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Friday, September 5, 2003
Updated: September 12, 8:21 PM ET
Change the rules for rookies

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

It's one of those debates that seems practically as suitable for a U.N. Security Council meeting as a Baseball Writers Association of America meeting. But it's a debate that doesn't want to go away.

The question is simple: Should a player from Japan be allowed to win the Rookie of the Year Award?

Hideki Matsui
Hideki Matsui is in his first season in the majors after playing 10 years in Japan.

The answer isn't simple. Even now. Even after Hideo Nomo and Ichiro Suzuki and Kazuhiro Sasaki have already crossed the ocean and won their very own Rookie of the Year trophies. Even as we prepare to give another one to Hideki Matsui.

We've been thinking about this question for eight years, since the arrival of Nomo and the Nomo-mania that followed. But we've been thinking about it almost nonstop since a conversation that arose a month and a half ago, at the All-Star Game.

That night, we sat with a friend, surveying the players on the field and asking each other the following burning question: "How many players in this All-Star Game are going to the Hall of Fame?"

We were going along fine. Then we got to one name that caused the conversation to veer in a whole different direction: Ichiro.

If we look at Ichiro as just your typical guy playing his third year in the big leagues, it is way too early to assess him, no matter how great he has been for two years and five months. It takes a decade of greatness -- at least -- before you should even start having that discussion. About anybody.

But our argument that night is that it would be almost insulting to the Japanese to look at Ichiro's nine astonishing seasons in Japan as the equivalent of nine years in the Frontier League or the New York-Penn League or even the Pacific Coast League.

The lowest Ichiro ever hit, in nine seasons in Japan, was .342. He won a batting title and a Gold Glove in every one of his last seven seasons there. He was a three-time MVP. He was about as dominating as any player can be in any league.

So when we look at his Hall of Fame chances, should we just ignore all that? Act like it never happened? Pretend that, just because it didn't take place on our side of the Pacific, it didn't count?

Sorry. Can't do that. This guy is an amazing baseball player, in any language, any culture, any league, any continent.

"I agree with that," says his one-time manager, Lou Piniella. "I understand that currently, when people vote (on the Hall of Fame), they look mainly at what a player has done in this country. But at the same time, with a player like Ichiro, what he did over there is part of his resume."

Hey, you bet it is. So we would argue that we need to take all of Ichiro's brilliance -- national and international -- into account whenever it comes time to decide whether he's a Hall of Famer. We've seen enough players from Japan come here to play now to know that that isn't glorified Wiffle Ball they're playing over there.

It's time we start treating Japanese baseball for what it is -- a third "major" league. It would be a farce to adopt that stance just to keep foreign players from being the Rookie of the Year. We should adopt it to respect and honor the accomplishments of the Ichiros, the Matsuis and the Nomos in Japan -- in every way.

But that leads to the next logical question: If we take Japanese baseball that seriously, that we're willing to consider it in the context of Hall of Fame credentials, how can we then ignore it when we consider a player's Rookie of the Year credentials?

"To be honest," says Piniella, "I agree with that, too. Look, when Ichiro played for me in Seattle, obviously I wanted him to win the (Rookie of the Year) award. But almost from Day 1 in spring training, we knew we weren't dealing with your typical rookie. We were dealing with a highly experienced, professional player.

"Let's just say," Piniella chuckled, "we didn't really have to teach him much."

Right. And let's just say that over in The Bronx, Joe Torre hasn't had to teach Godzilla Matsui much, either. Which is fine. We have no problem with the Yankees signing Matsui. We have no complaint about how much they paid him. We have no issue with seeing him start in the All-Star Game.

Our only issue is this: How can we call this guy a "rookie?"

By the rules, he is. We don't dispute that. But in reality, he isn't. How can anybody dispute that?

Piniella now manages in Tampa Bay, where his center fielder is Rocco Baldelli. Baldelli is on pace to join only Al Kaline and A-Rod and become just the third player since World War II to get at least 192 hits in a season since age 21. But thanks to Matsui, Baldelli has two chances to win this Rookie of the Year Award: slim and minute.

If there were some other rookie out there who was rampaging along toward 20 homers, 110 RBI, 45 doubles and a .350 on-base percentage, that would be one thing.

But the guy doing that (Matsui) came to the plate 3,000 times in Japan before Baldelli played his first game -- in high school.

So Piniella now sees this issue from a whole different vista. He now admits that even when he was lobbying for Ichiro to win the Rookie of the year Award in Seattle two years ago, he had "mixed feelings." But clearly, they're getting less mixed all the time.

"It's unfair," Piniella says. "It's unfair to our kid -- or any kid in any organization who's coming out of our minor-league system in this country. When you talk about players like Ichiro and Matsui, you're talking about guys who are much, more farther along in their experience and development than our kids over here. It takes these kids three, four, five years to catch up with the guys from Japan, from a standpoint of experience and development."

Ichiro
Ichiro was the AL MVP along with being the AL Rookie of the Year in 2001.

But for Baldelli, Jody Gerut, Angel Berroa and Mark Teixeira, there won't be any second chances at a Rookie of the Year Award in three, four, five years. They get one shot. And that shot is now.

Hey, the rules are the rules. And the rules right now say that Matsui is a rookie just like they are. So we have no choice but to evaluate and vote that way. But it's time to start thinking about changing the rules, because it's clear this issue isn't just some brief phase in baseball history that's going to hang around a few years and then vanish.

"We're just going to have more of an influx," Piniella says. "If we have a Japanese player who comes over here every year, he's going to win the Rookie of the Year Award (every year)."

And was that the intent when this award was created? Heck, no. So it's time for everybody to start thinking about either creating split awards to honor "international rookies" in some different way, or to redefine what this award is.

At the moment, since we can't count on having a Japanese player -- or eight -- arriving in the big leagues every year, creating a new award probably isn't realistic. Down the road, that can change.

But for now, it's time we start treating Japanese baseball for what it is -- a third "major" league. It would be a farce to adopt that stance just to keep foreign players from being the Rookie of the Year. We should adopt it to respect and honor the accomplishments of the Ichiros, the Matsuis and the Nomos in Japan -- in every way.

Those accomplishments, those stats belong in their listings in the baseball encyclopedias and registers. Those feats should be part of those players' credentials when we consider their Hall of Fame worthiness. And all we ask, as we lend them that respect, is that it means they shouldn't be eligible for Rookie of the Year awards.

If that's the way this issue is handled, it should be clear to everyone that it's not an insult to the Japanese to disqualify them as "rookies." It's a show of respect -- nothing more, nothing less.

And we're prepared to offer Ichiro a Hall of Fame vote some day just to prove we mean every word of that.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.