International Pastime

Japanese players' booming success has infused major-league baseball with energy, both at home and abroad.

Baseball

August 25, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki apparently didn't have an ounce of trouble adjusting to life - and baseball - when he arrived in the United States last year. If anything, it was opposing pitchers who found themselves suffering from culture shock.

Ichi-mania infected baseball fans all over the country as Suzuki led the Seattle Mariners to a 116-win season and was named American League Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player for a performance that included the AL batting title and a major-league rookie record of 242 hits. Not since Mexican pitcher Fernando Valenzuela burst into the spotlight in 1981 had a foreign-born player made such a dynamic imprint on American baseball.

Of course, Suzuki was not the first Japanese player to make it big in the majors. Pitcher Hideo Nomo was the first player to have great success in America, and Mariners reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki immediately established himself as one of the game's best closers in his first season (2000) in the States. But Suzuki's emergence as the first impact position player from the Pacific Rim completed a quantum shift in the focus of baseball's international player development efforts.

He hasn't let up. Suzuki is third in the AL in batting with a .339 average, proving that he was no one-year wonder. Sasaki also remains at the top of his game, on pace to save more than 40 games for the second year in a row.

"I think it has been great for the game," said Major League Baseball's executive vice president of baseball operations, Sandy Alderson, "not only everything that these players have brought, but also their following. Knowing the interest that exists in Japan, I think that's exciting. I think it has brought some new energy to the game and some debate over the different styles of play in the game."

The growing Asian presence also includes two star-quality pitchers from South Korea - Texas Rangers starter Chan Ho Park and Arizona Diamondbacks closer Byung-Hyun Kim - and several minor-league prospects from Taiwan, though mandatory military service requirements and territorial rights issues can complicate player development efforts in those countries.

Japan clearly has the most developed baseball infrastructure in the region. The first Japanese-born player to appear in the majors was Masanori Murakami, who played briefly for the San Francisco Giants in 1964-1965. Nomo was the first player from the Japanese Pacific or Central League to jump to the major leagues when he joined the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995.

Suzuki became the first Japanese position player to sign a major-league contract and quickly overcame any American misconceptions about the ability of Asian hitters to maintain a high level of offensive production. Now, there is speculation in Japan that superstar outfielder Hideki Matsui will leave the Yomiuri (Tokyo) Giants after this season to sign with an American team.

Matsui would burst another stereotype. He is Japan's premier power hitter, a 40-homer threat who does not conform to Japanese baseball's traditional emphasis on speed, fundamentals and finesse. He already plays baseball American-style - he hit four home runs in last year's Japan Series that measured more than 450 feet - but there is some question whether he would be able to replicate his power numbers against American pitching.

The Mariners and a number of other major-league clubs are willing to risk millions to find out, but the Yomiuri Giants are expected to offer even more money to persuade him to remain in Japan. For Matsui, it might be more a matter of reaching the next level of competition than a higher level of compensation.

"The first wave of Japanese players that came over have had success," said Mariners manager Lou Piniella. "Obviously, now, it's another area for major-league baseball to find talent. I'm sure there are a few other players over there. Because of the success of Ichi, Sasaki and the others, they want to come over and try."

They have trickled in because of a rule in the Japanese equivalent of Major League Baseball's Basic Agreement that requires most players to complete 10 years of service before they can become free agents. The average age of the players who have jumped to the American major leagues is about 28, giving them a level of experience that might contribute to their immediate success.

Dodgers left-handed starting pitcher Kazuhisa Ishii is the latest instant crossover star, winning 11 games in the first half of the 2002 season and nearly earning a place on the National League All-Star team. With the possible exception of pitcher Hideki Irabu, who suffered through a bumpy adjustment period with the New York Yankees, the Japanese players have been welcomed enthusiastically by fans and their new American teammates.

"I think it's essential for the game," Anaheim Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "There are incredibly talented players from all parts of the world. They should be represented in a league if you want to call it the best league in the world."

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