By Scott Melesky
Statistics are a way journalists and fans can measure the greatness of athletes in sports, especially baseball. In the major leagues in both Japan and the United States, four prestigious statistical clubs demonstrate a player’s greatness: the 3,000 hit and 300 home run clubs for batters and the 300 win and 3,000 strikeout clubs for pitchers.
In a series of articles, I will write stories on each Japanese player in these prestigious clubs. I want to focus on the distinguished players that played in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) and highlight their contributions to the game. I am going to start this series by highlighting the NPB players in the 300 Home Run Club.
Next in my series is Makoto Matsubara, former first and third baseman for the Taiyo Whales and Yomiuri Giants (and former coach of the Whales, Giants, Hiroshima Toyo Carp, and Yokohama BayStars).
Matsubara is 36th on the all-time NPB home run list with 331. He hit 30 or more home runs three times and batted .300 or better two times. Matsubara was an 11-time NPB All-Star. He earned MVP honors in the 1975 NPB All-Star Game. Matsubara would play 20 years for the Whales and the Giants and compiled a career .276 batting average with 331 home runs, 2,095 hits, and 1,180 RBIs.
Matsubara was a complete player in NPB. In 1972, Matsubara was involved in turning 146 double plays, an NPB record. Offensively, he was just as strong and dominant. In 1974, Matsubara led the Central League in at-bats (496), singles (108), and hits (157). In 1975, Matsubara hit four straight home runs over a two-game span.
Five years later, Matsubara was relegated to pinch-hitting duties for the Whales. Matsubara shined in his new role by getting seven straight pinch-hits and reaching base in eight straight plate appearances to set a new NPB record.
In 1981, the Whales traded Matsubara to the Yomiuri Giants in what would be his last baseball season. The Giants made it to the Japan Series and defeated the Nippon-Ham Fighters in six games, winning their 16th Japan Series title. Matsubara hit a pinch-hit home run in Game 1 in a 6-5 loss to Nippon. He was only the second player in Japan Series history to homer as a pinch hitter in his first at-bat.
(The 1981 Japan Series was unique in that all six games were played in Korakuen Stadium in Tokyo. It was the first Japan Series where all the games were played in the same stadium. The reason? The Giants and Fighters shared the same home stadium from 1964 to 1987. Korakuen Stadium was demolished after the 1987 stadium, and both teams moved to the Tokyo Dome, which was being built next door. The Tokyo Dome Hotel and Tokyo Dome City plaza now occupy the space where Korakuen Stadium once stood.)
After retiring with his coveted Japan Series title in 1981, Matsubara began a respectable coaching career that lasted 14 years. He returned to coach the Whales from 1982 to 1984 and the Giants from 1985 to 1991. After stepping away from the game for ten years, Matsubara then coached the Carp from 2001 to 2003 and the Yokohama BayStars in 2004.
Matsubara was a true superstar that played most of his career for a struggling franchise. The Whales won only one Japan Series, in 1960, two years before Matsubara arrived. During Matsubara’s career with the Whales, the highest they finished in the Central League was second place, three times. The Whales placed fifth or sixth place nine times during that time span. Matsubara was able to overcome his team’s mediocrity and proved to be amongst the top players in NPB history.
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