman" enjoyed an outstanding 23-year career, one that would eventually get him elected to Cooperstown.

I always thought he should've been in a lot sooner, but...

He's in now, and that's all that counts.

The catalyst for my little "import" collection has to be the very man you see above.

Elmer Valo.

I was pretty young when I found out that Mr. Valo was, in fact, Czechoslovakian. (Carl Linhart is the only other Czech player in big league history, and his career lasted for all of two at-bats in 1952.)

At the time, I remember thinking how weird it was that a guy from America's national pastime could be from such a faraway land.

That, I think, is what triggered my interest in the whole world of "import" ballplayers.

And, as far as I know, this is the third time I've mentioned Elmer Valo on the blog. And I've shown his '57 Topps card every single time.

I have other cards of his, but that all sorely lack in comparison to this one.

It's just so awesome.

So, although the sport might be America's national pastime, baseball has certainly seen its fair share of foreign players.

Without the presence of such "imports", I doubt our game would be even close to what it is today.


beefman said...

That's one of the best idea's for a Blog Post I've ever had the pleasure of reading, Nick! Awesome!

I think that card of Glenn Hubbard is great - particularly as it's the only card of his that depicts him smiling.

I may well do a similar post relating to Aussie MLB'ers in the future, if you'll let me steal your idea!

Nick J

Nick said...

Post idea is all yours, Nick! I couldn't believe I didn't have a Grant Balfour card to feature in this post.

I think you'll do a better write-up for the Aussies than I ever could!

Spiegel83 said...

Hey don't forget Hideo Nomo. He was pretty good and had a long career in the bigs. Nomo also had a big cultural impact on being the first of the modern wave of players from Japan.

I loved this post. Ichiro is definitely the best and biggest star of the Japanese imports. He may make the hall of fame in two different countries.

Ana Lu said...

In Europe football (your soccer) is the King. And next to it you have basket, skater hockey, tennis, cycling...Anything but baseball.

Even American football can get more people interested than baseball.
Don't know why but people who likes baseball here is kind of more than a freaking geek person.

And that's why that the new ESPNAmerica decision to only stay in UK is so bad.
Instead of trying to give people the opportunity to discover other sports no. They close it down to only a few people.

I only know a couple of athletes that are sons or grand-sons of Portuguese people.
The only Portuguese athlete that played over there and was a bit known was Ticha Penicheiro who played on the WNBA and ranked #3 on Rookie of the Year. She has a couple of records.

So that was a great idea of posting about foreign players in baseball =)