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The Rays Asian Heritage

Yesterday Dodgers’ Shohei Ohtani set a record for most home runs by a Japanese born player. Japan was introduced to baseball in the 1930s. Babe Ruth would coordinate visits to pre-World War II Japan. Ruth enjoyed being an ambassador for the game and would arrange an exhibition game with the other players along for the trip. After the war, travels to Japan to promote baseball continued. The game eventually spread to other parts of Asia.

Thirty years after Ruth’s good will games, the MLB saw the first Japanese-born player. The San Francisco Giants added pitcher Masanori Murakami to their team. Relief pitcher Murakami threw 15 innings in 1964 and 74.1 in 1965. He ended his career with a record of 6-1, ERA of 3.43 in 89.1 innings. His record included 100 strikeouts, 23 walks and a WHIP of 0.985.

However, Murakami was not the first Asian in the MLB. A gentleman born Henry Lees Kingman or better known as Harry Kingman was the first player born in Asia. Kingman was born in Tianjin, China in 1892. How Kingman was introduced to baseball requires further research. Was in China or here in America? Kingman had a “cup of coffee” with 1914 NY Yankees. He had three at-bats, no hits, two strikeouts, and a walk.

The Rays’ short 27 seasons, the franchise has had nine Asian-born players. Here they are.

Pitcher Hideo Nomo was the first Asian-born player to be a member of the Rays franchise. Nomo was born in the major city of Osaka and played five seasons the Japan Pacific League before joining the Los Angeles Dodges in 1995. His record in Japan was 78-48 (.619) with a 3.19 ERA. He signed as a free agent in January 2005. In his only season with the Devil Rays, Nomo started 19 games and finished with a record of 5-8 with a 7.24 ERA. He was released by the team mid-season.

Korean-born Jae Weong Seo was traded to the Rays in 2006. Seo was a Devil Ray for two seasons. He started 26 of 28 games he played in. The franchise took a loss on this investment. Sea was given a salary of $1.2 million in 2007 and generated fruitless output of a 4-12 record. He allowed 206 hits in 142 innings, striking out a measly 67. Seo joined the Korea Professional Baseball League in 2008.

In 2007, the Devil Rays ownership signed infielder Akinori Iwamura from the Japanese Central League. He joined the MLB at the age of 28 and had eight seasons of experience. Iwamura was a productive hitter while playing in the PCL and posted multiple seasons with batting averages over .300 and hitting over 20 home runs. He topped 100 RBIs a season twice. In the three seasons with the Devil Rays/Rays, Iwamura never reached the .300 batting average milestone or came close to hitting 20 home runs. However, he did post respectable numbers with a batting average of .285, .274, and .290 with a total of only 14 home runs.

Prior to spring training in 2007, the Devil Rays traded for Jae Kuk Ryu. The Korean pitcher played 10 games for the Cubs before the trade. In 2007, he saw action in 17 games for 23.1 innings. Ryu saw even less time in 2008 with only 1.1 innings. This short-term Rays player ended his time with the team with a dismal record of 1-2, with an ERA of 6.93 after pitching 24.2 innings allowing 31 hits, 19 runs, and striking out 15.

The record for the most home runs hit by a Japanese born player belong to Hideki Matsui, until Shohei Ohtani broke it. The record was 175. Matsui hit his final two home runs in a Rays uniform during the 2012 season. Number 174 was hit in Tropicana Field against the White Sox in his first game. His final home run was hit off the Orioles pitching a few days later. Matsui was in the twilight of his luxurious career when he arrived to Tampa. He dominated the JPCL for a decade before transitioning to the MLB.

Korean Jiman Choi was a fan-favorite in Tampa. He was acquired by the Brewers in 2018. His statistics do not show it but Choi was a clutch hitter. In his five-seasons representing the Rays, Choi hit a low .245 in 414 games. Free swinging Choi had 320 hits but 395 strike outs. His bat did produce magic in the 2020 ALCS versus the Astros. In that five-game series, Choi was 5-13 (.385) with three runs and a homer.

Also in 2018, the Rays purchased the contract for another Korean born player name Rob Refsnyder from the Indians. His time on the team was abbreviated to only 40 games. Refsnyder hit poorly with a .167 batting average and drove in five RBIs.

Another international free agency signing was Japanese born Yoshi Tsutsugo. Tsutsugo brought 10 seasons of experience in various leagues. His experience did not transfer over to the MLB with success. In two seasons of service, Tsutsugo played 77 games and struck out 77 times. During his time in Tampa, he batted .187. Yu Chang is on his second time around with the team. He spent part of the 2022 season with the Rays. Chang is the first player in the franchise history to be born in Taiwan. Currently, he is on the injury list with a hand injury.


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