Sparkplug Genda is a big part of Japan's success

March 19th, 2023

MIAMI -- He might not be a worldwide celebrity like Shohei Ohtani, nor does he have a big league contract like Yu Darvish, Lars Nootbaar or Masataka Yoshida. He might not have the kind of hardware that two-time Sawamura Award-winner Yoshinobu Yamamoto has, or a home run record like Munetaka Murakami. And yet, Sosuke Genda just might be the heart of Samurai Japan.

The Seibu Lions shortstop has won five consecutive Golden Gloves in the NPB and regularly performs incredible defensive feats.

"Genda is the best shortstop in the league right now," Mayumi Inaba, who works for a Japanese TV station, said. "He's very, very much [important] to the team."

This was hardly the future people saw for him early on. Genda went undrafted out of high school and college, having to instead play in the Toyota Industrial League -- essentially Japanese indy ball. He impressed enough there, but rules require that you stay for at least two seasons. Afterward, he was the Seibu Lions’ third pick in 2016.

(Of course, playing in that league isn't necessarily a barrier to future stardom, either: Kosuke Fukudome and Hideo Nomo are just two players to have reached the Majors who once suited up in the league.)

"Since day one I became pro, I never had a negative thought going about my work every day," Genda told through interpreter Luke Shinoda. "I never had one time when I was looking down. I always had a positive outlook on every day. I was trying to be the best player I could be."

Since then, his glove has carried him, earning him plaudits and praise from anyone who has seen him play.

"I think it's the best part of me as a player. I just can't lose to anyone [on defense]," Genda said.

He won Rookie of the Year in his first season with the Seibu Lions, has been elected to four All-Star Games and helped Japan win gold at the 2019 Premier12 and at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

"I'm definitely really happy whenever I make a play on the field and then the fans cheer for me," Genda said. "That's the best moment during the game."

Playing in his first World Baseball Classic this year, things looked dire for the shortstop when he fractured his finger against Korea on March 10. While manager Hideki Kuriyama would only comment that Genda was day to day, the rumors among reporters were that he was out of the tournament. Instead, armed with a special batting glove, Genda returned to the lineup in the quarterfinal against Italy and added an RBI single in Japan's 9-3 victory. That win sent Japan to the semifinals, where the team will face Mexico (Monday at 7 p.m. ET on FS1).

No one should be surprised. The shortstop is known to be one of the most dedicated players in the sport. While in high school, he broke his teeth during batting practice. Much less than miss a game, Genda didn't even stop taking BP. He simply bent over, collected his broken tooth and continued hitting.

"Genda's spirit doesn't change, whether he's playing well or not," Kuriyama said. "By playing, he can show that spirit to baseball fans."

In a tournament like this, where you play teams that you're unfamiliar with, you need to rely on physically gifted players who can slow the game down and rely on their instincts. Genda is one of those players.

"I look at the catcher's signs and the batter's swing," Genda said. "The most important move is the first step when the pitcher is throwing the ball. That's the most important thing right there."

Should Japan win the entire tournament, Genda will likely not be named the MVP. He won't be listed among the most famous Samurai Japan players -- he's perhaps not even the most famous person in his marriage, as his wife is singer and model Misa Eto. But if Japan becomes a three-time World Baseball Classic champion, Genda will be a central part of its victory.

"In order for us to win, I think he's definitely a critical player," Kuriyama said. "That's the reason why I'm asking him to play."