At the close of the first decade of the aughts, the Asian Athlete has burst onto the American sports scene.
More than any other year in American sports history, 2009 was the year of the Asian athlete. From the highs of the WBC championship between Japan and South Korea—the best baseball game of the decade—to the tragic lows of Yao Ming being lost for the entire NBA season, the final year of the decade has been one filled with faces from the Far East doing big things in the West.
No doubt, due to the inescapable aura of American celebrity fetishism, 2009 will be remembered for Tiger Woods’ spiral from the greatest-golfer-of-all-time to the punchline of a litany of dirty jokes.
But we would be better served remembering how an unheralded South Korean named Y.E. Yang drove a 3-iron 210 yards to within eight feet of the 72nd hole of the PGA Championship at Hazeltine to ice out the coldest golfer alive, thus claiming the first major victory by an Asian in PGA history.
We will also remember Hideki Matsui, Godzilla, wreaking havoc and destruction on the Philadelphia Phillies pitching staff like he was wearing a rubber suit and blowing blue flame over a miniaturized set of Tokyo on his way to becoming the first Asian player to raise above his head the World Series MVP trophy.
Of course, we will also remember the mass exodus back to Japan of prominent Japanese ballplayers who just never clicked in the States, headlined by former Mariners starting catcher Kenji Johjima. On the other end, highly touted rookie Yusei Kikuchi opted to stay in Japan after being courted by nearly a dozen MLB teams.
Perhaps America’s mystique is no longer what it once was.
Sure Michael Jordan was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Yes, I too see Brett Favre’s journey as a Viking nearing the cusp of greatness. And, regardless of what you may think, I do understand how epic Jimmie Johnson’s season was on the NASCAR circuit.
But as the first decade of the aughts draws to a close, we will remember its final year as one that took great strides in destroying the grossly misconstrued idea that Asians can’t ball.
Let’s take a look at those that did in 09.
While Matsui has recently grabbed the headlines for his historic World Series, any list of Asian athletes in 2009 has to begin with Ichiro Suzuki. Suzuki helped wrap up Japan’s second consecutive WBC championship with his four-hit performance in the final game that included a walk-off single in the bottom of the tenth inning. Suzuki then went on to destroy MLB pitching to the tune of a .352 batting average and became the first Asian player to reach the 2,000 hits plateau. Shortly thereafter he became the only player in MLB history to record nine-consecutive seasons of 200 hits or more, a record that Willie Keeler held for 108 years.
Yonsei Don Wakamatsu, the first Japanese American head manager in MLB history, in his rookie campaign as the Mariners skipper, led Seattle to an 85-win season with nearly the same exact roster that had lost 101 games the season before. He finished fourth in the AL Manager of the Year race.
Japanese American Kurt Suzuki was at the forefront of Oakland’s youth movement and posted the best season of his career. Indians outfielder Shin-Soo Choo of South Korea, became the first Asian player to ever record a 20-20 season (20 homers and 20 steals). Daisuke Matsuzaka remained the only WBC MVP as he won his second award. Eri Yoshida became the first Japanese female to play professional baseball.
In golf, Korean Jiyai Shin took three LPGA Tour events while easily claiming the rookie of the year award. With nearly $2 million in earnings, she also took the money title and due to her stellar play which included 12 top ten finishes, she nearly snatched the player of the year award away from incumbent Lorena Ochoa.
Teen phenom Korean American Michelle Wie got that monkey off her back in November when she won her first professional individual tournament, the Lorena Ochoa Invitational, while also playing a vital part on the victorious U.S. Solheim Cup team.
Japan’s Ai Miyazato finished third on the money list and played in 22 LPGA events, all of which she made the cut—the Evian Masters of which she won, two of which she took second, another in which she took third, and nine others in which she finished in the top 10.
In fact, the women’s game continues to be dominated by Asian faces. Eleven of the top 20-ranked women are either Korean or Japanese. Shin and Kim Il-Kyung, Taiwan’s Yani Tseng and Miyazato all won tournaments, while Korea’s Ji Eun-Hee took the US Open.
The recently turned 18-year-old Ryo Ishikawa, currently ranked 30th in the PGA rankings, won four Japan events this year, finished tied for 59th at the PGA Championships and made a bold statement to the rest of the highly touted field during the President’s Cup where his competition featured Woods, Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker, the top three players of 2009.
Not far off is Yuta Ikeda, only 24 years old, who currently finds himself ranked No. 33 in the world.
On the tennis scene, 2009 witnessed the full comeback of Kimiko Date Krumm who the day before her 39th birthday, defeated Anabel Medina Garrgues at the Hansol Korea Open to win her first WTA Tour title since her return to tennis in 2008. With her victory, she became the second-oldest player in the Open era to win a singles title on the WTA Tour. Date Krumm, who rose as high as fourth in the world rankings, is currently the highest ranking Japanese player on tour (70th).
While Date Krumm continued to build upon her illustrious career, Ai Sugiyama waved goodbye to the tennis court in October. The 34-year-old Sugiyama entered into retirement with the distinction of being the only women’s player to have played in 62 consecutive Grand Slam main draws. She also holds the distinction as the second best Japanese singles player in the history of the tour having won six titles, rising as high as No. 8 in the world rankings and spending 29 non-consecutive weeks inside singles Top 10. Sugiyama amassed an impressive doubles resume as well that includes 38 titles, three of which were grand slams, 33 runner-ups and 45 non-consecutive weeks at No.1 (the first Asian player ever to hold No.1 in either singles or doubles discipline on the Tour).
In the pool, Japan’s Ryosuke Irie set a world record in the men’s 200-meter backstroke in a meet against Australia in Canberra in May. Irie finished in 1:52.86 to break the previous record, held by American Ryan Lochte, by more than a second. Lochte set the previous mark of 1:53.94 while winning the gold medal at last year’s Beijing Olympics.
On the ice, S. Korean Kim Yu-na quickly established herself as one of the world’s best figure skaters by taking all five competitions she competed in this year and setting a new world record six times. She began her victory tour at the Four Continents Championships in Vancouver, Canada in February, then clinched her career-first World Championship title in Los Angeles in March where she became the first female figure skater to top the 200-point mark under the International Skating Union’s new scoring system with 207.71 points. After taking Skate America and the World Grand Prix Final, Yu-na looks to be the favorite at the Vancouver Winter Olympics.
A lot of the men and women previously mentioned have done great things in expanding the limited views of Asian athletes, but there are those who have taken great effort to hold fast to the myth of the Asian fighting man. You know, karate masters and samurai.
With the rapid rise in popularity of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), fighting has once again become a worldwide sport. MMA has actualized into reality the video games (Street Fighter and Tekken) and movies (“Blood Sport” and Steven Segal flicks) that many of us grew up on.
Japanese Brazilian Lyoto Machida, who makes a living as a fighter in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), carved out a name for himself in 2009.
Machida, who hails from Salvador, Brazil, is currently ranked as the No. 1 light heavyweight in the world with his unorthodox karate striking style. This year, he continued his unblemished career going 3-0, defeating Thiago Silva at UFC 94 in January, earning the Light Heavyweight strap at UFC 98 by knocking out Rashad Evans in May, and defending the title with a controversial unanimous decision victory over Shogun Rua at UFC 104 in October.
While MMA maintains the hype and future direction of sports fighting, there’s no denying that the sweet science remains a huge draw thanks in great part to the superhuman will of Manny Pacquiao.
The 5’6” Filipino boxer accomplished something that has never been done in the sport of boxing when he defeated Miguel Cotto by way of TKO during their Nov. 14 match at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. In besting Cotto, Pacquiao took the WBO World welterweight title and became the firstfighter ever to win seven titles in seven different weight classes.
Now, the man known as the “People’s Champ” and Pambansang Kamao (“National Fist”) is being lauded as the best pound-for-pound boxer in the sport and has been exalted into the ranks of all-time pugilist greats such as “Sugar” Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali.
In addition to boxing and MMA, kendo has become a worldwide sport. This year, at the 14th World Kendo Championships in Sao Paulo, Brazil, over 30 countries came to compete. Despite Japan’s complete dominance in the 36-year history of the championships, the U.S. men and women’s teams did America proud. Comprised of the finest Asian American kendo fighters across the country, the men’s squad finished second and the women took third.
Sumo, another classic Japanese sport, witnessed one of the greatest accomplishments in its long and storied history. Mongolian Yokozuna Hakuho won three titles, two of them with flawless records, on his way to an 86- win, four-loss season—a record believed to be impossible after Yokozuna Asashoryu set the supposedly “unbreakable” record of 84 wins four years ago.
Breaking the unbreakable could be the theme of 2009 with a multitude of boundaries, from age, to athletic ability to opportunity, all once thought to be sealed off to Asians in sports having been crossed and in some cases, shattered.
In January, half-Korean American Hines Ward took home his second Super Bowl ring with the Pittsburgh Steeler. Teammate and two-time Super Bowl winner Troy Polamalu, a Samoan-American from Garden Grove, has been featured throughout the year in his own Head and Shoulders commercials as well as on the cover of Madden 2010, the best selling sports video game franchise of all time.
Japanese Canadian Devin Setoguchi is making a name for himself in the NHL with the Pacific Division-leading San Jose Sharks. Sansei Jeff Hironaka has risen the ranks of the coaching world as an assistant for the D-1 Washington State Cougars who are currently 10-2 on the season. Next summer, Takuya Kawamura will try once again to make the jump from pro Japanese ball to the NBA.
As one can readily see, Asian athletes are doing big things and changing the landscape of American sports culture, a trend that is blossoming with our youth as well.
Yonsei guard Lauren Kamiyama set the all-time assist record at Chapman University. Quarter-Japanese American quarter back Casey Nielsen of Gahr High School set the all-time California yards per game record. Yonsei bball guard Jordan Hamamoto led Western High School to its first Orange League Title since Tiger Woods in 1992.
It is a brave new world that today’s Asian athletes are creating. And while 2009 was a phenomenal year for Asians in sports, I, for one, can’t wait to see what is in store for us in 2010.
Happy New Year.