TOKYO Masanori Murakami, Japan's first export to Major League Baseball, has some career advice for aspiring Japanese players: Forget loyalty, baseball is business.
Murakami was pitching for the San Francisco Giants before the likes of Hideo Nomo and Daisuke Matsuzaka were even born.
And on the 45th anniversary of his U.S. pro debut, the 65-year-old was adamant that the Major Leagues should be the target for all Japanese players looking to make the breakthrough.
"Baseball players should choose the best place to compete and now that is MLB. They shouldn't think about loyalty to a Japanese team," he said late on Tuesday at an event to mark the anniversary.
"Baseball is a business and players should get as much in salary as they can, as interest in their skills rapidly fades."
Murakami spent two seasons with the Giants from late 1964, and his sojourn eventually led to tighter rules on Japanese playing overseas.
However, he holds no regrets and says more of his countrymen should go now if they can.
Some 18 Japanese, mainly pitchers, have played on MLB teams this season, while the Boston Red Sox alone are home to four expatriates, including Matsuzaka.
The talent outflow has sparked concerns about the quality and business model of the game in Japan and Murakami was doubtful that significant change lay ahead.
"Japanese professional baseball doesn't really think about its future. It mainly reacts after the fact," said Murakami, an occasional MLB commentator for national broadcaster NHK.
"Only one or two Japanese teams are financially strong -- it's not a good situation."
Murakami returned from San Francisco to a pro career in Japan, where he played through 1982, but it took three decades before Nomo retraced his path with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Nomo, like Murakami before him, endured criticism at home about his loyalty to team and country, but he had an advantage that most players in the 1960s did not -- an agent.
Nomo's success, which included Rookie of the Year honors in 1995, turned public opinion in Japan and provided an opportunity for more players to showcase their talent and potentially earn more money overseas after a designated period of play in Japan.
Matsuzaka signed a $52 million contract in 2006 with the Red Sox, who also stumped up a staggering $51.1 million just for the right to negotiate a deal with his former team, the Seibu Lions.
Murakami says more Japanese players, including Nippon Ham Fighters pitcher Yu Darvish, will follow his path to the Major Leagues, though they will find a totally different America when they get there.
"I couldn't speak English when I first joined the Giants, so I just pointed at what two other players were eating," he said.
"It cost $12, and in those days, that was a lot of money."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)