Ayami Sato is the best female baseball player on Earth. She might be the greatest who ever lived.
And you've still probably never heard of her
The comparison between Japan's utterly dominant women's baseball team and the frustratingly triumphant New York Yankees is almost too easy. They are both dynastic supervillains that everyone wants to beat.
The Yankees have won 27 World Series championships in the last century, including four straight from 1936-1939, five straight from from 1949-1953, and four in five years from 1996-2000. While the Women's World Baseball Cup, which gathers a dozen national teams from around the world, doesn't have quite the same illustrious history, the Japanese women have been just as dominant (if not more so) than the Yankees. Since the every-other-year tournament kicked off in 2004, Team Japan has either finished in second place (2004 and 2006), or won the whole thing (as they have five straight times, in 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016). If Japan wins its championship game against Chinese Taipei tonight, they'll make it six in a row.
And while the Yankees have had more than their fair share of iconic heroes — Ruth, Mantle, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Jeter — even the Bronx Bombers have never had a star quite like Ayami Sato.
At 28, there is little doubt that Sato is the best female baseball player alive, and it wouldn't be a stretch to start saying of all time. She joined Team Japan at the World Baseball Cup in 2010, and has helped lead the team to victory in every tournament since. She posted a staggeringly good 0.53 earned run average in 2010, 0.72 in 2012, 0.00 in 2014 (yes, 0.00), and 1.33 in 2016. Going into the championship game against Chinese Taipei on Friday night, Sato has a 2018 tournament ERA of 0.50 over 14 innings, and gets the bragging rights of having come just one out short of a no-hitter against Team USA, the tournament's hosts in Viera, Florida.
Sato can throw close to 80 miles an hour. Her curveball was clocked at 2,583 revolutions per minute. Major League Baseball's Clayton Kershaw, perhaps the greatest American pitcher of the last decade, has an average RPM of 2,373.
When Sato is on the mound, you would be stupid not to be quaking in your cleats. Just look at this filthy curveball:
There is just one game remaining between Sato and her fifth championship title. Taipei's second basewoman, Yu-Hsuan Chen, who has the unfortunate position of hitting leadoff and thus being the first to come under Sato's fire, said she has been instructed to be prepared "at every moment."
Sato is unexpectedly unpretentious in person, hardly the wicked slider-throwing monster her unfortunate opponents know her as. She comes across as downright modest: "Forget about the championship. Always we are humble to be a challenger for the World Cup."
At just 5 feet 5 inches, and surrounded by her gently teasing teammates, Sato does not stand out in a room; she seems perfectly content to let others take the limelight. It is only with some prodding that she smiles and confirms her dream of one day being accepted into Cooperstown.
Sato first came in contact with the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015, when she was representing Japan in a four-game series against the USA Baseball Women's National Team at Cooperstown's Doubleday Field. After visiting the museum during her stay, she knew that she wanted to be included in it one day.
Only one woman, former Negro League executive Effa Manley, has been included to date, and no female player ever has. But if anyone is going to break a glass ceiling in baseball, it will be Sato. When she first discovered her love of the sport — through playing catch with her older brother at age 9 — there was no women's team in Japan. "I played against boys, and then I wanted to be them," Sato emphasized to me through a translator.
Her family had her back when she decided to become a professional pitcher. Sato left home when she was in high school, "so after[wards] ... there was a little distance between the family and [myself]." But her parents would follow along with Sato's career through the media — she played on her college women's team, and joined the Japan Women's League after it was founded in 2009 — and they continue to be "very supportive."
Just nine innings away from yet another championship, there's another historic achievement looming too: a third straight tournament MVP award. (Sato won back-to-back honors in 2014 and 2016.) If anyone still doubts that she is the best in the world, leading her team to a sixth straight championship (five of which featured her on the mound), and nabbing her third straight MVP, would seem to end all debate.