Former Lions and Hawks star Koji Akiyama said Saturday that the seeds of his success in Nippon Professional Baseball were sown in the United States, where he and several Seibu Lions teammates were sent 30-plus years ago to learn what the could in the Single-A ball.
“It completely changed my view, broadened my horizons,” Akiyama said at an event of Japan’s “Meikyukai” Golden Players Club at Tokyo Dome. “I played in San Jose and seeing American baseball, even just the atmosphere at the ballpark made me want to play in a major league park. It made me want to be better.”
Akiyama could have gone. When Japan’s free agent system was inaugurated in 1994, players needed 10 years of service time, and he qualified in the autumn of 1994. But when it came time to file, after his Lions had lost the Japan Series for the second straight season, no Japanese had played in the majors since Masanori Murakami in 30 years. But the majors were still embroiled in the strike that had cancelled the World Series and sent the American media to Japan to see the Lions play the Yomiuri Giants in the Japan Series.
Akiyama, a fleet, power-hitting center fielder, would have been a good fit for the majors, but he was born 10 years too early. During his prime years–all with Seibu from 1985 to 1994, Akiyama hit 348 home runs, more than any other NPB player during that span, while stealing 247 bases, the second most in Japan.
“I would have loved to have gone,” he said. “But you have to go in your twenties. By the time I thought I might that time had already gone.”
“The game over there was thrilling. Everything. Seeing games in major league ballparks for myself made me realize the game was so much bigger than I thought it was.”
After Hideo Nomo defied Japan’s baseball establishment by leaving for the States under his own power, the flow of Japanese talent began. But Akiyama said stars moving to the majors has resulted not in a talent drain but a talent boost.
“Young players now see that (Japanese guys playing in the majors) and they try harder than ever. It’s a great thing,” he said.