Japan and the Number 18

When the Mariners signed Hisashi Iwakuma to a new contract the uniform number he chose for the 2012 season is number 18.  That happens to be the same uniform number of Daisuke Matsuzaka, newly signed Oriole Tsuyoshi Wada, Ryota Igarshi and Hiroki Kuroda.  The only United States pitcher that I can find with the number 18 is Shawn Marcum from the Milwaukee Brewers.  You would have to believe more than randomness accounts for the attractiveness of the number 18 for Japanese pitchers.

In Japan they are deep in tradition.  They follow certain codes, often institutionalizing that tradition.  It just so happens that number 18 in Japanese circles is reserved for pitchers who are the aces of their staff.  Many theorize it began with Yomiuri Giants ace pitcher Tsuneo Horiuchi, who started his career wearing number 21, but in his second year changed to number 18.  It would be similar to United States kids wearing number 3 because of Babe Ruth, or number 24 for Willie Mays.  In Japan though, you would have to earn the right to wear that number.  You could not just ask for it.

It will be interesting what number Yu Darvish chooses if he signs with Texas.  If you look at the roster the number 18 currently belongs to Mitch Moreland.  In Japan that would be a waste of a number if issued to a position player.  Yu has always been a little independent and wears number 11 when pitching for the Nippon Ham Fighters.  If you look at the Fighters roster in 2007 the number 18 was not issued, possibly in deference to the ace like status of Darvish.  They have issued the number 18 number to their future ace and number one draft pick Yuki Saito.

The Rangers still have number 11 available as a uniform number.  Darvish is the type of pitcher that has always been willing to start a new tradition.  Perhaps he will even choose a number different than the number 11 he wore as a Nippon Ham Fighter, just to start a new tradition.  Of course, he still has to sign a contract with the Rangers.

And who will wear number 11 if Darvish signs with the Rangers?  The Japanese are not noted for retiring player’s numbers, but my guess is that you won’t see the number 11 being worn anytime soon.  At some point the Fighters may institutionalize the number 11, reserving it only for a pitcher who best exemplifies the ace like status of Darvish.  Unlike in the United States the number does not get retired, but it gets rewarded to a player in deference to the original who made it famous.

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