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G.G. traces hustling style to stint in U.S. minors

by Jim Allen (Apr 29, 2008)

The Japanese game is sometimes called "minor league" by those unfamiliar with its dynamics, but there is no denying that Tokorozawa and the Saitama Seibu Lions are a long way from Single-A ball.

But that is the distance, and then some, that rising Lions star Takahiko "G.G." Sato has traveled: from college ball in Japan to the lowest level of the U.S. minor leagues. And that was just the beginning.

Asked what lessons he learned in the United States, Sato said: "Full power."

"It was a revelation," Sato said Saturday at Seibu Dome.

"Over there, even if you hit into an easy out, you hustle till you get to first."

But for those used to the theatric head-first slides into first base that are popular in high school ball but still visible in the Central and Pacific Leagues, one might think hustle is also the name of the game here.

"Nope. Not even close," said Sato, who decided that American ball was the way to go after watching Hideo Nomo's adventure begin in 1995.

In 2000, Sato began his own baseball Odyssey, signing with the Phillies organization. After playing rookie league ball in Batavia, N.Y., and Clearwater, Fla., in 2001 and 2002, he made it as high as the Phillies' Single-A team in Lakewood, N.J.

Sato's parents, who supported his choice, came to see him play in Florida. And though happy they came, Sato hoped they wouldn't make a habit of it.

"I thought, 'Florida's way too far for them to be coming all the time,'" said Sato, who picked up his unusual nickname at Hosei University. "I sort of had the manner of an old man [jiji-kusai], had an old man's face," he said with a grin.

Lions manager Hisanobu Watanabe, however, says there's nothing geriatric about the 29-year-old's game.

"He goes all out," the skipper said. "It's sad but true what he says about the game here. As a manager, you want all your guys to hustle all the time, and I'd like to think we do, but..."

A catcher in the Phillies organization, Sato was taken by the Lions in the seventh round of the 2003 draft. In his first Seibu season, he hit 12 homers in 135 total at-bats from the PL and Eastern Leagues. Although that impressive frequency has declined, Sato has more than made up for the shortfall with many more doubles, raising his average last season to .280 and .318 this year, while drawing more walks than ever.

"He's clutch," said Watanabe.

"Whatever the game situation, you expect he'll come through at some point. Early in the game or late in the game, I feel he'll make an impact."

Sato, like departed Lions star Kazuhiro Wada, converted from catcher to outfielder to get more playing time. But it was not an easy transition.

"When I started playing there, I was so self-conscious about my defense that it hurt my hitting," said Sato, who spent endless hours practicing his new position in the minors in 2006 after his batting collapsed.

His increased confidence in the field helped steady his offense, although his exuberant play did have one big drawback. On April 21, 2007, on a fly in no-man's land between second base and right field, Sato inadvertently ran over second baseman Yasuyuki Kataoka.

The young Lions infielder was out for a month, and the team began to slide toward their infamous fifth-place finish.

"That's not going to happen again. Don't worry," Sato said in March after adding a few more kilograms to his sumo-sized frame over the winter. "Maybe three kilograms of muscle and a couple more in less desirable places."

Yet if his increasing power is a hard reality PL pitchers have to deal with, his own success has yet to sink in.

"I never considered this possible," Sato said. "As a dream, perhaps, but I don't really believe it's happening."


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