Norihiro Nakamura & the Fab Four

First a little question.

When Norihiro Nakamura announced his retirement on Tuesday, it left Ichiro Suzuki as the only active member of a very exclusive club. Any guesses as to what that group is?

Nakamura leaves after an intriguing career, drafted out of high school in 1991 by the Kintetsu Buffaloes, he left Japan for the U.S. in 2005 after Kintetsu evaporated in its merger with the Orix BlueWave. After a brief spell with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he returned to Japan — where Orix held his rights, but he was not a happy camper. Unable to sign him for 2006, Orix released him, but nobody it seemed wanted him.

The story is that in April 2005, Nakamura was hit by a pitch in interleague play by former big leaguer Masao Kida. Nakamura claimed he was forced to play through pain. He had a lousy season that ended when he was hit again and was capped with September surgery on the wrist where Kida had hit him in April.

Although he played in just 85 games, and batted just .232, Nakamura still managed 22 doubles and 12 homers but Orix, whose grasp of right and wrong at the time was extremely poor — just ask Hisashi Iwakuma — decided to use Nakamura’s poor results as an excuse to cut his salary by 60 percent to 80 million yen (roughly $800,000). Nakamura balked and was eventually released.

Eleven clubs — even those that had vacancies or issues at first or third that Nakamura might fill — showed no interest in even giving him a tryout. The exception was the club managed by Nippon Professional Baseball’s biggest iconoclast, Hiromitsu Ochiai, whose Chunichi Dragons gave Nakamura a tryout and signed him to an “ikusei” developmental contract. When Nakamura tore it up in the spring, he got a standard deal from the Dragons and at season’s end was the MVP of the Dragons’ first Japan Series championship since 1954.

His ikusei contract with the Dragons was for 4 million yen, and he was bumped up to 6 million yen upon receiving his standard contract. NPB rules require players on 28-man active rosters to be paid a pro-rated minimum of 10 million yen, so Nakamura ended up earning close to $100,000 in his first season with Chunichi.

Nakamura played another season for the Dragons, two more for Rakuten, and finished with 2,101 career hits after four seasons with the DeNA BayStars. Because of his longevity,  with 2,267 games and 404 career homers, he is a decent bet to make it into the Hall of Fame, perhaps in the same class with Atsunori Inaba of the Fighters, both of whom had somewhat longer careers than Tatsunori Hara, whose tenure on the players ballot just expired and who barely missed selection.

If Nakamura does make it in, and takes two or three years to get enough votes, there is a possibility that he will go into the Hall in the same class with Suzuki. With Tomoaki Kanemoto and Suzuki both locks as a future Hall of Famers, Nakamura’s induction would give the fourth round of Japan’s 1991 amateur draft three Hall of Famers. The one who won’t make it, although he will get some votes, and the reason I have referred to them as the Fab Four is former Hanshin Tigers outfielder Shinjiro Hiyama.

Author: jballa5_wp

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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