Pitching has long been the pride of Japanese baseball. It is the only skill recognized with an annual award that predates its American counterpart. The Sawamura Award was first bestowed on Japan’s best pitcher in 1947, nine years before Don Newcombe of the Los Angeles Dodgers won the first Cy Young Award.
It is a novelty, then, that excellence in pitching has forged a bond between two American hurlers who have defined themselves in Nippon Professional Baseball, which is typically dominated by homegrown stars. Randy Messenger’s ninth season for the Hanshin Tigers began this year with a FaceTime message of encouragement from a former franchise ace, Gene Bacque.
“I’m always watching you,” Bacque, at the kitchen table in his Lafayette, La., home, said to Messenger, who was lounging on his couch in Kobe, Japan. “I like your style, but you’ve got to toughen up and brush them back by coming inside more or they’re just going to pick and peck you to death on the middle and away stuff.”
Bacque turns 81 in August, a day before Messenger’s 37th birthday. The two have never met in person and had never even heard of each other until 2013. That season, Messenger’s fourth in Japan, his career win total crept into the 40s. He was feeling pretty good about himself, since four-season stints and 40-win careers are not common for foreigners in Japan.
“Out of the blue, I got this letter delivered to me through the team from some guy in Louisiana kind of busting my chops,” Messenger recalled with a hearty laugh. “He said, ‘Forty wins is nice, but you’ve got a long way to go to match my record of 100.’ I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’
“When I started asking around, I learned he was the most successful American pitcher in Hanshin’s history and he shares the overall Japan record for wins by an American with 100.”
The two have since become pen pals, with Bacque sending words of encouragement after Messenger pitches, and Messenger reciprocating with care packages of Hanshin goods and Japanese treats.
Until 2016, Bacque, who played in the Detroit Tigers’ minor-league system, was the only American to capture a Sawamura Award. He still displays the 1964 trophy prominently in a glass case in his living room. The following season, he threw a no-hitter against Sadaharu Oh’s powerful Yomiuri Giant.
Messenger has yet to receive a Sawamura, but as of Monday he had nine wins this season, putting him at 93 for his career, seven shy of the record for an American. No one is more excited about the prospect of it being broken than Bacque himself.
“It’s definitely time for someone else to have that record,” Bacque said. “I’ve enjoyed it for nearly 50 years, but I would be thrilled to see someone else take it while I’m still around so I can enjoy handing it over. I would love for it to be Randy because then the record would stay in the Hanshin family.”
Messenger was an 11th-round pick of the Florida Marlins in the 1999 amateur draft. After compiling a 4-12 record with a 4.87 earned run average over five seasons as a reliever for the Marlins, the San Francisco Giants and the Seattle Mariners, Messenger signed with Hanshin before the 2010 season.
His new Japanese team also viewed him as a reliever. At 6 feet 6 inches and more than 260 pounds, Messenger was a Goliath coming out of the bullpen. But he proved just as vulnerable as he was in North America and found himself banished to the minor leagues by midseason. It was there that he had an epiphany.
“When I first came over, I figured I’d blow these guys away with my power,” Messenger said of his 97-mile-per-hour fastball. “Well, I got humbled real fast. I discovered quickly these guys can actually hit fastballs. I didn’t think they could, but they can. It shows how little I knew about Japanese baseball, and it was a rude awakening. I had to make adjustments and concentrate on locating my other pitches effectively to survive here.”
Messenger had a dusty curveball in his bag of tricks. He had been discouraged from using it throughout his development in the United States, where the emphasis was always on power. When he summoned it for Hanshin, the Tigers began to see his potential as a multipitch starter. He finished the year in Hanshin’s rotation and has been there ever since.
Over that period, Big Mess, as he is affectionately known in both countries, has been one of Japan’s most dominant and consistent pitchers. He has led the league in strikeouts twice, innings pitched three times, and games started four times. He was given the honor of starting on opening day this year for the fourth consecutive season.
Messenger’s nine seasons with Hanshin are the most by any foreigner in the franchise’s fabled black-and-white striped uniform, surpassing the record of seven Bacque shares.
Messenger’s two-year contract with Hanshin expires at the end of the season, but he said he would like to return. If he does, he will no longer count against a team’s four-foreigner limit on the active roster; last month he achieved the service time necessary to qualify as a domestic player beginning next season.
One number Messenger is not likely to surpass is Bacque’s 29 wins in his Sawamura Award season. Bacque completed 24 of his 38 starts that season in a vastly different era and pitched more than 350 innings.