Toronto Blue Jays fans already knew him for his dance moves, his elaborate pre-game stretching rituals and the personalized celebrations he has choreographed with various teammates.
After Sunday’s walk-off double and viral post-game interview, baseball fans around North America were introduced to Blue Jays shortstop Munenori Kawasaki.
On a full count pitch from Baltimore Orioles closer Jim Johnson with two outs and two on in the bottom of the ninth inning, Kawasaki doubled home the tying and winning runs for a 6-5 Toronto victory. The rest is viral video history.
Kawasaki joined Mark DeRosa and Sportsnet’s Arash Madani for a memorable post-game interview on the field.
“Thank you very much, my name is Munenori Kawasaki,” he said with increasing excitement. “I grew up in Japan! I am Japanese!”
He read from a miniature Japanese phrasebook before getting a shaving cream pie to the face and a bucket of Gatorade over his head. It was, without a doubt, Kawasaki’s signature moment as a Blue Jay.
Yet Kawasaki, who turns 32 in one week, has a history in professional baseball that began long before most Blue Jays fans had heard of him. Here’s some essential background information on Toronto’s latest fan favourite:
Date of birth: June 3, 1981 in Kagoshima, Japan
MLB debut: April 7, 2012 with the Seattle Mariners
Japanese experience: 11 seasons
Number one fan: Before signing in Seattle last winter, Kawasaki said publicly that he would decline offers from every team but the Mariners. He had played with Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki in the past and wanted the chance to play alongside his former teammate again.
Kawasaki used to wear No. 52 to honour Suzuki, who wore No. 51 in Seattle. Both players were on the national teams that won the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classics for Japan.
Suspect negotiating skills: Kawasaki filed for free agency following the 2011 season, and promptly erased any leverage he might have had.
He said he wanted to sign with the Mariners and only the Mariners, admitted he would accept a minor league contract, and offered to switch positions if necessary. In other words, he said he would do anything the Mariners asked while demanding next to nothing.
The Mariners signed Kawasaki to a minor league deal in January of 2012, guaranteeing him only the chance to compete for a roster spot in spring training.
“Being able to add a player with the resume that Kawasaki possesses is very good news for the Mariners,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said at the time. “He is a high-energy player with a record of success in Japan.”
Kawasaki played in 61 games for Seattle last year, appearing at second base, third base and shortstop. He hit just .192/.257/.202 for Seattle — better than your average pitcher, but not by much.
The Mariners released him following the 2012 season, and he signed with Toronto in March of 2013.
Surprise on offence: After Kawasaki’s struggles at the plate in 2012, expectations were low entering the 2013 season. He’s no Jose Reyes on offence, but he has been better than anticipated with the bat.
The average MLB shortstop has a .254/.308/.379 batting line this year, and Kawasaki is hitting .247/.345/.320 through Sunday. In other words, he draws a few more walks than the average shortstop while hitting for less power and adding a similar amount of overall offensive value.
Japanese star: Kawasaki, a fourth round selection of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in the 2000 Nippon Professional Baseball draft, played 11 seasons in Japan before coming to North America.
The left-handed hitter had a career average of .294 in Japan and stole 267 bases. He made four NPB All-Star teams from 2004-07.