Japanese pitcher returns to American mound; Bird assesses 76ers

Long before Japanese imports became popular in the United States, the San Francisco Giants had their own baseball version in pitcher Masanori Murakami. Masanori's fascinating story began nearly two decades ago, when he earned a spot in the Giants' farm system, and continues today with his bid to make the parent club during spring training.

Here, briefly, is what has occurred. In 1964, Masanori came to the Bay Area looking to play in the Giants' farm system. He was a 20-year-old southpaw, who figured a year in America would shorten his timetable for becoming a quality pitcher.

Murakami turned out to be much more advanced than anyone expected. He was named Player of the Year with Fresno in the California League, and showed enough of a breaking ball that he was asked to finish the season with the Giants. Working out of San Francisco's bullpen, he posted a 1-0 record and an eye-compelling 1.80 earned-run average.

The following year Murakami won four more games in relief. But what most impressed the Giants were his 85 strikeouts in 741/3 innings. San Francisco, which had agreed to pay Masanori's Japanese team $10,000 if he made the club, was now under the impression that he was the Giants' property. Not so, claimed the Japanese, who said they had only leased Murakami's services to San Francisco.

After talks between the two organizations failed to resolve anything, and to avoid an international incident, the Giants allowed Masanori to go back to Japan , where he developed arm problems. Even though he continued to pitch for the Hawks, he struggled until winning 18 games in 1968. At that point he was suddenly traded to the Nippon Ham Fighters for reasons the Giants were never able to pin down. Murakami remained with the Fighters until his retirement at the end of last season.

Recently he returned to San Francisco for a visit with Tom Haller, the Giants' general manager and one of his former catchers. He asked permission to observe the club's front office operation this season, so that when he returns to Japan he can get a job as a baseball administrator.

Haller, however, took a look at Masanori's excellent physical condition and decided he may have quit too soon. Murakami may yet wind up pushing papers in the Giant offices, but for the time being he's in Arizona trying to make San Francisco's 25-man roster as a relief pitcher.

Asked for his opinion of the Philadelphia 76ers, who could win a record 70 regular-season games, all-star forward Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics replied: ''Right now the 76ers are the best team in basketball. Moses Malone has been such a stabilizing factor for them at center that even road victories seem to come easy for them. But we (the Celtics) have a chance to get them in the playoffs. Whether Philadelphia beats us or we beat them might depend on something as basic as which of us peaks at the right time.''

Someone in the Celtics' organization told me that Boston may hurt its playoff chances against Philadelphia unless Coach Bill Fitch cuts down on Bird's playing time between now and the end of the season. ''Bird does so many things that don't show up in a box score that there is a tendency to want his leadership out on the floor at all times,'' he said. ''But without more rest, Larry probably isn't going to be able to give as much of a second effort on the boards as we need to beat the 76ers.''

So far Bird has logged almost 500 more minutes of floor time than his nearest teammate, center-forward Kevin McHale. Larry, who still has next year remaining on his present contract, is probably the league's most serious MVP candidate outside Malone.

Pro football's Don Shula, who has been so successful coaching the Miami Dolphins but who is not that close with owner Joe Robbie, is rumored to be headed back to the Baltimore Colts. Shula's Miami contract expires at the end of next season. . . . Of all the National Football League's new head coaches, Dan Henning of the Atlanta Falcons is probably stepping into the best situation. The Falcons have been to the playoffs in three of the last six seasons. . . .Indoor soccer, despite its fast and furious action, still can't seem to make it with any consistency at the box office. Ticket prices are right, but the traditional lure of ice hockey, pro basketball, and college basketball makes it difficult to sell season passes. And those major newspapers that do print soccer standings and scores never seem to run them on consecutive days. Usually British soccer results take preference over scores from this country.

Television could do itself and its viewers a big favor by looking into rhythmic gymnastics, the women's Olympic sport that is performed with balls, batons, lightweight Indian clubs, and multicolored ribbons that can be swirled into attractive patterns. Probably the best team on the West Coast is the Los Angeles Lights, which supplies the US national rhythmic gymnastics team with 10 of its 24 members. Although this balletic sport has only been internationally recognized since the 1950s, it has been practiced competitively in Eastern Europe since the 1920s.

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