Getting into Full Swing
Profiles of 19 API Major League Baseball Stars
Getting into Full Swing
Asian players in the major leagues
By Brian Liou
Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki lines up his bat against the Oakland Athletics in the first inniing Wednesday, April 4, in Seattle. AP Photo.
Asias foreign invasion of Americas favorite pastime has only just begun. With the anticipated successes of Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and New York Mets outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo, more baseball players from countries such as Korea, Taiwan, and Japan should be flocking to the states any day now. Thats if they have the guts.
Since 1995, when Hideo Nomo mesmerized hitters with his tornado-like delivery, becoming the first imported Asian player to play baseball in the United States, only pitchers have risked their hearts and wallets for the chance to play some catch with the likes of Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra and Mark McGwire. Following on the successful trail Nomo blazed, Hideki Irabu, Chan Ho Park, Byung-Hyun Kim and Masato Yoshii, to name a few, left their homes and jumped on the Nomo bandwagon all pitchers with decent to excellent stuff, but all pitchers nonetheless.
Thats changed come this baseball season.
Suzuki, whose star status has reached such Jordanseque proportions hes known only as Ichiro back in Japan, has created such a stir around spring training as the first Japanese position player (along with Shinjo), you would expect the legend to stand far above the rest. But at a mere 5-foot-9, 160 pounds, he might be mistaken for the batboy if it wasnt for the swarming Japanese media asking him everything from how hes feeling that day to what he ate for breakfast. At every moment, photographers take pictures of the Japanese icon playing, standing, sitting or doing absolutely nothing. Charts of his batting practice hacks are made, noting how many times he hit the ball out of the infield and how far. If Ichiro doesnt receive the same amount of bp pitches as he did the previous day, the Japanese media will poke the hitting coach for a reason.
Seattle Mariners fans hold up a Ichiro Suzuki sign during the opening day game against the Oakland Athletics, Monday, April 2, in Seattle. AP Photo.
All this Ichiro hoopla begs the question: Why arent there more position players from the Far East?
Eyes on Ichiro
According to Makoto Suzuki, a starting pitcher on the Kansas City Royals, position players from Asia simply dont have the courage to come over.
Suzuki, who has never pitched a single inning on Japanese soil, started his baseball career as a 16-year-old clubhouse attendant for an Independent League team in Salinas, Calif. The now 25-year-old power pitcher believes apathy, and perhaps comfortable laziness from super-stardom have many Japanese ballplayers willing to stay put, despite Japans soaring standard of living.
They [baseball players] have it good in Japan, said Suzuki, who speaks fluent English. They dont want to go to the U.S. and challenge themselves. They make millions in Japan.
Financially secure and popular, many Japanese ballplayers happily avoid the United States the culture shock and the burden of learning English.
They dont have the guts, said Suzuki. A lot of Japanese players have a lot of problems adjusting.
But the main reason why Americans so far have seen more pitchers than position players from Asia, according to Suzuki, lies in the fact that pitchers have less to deal with on the field than position players do. [Position players] are still afraid. Pitchers, they just throw, they dont have to communicate. They dont have to remember baseball signs, but position players have to learn much more stuff, he said.
Enduring the on-the-field physical and mental taxation and the off-the-field cultural adjustment, position players from Asia carry a heavy burden if they decide to play here. Like all foreign players, they will leave comfortable lives only to start all over again.
Crucially important for the state of mind of many of the Asian position players is Ichiros much anticipated play in the United States. Success from the 28-year-old rookie, who won seven consecutive batting titles in Japans Pacific League, should send droves of scouts to Asia, seeking and convincing other Asian position players from Japan, Korea and Taiwan to make the long trip.
Many of the players are looking to Ichiro and saying, If he can do it, I can do it, said Suzuki. I think its time. They need to come over and play.
Not that Simple
Though Suzuki would like to see other familiar faces circle the bases, Doug Takaragawa, the Pacific Rim supervisor for the Philadelphia Phillies, warns Asian players cant just come over and play. They have to go through so much red tape just to get their visas, explained Takaragawa, who just wrapped up a scouting trip to Taiwan for potential stars. Plus, their position players sometimes just dont fit our prototypical player here in the United States.
John Cox, coordinator of the Pacific Rim for the New York Yankees, wholeheartedly agrees.
In the game of baseball, said Cox. It doesnt matter whether youre in Alabama, Japan, or in Timbuktu, you need god-given talents to play this game.
Both Cox and Takaragawa point out that the fundamental skills and talent the average major league position player exudes reflects the formula they employ in looking for their next Asian superstar namely, a combination of raw power, speed, and an ability to drive the ball over the fence.
It comes down to skills, no matter what country you are playing in, said Cox.
The dramatic difference in the way the Japanese play baseball, Cox said, makes it difficult to find that position player who will make an impact in the States.
Ichiros your prototypical Japanese hitter, explained Cox. If you compare Ichiro to Edgar Martinez or any of the great hitters, the difference will be very dramatic.
[In the United States] we project so much in the bat. Ichiros style is to hit halfway out of the box and run like hell. Japanese hitters have a tendency to pull off the ball, which partly explains why there are no Japanese position players in the United States. Plus, theres not a lot of speed in the Asian countries. I dont know why.
Committed in Asia
Not to be mistaken as just a bunch of Brett Butler-like doubles slappers, many Asian hitters can hit the long ball, as witnessed by Sadahara Ohs monstrous homerun total. But as unusual as their approach to hitting is, so is their approach to the game itself.
They train almost like the military, said Takaragawa of the Korean baseball teams. Its a fulltime commitment. They practice all the way to midnight.
The Spartan mindset in Korea, where baseball is the ultimate sport, leaves little room for mistakes. Some of the Korean teams have committed so much to improving the standard of baseball in their country, they have even sworn off Christmas and national vacations, and work while the rest of the country takes a day off for festivities.
The commitment is definitely there, said Takaragawa. If you are an athlete in Korea, you will play baseball.
So far, the only Korean players who have prospered in the majors are Chan Ho Park of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks reliever Byung-Hun Kim. Ironically, Park wasnt even considered a prospect coming out of college in Korea, and Kim has been erratic in his stints in the majors thus far.
Despite their small numbers, a slew of Asian ballplayers, position players included, should be heading west any day now. Watch for the ESPN sports ticker to turn out the name, Hideki Matsui, a slugging centerfielder for the Yomiuri Giants, who just might make it to the big leagues soon, very soon. Until then, however, everyone will be feasting their eyes on Ichiro.