Yu Darvish’s smooth start with the Texas Rangers has rekindled Japan’s love for Major League Baseball, but the sport is casting longing glances at the biggest potential market of all — China.
The tall, handsome pitcher has sparked a run on Darvish T-shirts since his April debut, while more women are visiting Tokyo’s MLB-themed restaurant and bigger numbers of Japanese flying to Arlington for Rangers home games.
“Fans are much more eager to buy goods than last year when there were not so many talking points,” said Takuya Ishihama, who works at a major MLB goods shop in downtown Tokyo.
Games featuring the 25-year-old right-hander have been telecast live in the morning in Japan, sometimes from 2:00 a.m., leaving many fans sleepless and blurry-eyed.
Darvish, known for his fastball and various breaking pitches, cost the Rangers a whooping $111.7 million in January, a record for a new Japanese signing. He was twice Japan’s MVP with his former club, Nippon Ham Fighters.
Since his April 9 MLB debut, Darvish has performed solidly to win six games against two losses in nine starts, striking out 63 batters but yielding 47 hits and four home-runs.
The debut has been a relief to Japanese fans after a series of top-rated players failed to live up to expectations, and their large transfer fees, in MLB.
But Darvish’s success has also reminded MLB about the vast potential across the East China Sea in China, where baseball remains in its infancy after being all but wiped out during the Cultural Revolution.
His exploits come after MLB opened its season in Japan in March, the fourth time it has done so, drawing more than 43,000 fans to both of the Seattle Mariners versus Oakland Athletics games in Tokyo.
“The success is expected to help further intensify MLB’s offensive in Asia, including China and South Korea aside from Japan,” said Masanori Otsubo, a professor of sports management at Tokyo’s Teikyo University.
Jim Small, the Tokyo-based vice president of MLB Asia, said the sport has made progress in recent years in China, where it was played for about 100 years before being banned under revolutionary leader Mao Zedong.
“So we have a lot more work to do in getting the game popular again and also developing major league players,” he said.
The China Baseball League was formed in 2002 and now, more than 400 million people there can watch the World Series on TV, said Small.
MLB has also introduced the game to more than five million people through grassroots programmes, and opened two centers to train young players — in the hope that some can, one day, make the move to America.
Baseball is following the lead of basketball’s NBA, which is hugely popular in China owing partly to the success of players like Yao Ming, who became one of the country’s biggest stars when he joined the Houston Rockets.
Baseball has been played in Japan since the late 1800s, and Masanori Murakami became the country’s first MLB player when he pitched for the San Francisco Giants in 1964-1965.
Nearly 50 players have since followed his lead including, in recent years, Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka. According to SI.com, Japan now accounts for nearly 70 percent of MLB’s international revenues.
“Japan remains our most important market, from a financial standpoint and an popularity standpoint, outside of North America,” said Small.
“In Korea and Taiwan, our business is similar to Japan,” he added. “The game has been popular there for many years and we have local Korean and Taiwanese players playing in the major leagues.”
He admits China is still a long way from overtaking Japan as MLB’s top Asian market. However, the long-term goal is clear.
“That will take a lot of work and might not happen in the next few years,” Small said, “but it will be fun to watch.”