Consul General Mio Maeda waves at the crowd after calling "Play Ball" at Truist Park. Photo: Trevor Williams

Japanese Consul General Mio Maeda saw both of his hopes for the Atlanta Braves game narrowly dashed Monday evening. 

On Japan night at Truist Park, the diplomat told Global Atlanta he had two very clear though seemingly contradictory wishes: “That Ohtani-san hits two or three home runs and the Braves win.” 

Shohei Ohtani, the Japanese superstar for the Los Angeles Angels known as the “Unicorn,” is an exceedingly rare dual threat who has won nine games as a starting pitcher and already has 39 home runs on the season as a designated hitter. 

Coming off a recent one-hit shutout, he strode into this week’s series against the Braves as the heavy favorite for the American League’s most valuable player award. 

Making the most of the occasion, the Japan-America Society of Georgia partnered with the Braves on Japan Community Night, drawing many of the country’s expats to the ballpark to cheer on the Braves and witness Japan’s latest and perhaps greatest baseball export, a generational talent expected to sign the largest-ever baseball contract at the end of this season.

Mr. Maeda, who represents Japan in the Southeast U.S., was asked to start the game with the “Play Ball” call. 

“I think this kind of event that can unite our community, it’s very nice,” the consul general told Global Atlanta at the game. 

When Mr. Ohtani came to the plate in the top of the ninth inning, his teammates had carried the offensive load, with three different players stroking solo shots to give the Angels a 3-1 lead. (It also gave each a chance to don a kabuto samurai helmet Ohtani bought for the team as this year’s home run celebration garb.)

Already with two hits, a hit-by-pitch and an intentional walk on the day, Ohtani had reached base in each of his plate appearances. 

With two on, he sent one deep to center, but centerfielder Michael Harris leapt at just the right time, extending his glove just over the outfield wall, to rob Ohtani of his 40th home run on the year and keep the game within reach for the Braves. The Angels, however, scored another run in the ninth to make it 4-1 and retired the Braves in order to secure the win. 

Mr. Maeda, who last played baseball as a student 40 years ago, sees Japanese players in the majors as ambassadors for the country.

“It opens a window to Japanese culture for the people in Atlanta and the Southeast,” he said. “It’s a pity that there are no Japanese players here.” 

The last Japanese Brave was Kenshin Kawakami, a pitcher who spent two years with the Braves in the late 2000s before returning to Japan to finish out his career. 

As a student in Kobe, Japan, Mr. Maeda remembers watching another phenom who successfully made the trans-Pacific crossover to the big leagues: Ichiro Suzuki. 

Before going on to play 19 seasons in the U.S., during which he amassed more than 3,000 hits and posted a .311 career average, Ichiro helped the team known as the Orix BlueWave to a Japan Series title in 1996. 

Consul General Mio Maeda during the game against the Los Angeles Angels at Truist Park on July 31, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Matthew Grimes Jr./Atlanta Braves/Getty Images)

That season was especially meaningful to Mr. Maeda, who hails from Japan’s Hyogo prefecture and grew up as a Braves fan — Hankyu Braves, that is. Mr. Maeda lived near the Hankyu train station, the namesake of the team that would later become the BlueWave.

Their series victory came after the devastating Kobe earthquake of 1995, which killed more than 5,000 people. 

“Lots of people were very much encouraged by their effort,” Mr. Maeda said. 

Japan itself is coming off another high from winning its third World Baseball Classic in March, defeating the U.S. team by one run in a matchup that couldn’t have been scripted any better. Ohtani, coming off the bench as a closer, struck out his Angels teammate and 11-time All Star Mike Trout with a slider to seal the victory. 

Braves fans will not get to see Ohtani pitch this week, and perhaps not this year unless on the off chance the teams meet in the World Series. The Braves are sporting the best record in the majors and are 11 games ahead in the NL East, while the Angels will have to scrap for a wildcard slot to make the playoffs. 

Mr. Maeda, for one, was grateful not to have to throw out a pitch in front of more than 40,000 fans. 

To prep for his last outing, Mr. Maeda practiced for two weeks, leaving his arm sore. 

The results were worth it: Joined by a Japanese astronaut as a co-honoree, Mr. Maeda threw a perfect strike for the Rocket City Trash Pandas — the minor league team in Huntsville, Ala.

That team plays on Toyota Field in Madison, a nod to the nearby Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama engine plant in Huntsville, one of many symbols of Japan’s strong investment presence in the region where Mr. Maeda serves. 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...