In the past 40 years, Japanese baseball has welcomed more than a dozen Sacramento-area players.
The list includes Bill McNulty (Highlands), Grant's Taylor Duncan, Leron Lee and Leon Lee, Dion James (McClatchy), Chris Nyman (Cordova), R.J. Reynolds (Kennedy, Sacramento City), Larry Wolfe (Cordova), Rick Schu (Del Campo, Sac City), Darrell May (Sac City), Jeremy Powell (Highlands), Ricky Barrett (McClatchy) and John Bowker (Rio Americano).
The Lee brothers were the best of this bunch and legendary figures in Japan.
An example of that popularity was seen recently when the Japanese media at Raley Field following the River Cats' Hiro Nakajima got word Leon Lee was in the ballpark. When Naoko Sato of the Nikkan Sports News and Koichi Ito of Kyodo News learned of Leon Lee's presence, they left Nakajima and gravitated toward the dugout where Lee was talking with old acquaintances.
Sato knew all about Lee and his success in Japan. Ito could hardly hold back his enthusiasm for the chance to meet the star who for years he had only heard stories about. Playing with the Lotte Orions, Yokohama Taiyo Whales and Yakult Swallows from 1978 to 1987, Lee had a career batting average of .308, eighth on the all-time Japanese list, and slugged 268 home runs.
While Leon claims to be "the more popular Lee," it would have been interesting to see how Sato and Ito would have reacted had they met Leron Lee.
Twenty-six years after Leron played his last game in Japan and 43 years since he opened the 1970 season as the starting right fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, he still holds the Japanese career batting average mark of .320 for players with a minimum of 4,000 at-bats.
In 1977, most Americans who played in Japan were past their prime. Lee, then 29, was an exception. He was a star from the start, batting .317 for Lotte that season, and leading Japan's Pacific League in home runs (34) and RBIs (109). In 11 seasons, all with Lotte, Lee led the league in batting at .358 in 1980 and twice led the league in total bases with 286 in 1977 and 310 in 1980.
"I did a lot of batting when I was in the States a couple hundred balls a day," Lee said. "But in Japan, we were hitting 500 to 700 balls a day. Over the years, all the practice turned out to be a blessing. It made me a more consistent hitter because my swing was fixed."
Lee said he later realized he would have been better off if he had taken that kind of approach while he played in the majors.
Among foreign players in Japan, Leron Lee leads his peers with career marks of 1,579 hits, 283 home runs and 912 RBIs.
Powell and Reynolds also had noteworthy careers.
Powell, a pitcher, spent nearly as much time in Japan (2001-2008) as he did in the United States (1994-2000, 2011-12). In his 71/2-year career overseas, he compiled a 69-65 record with a 3.97 ERA in 173 games with four different teams from 2001 to 2008.
Powell was signed in 2001 because Kintetsu was in need of pitching. He was 4-5 with a 4.95 ERA his first season. He pitched and lost Games 1 and 5 in the Japan Series won by Yakult.
Powell had his best season in 2002 when he posted a 17-10 record and 3.78 ERA. He led the Pacific League in strikeouts (182), shutouts (four), hit batsmen (21) and earned runs (91). Despite finishing out of the Top 10 in ERA, he won Best Nine honors as the league's best pitcher. He also made his only all-star team.
Because of his propensity for hitting batters, Powell spent a lot of time bowing and tipping his hat, a customary gesture for pitchers in Japan after plunking a batter. Powell hit a league-high 11 in 2006. He also tied for the league lead in 2003 and 2005 with 10.
Other career highlights include hitting the first interleague home run in 2005 by a Pacific League pitcher. In 2006, he was one inning shy of three consecutive shutouts, which would have made him the first foreigner to accomplish the feat since Gene Bacque in 1966. He also became the first foreigner to win 10 games for three different teams.
In 1991, after an eight-year career that included stints with the Dodgers and Pirates, Reynolds signed with Taiyo of the Central League. He was the league's fifth-best hitter at .316 and added 29 doubles, 15 home runs, 80 RBIs and 15 stolen bases. He won a Gold Glove, was named to the Best Nine team and set a Nippon Pro Baseball record with 11 consecutive hits. He played one more season with Taiyo, then a final one with Kintetsu.
Mark McDermott is a freelance writer specializing in Sacramento-area baseball. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.