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Robert Whiting

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Lost In Translation

by Robert Whiting (Mar 22, 2004)

Pitcher Kazuhiro Sasaki left the Seattle Mariners and returned home to play in Japan. Surprising? Not at all. Many of his countrymen have found life in the major leagues much tougher than they expected.

It's not often that a major leaguer walks away from $8.5 million, but that's what Kazuhiro Sasaki did in January when he unexpectedly bid sayonara to the Seattle Mariners and returned home to Japan with one year left on a two-year, $16 million contract. After saving a franchise-record 129 games, the righthanded reliever declared that he wanted to be with his wife and two children, who, leery of life in a foreign country, had stayed behind in Yokohama during his four seasons in the U.S. Sasaki said he reached his decision after his kids begged, "Papa, ikanai de [Papa, please don't go]." Unable to resist their plea, Sasaki said he had no choice but to put away his passport and consider a return to the Yokohama BayStars, the Japan Central League team with which he had spent 10 seasons before jumping to the major leagues.¶ Skeptics among the Japanese media suggested that the decisive factor was something else-perhaps his embarrassment at losing his closer's role last year to countryman Shigetoshi Hasegawa, a demotion prompted by Sasaki's two stints on the disabled list, a disappearing fastball (once clocked at 95 mph, it topped out at 85 at times last year) and a 4.05 ERA. With a reputation for overdoing it in the bullpen (Sasaki's 50 warmup pitches before each appearance were two or three times more than most relievers throw), Sasaki, who was about to turn 36, appeared burned-out. Japanese reporters speculated that the pitcher, who was the American League Rookie of the Year after saving 37 games in 2000, had lost confidence in his ability to slam the door on big league hitters. Rather than risk further embarrassment, the theory went, Sasaki decided to cut his losses. The Mariners, by all accounts, weren't sad to see him go.

Whatever the reasons, Sasaki's career arc is being duplicated by many Japanese players as they attempt to adjust to American culture and the physical demands-particularly the increased travel between cities-of major league baseball while also struggling with the language barrier and, in most cases, the absence of their families. As a result, there are mounting questions about the staying power of Japanese imports at the major league level.

From 1995 through 2003, 17 Japanese players made their way from the Japan leagues to the majors. They made that move in order to test themselves at a higher level and to break free from the stifling strictures and excessive training in the Japanese game. And in many respects the experiment has been a big success.

Starting it all was righthander Hideo Nomo, who in 1995 won seven of his first eight decisions with the Los Angeles Dodgers, was the National League starter in the All-Star Game and triggered a wave of Nomomania in Southern California. Erratic righthander Hideki Irabu showed flashes of brilliance with the New York Yankees in '97 and '98 that led pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre to appraise him as "one of the very best I've ever seen, when he's on." In 2001 the sunglassed Ichiro Suzuki, an outfielder and the first Japanese position player to reach the majors, won the American League batting title and MVP award and became one of the most-talked-about players in decades. Last year outfielder Hideki Matsui proved so popular in his first year with the Yankees, for whom he drove in 106 runs, that PEOPLE magazine chose him as one of its "men we love." Kazuo Matsui, the 28-year-old New York Mets import, was chosen in a turn-of-the-millennium survey in Japan as the best shortstop in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) history, and when he arrived this spring he was hailed by the New York media as the next big thing from the Far East.

Americans liked these young men because of their belief, generally speaking, in the team ethos and their commitment to the idea that playing baseball is its own reward-monetary considerations coming later. Ichiro, for example, has turned down $35 million in commercial endorsements that he believed would adversely affect his reputation or his concentration on the game. Such players were welcome additions to an American pastime that seems increasingly consumed by greed and ego.

Back in Japan, by contrast, they were admired for other reasons. These players demonstrated to their countrymen new and different ways of life, imparting lessons about bravery and self-reliance, things that were not taught in Japanese schools. Reporter Tateo Shimizu of the newspaper Asahi Shimbun touched on this when he wrote, "In American school textbooks, the purpose is to teach individual responsibility and create strong individuals, as seen in the story of The Ant and the Grasshopper. In elementary Japanese textbooks, however, such themes are largely absent; the most important thing is learning the value of smooth human relations and the group.... Instead of staying in Japan where [the players] could have had a stable, secure and assured future, they chose a more difficult path, relying on skill and technique to test themselves. Ichiro and the others inspire countless young people to say, 'O.K., I can make it on my own too.' "

As for the players themselves, they found several reasons to remain in the U.S., beginning with the new validation of self-worth and the benefits of the looser, freer major league system, where for the first time they had a real say in determining their practice routines as well as in negotiating their salaries. Said Nomo, who has played for eight American managers, "It's a great feeling to be responsible for yourself and to be free to be yourself. In Japan you're treated like a child." Although many players did accept less money to emigrate to the U.S. in the beginning, they stood to pocket more lucre in the long run, given the major league salary structure and the potential for increased commercial endorsements not only in the U.S. but also at home, where many players became more popular than ever because of their major league cachet.

Other aspects of the American game that appealed to Japanese players included ballparks with natural grass, which allowed them to dive for balls they might not have gone after so enthusiastically on the artificial turf that is prevalent in Japan, and the unrestrained expressiveness of U.S. fans, even those in New York. As Hideki Matsui put it, "In the U.S. they are easy to understand. When you play well, they give you a big round of applause. When you do bad, they boo you. In Tokyo it's always the same: trumpets, whistles and chanting in the oendan [cheering section]. Silence in the rest of the stands." Ichiro agreed, saying the U.S. fans were "fun to watch. They're every bit as individualistic as the players."

Of course, the American experience has hardly been unalloyed joy for the Japanese besuboru migrant. While, on the one hand, most Japanese players appreciate the less regimented U.S. baseball culture, they also think that it helps create "unfinished" athletes, players who are less skilled in the fundamentals and the finer points of the game-such as the bunt, the hit-and-run, hitting to the opposite field, baserunning, defensive relays-because they do not practice them endlessly from Little League on up the way young players in Japan do. The constant emphasis on power, they believe, is a detriment to equally important parts of the game, such as advancing the runner. As Ichiro put it to a startled St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa during an off-season dinner discussion, "You Americans would be much better if you practiced like you should."

Japanese also look askance at such long-standing American baseball customs as chewing tobacco and spitting it on the dugout floor-"disgusting" is how cleanliness-conscious Japanese players commonly describe it. They find confusing the myriad unwritten rules of behavior that major leaguers have concocted to protect their all-important pride: No bunting or stealing with a big lead is one; no crowd-pleasing fist in the air (gattsu pozu) is another. The Japanese cannot understand why opposing players took offense when outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo touched home plate with his hand after his first home run of spring training or why American players in the Hawaiian Winter League took exception to Kazuo Matsui's celebratory gestures when he played there in 1995. To fans in Japan, such behavior is reminiscent of that of former Seibu Lions star Koji Akiyama, who would do a cartwheel and a backflip whenever he hit a game-ending blast. Why is such conduct viewed in the majors as "showing up the opposition" and an invitation to reprisal in the form of a fastball to the ribs, when players get away with similar behavior in the NFL and the NBA? Then there is the puerile tendency of U.S. big leaguers to play practical jokes, like putting itching powder in a teammate's talcum container. This is simply not done in Japan, where wa (group harmony) is so important.

But outside the ballpark is where adjustments are most difficult for Japanese players. Few of them speak English well enough to carry on conversations with teammates, so it is wearying for them to spend even an evening over dinner communicating through an interpreter. Thus most Japanese players pass their free time with other expatriates or visitors from Mother Nippon, catching up on news from home and trying to figure out what makes Americans tick.

Last season Hideki Matsui lived alone in a Manhattan high-rise. He did his own laundry and socialized mostly with his personal manager, Isao Hirooka, a few Japanese writers and visitors from Japan. He eschewed the museums and art galleries and other such New York City attractions, preferring to spend his free time eating at Japanese restaurants and going for long reflective drives along the Hudson River. At night he patronized sedate, refined Manhattan hostess clubs for well-to-do Japanese expats.

The Japanese players' sense of isolation is heightened by the constant travel, the long plane rides and the countless nights in strange cities where most people have never even met a Japanese. (Kansas City is one of the least desirable destinations because it is difficult to find a decent Japanese restaurant there.) Shinjo described his three seasons on the road with the Mets and the San Francisco Giants as a constant battle against loneliness and boredom. "You play a game that ends at 10, and then you're ready to go out, but all the good places to eat-Japanese or otherwise-are closing up," he said. "You go back to your hotel room, order a cheeseburger from room service and turn on the TV, but you can't understand what the people are saying. It can really get to you after a while. I had to start carrying DVDs from Japan with me to keep my sanity."

Then there are the subtle and not-so-subtle discriminations that people of Asian origin sometimes face. While Ichiro, for one, said that he had not experienced bias in America, other Japanese players complained of hearing racially derogatory comments from the stands, if not from other ballplayers. At the beginning of his rookie season the pioneer Nomo received his share of hate mail-not only from Japanese fans angry that he had deserted them but also from racist fans in America. He received letters calling him a "yellow monkey" and demanding that he go home. "I could understand how gaijin [foreigners] in the Japan leagues must have felt," he said. There was a particularly ugly incident at Shea Stadium that triggered a four-man fistfight. Eddie Kochiyama, a third-generation Japanese-American attending the game, was quoted in the L.A.-based Rafu Shimpo as saying, "Each time a group of Japanese fans wearing Dodger caps and shirts held up NOMO and K signs, standing for strikeouts, some whites sitting in front of them would turn around and give them the finger and chant 'U-S-A.' "

If you asked Japanese players what they like most about the U.S., baseball aside, they would probably mention the vast spaciousness-in particular the roominess of the houses and the accessibility of golf courses (ideal for golf fanatics like Dodgers lefthander Kazuhisa Ishii). It compares most favorably to the cramped conditions on Japan's crowded islands. Adds Seattle-based sportswriter Masayoshi Niwa, "These guys absolutely love the freedom of being able to walk downtown in the cities without wearing sunglasses. It's something they can't do back in Japan-especially Ichiro. It's why he decided to stay in Seattle to train after the 2003 season. If he goes back to Japan, the media follow him everywhere."

Ballplayers' wives, if they come, might mention the higher social status of women in the U.S., in marked contrast to Japan, where men often treat their spouses like servants. Shinjo's wife was shocked when she visited him in New York in 2001 and he peeled fruit for her. "He never did anything like that for me back in Japan," she said.

Of all the baseball émigrés who starred in these real-life dramas, perhaps none was as instructive as the Mariners' Hasegawa, who demonstrated that a Japanese player did not have to be a superstar at home to make it in the majors. In six years with the Orix BlueWave, Hasegawa had a solid record of 57 wins with a 3.11 ERA. Compact and muscular at 5'9", 170 pounds, he compensated for a low-octane fastball with a confusing array of breaking pitches that he could locate with remarkable accuracy.

Hasegawa's move to the U.S. in 1997, following his worst season (4-6, 5-32 ERA) with Orix, was regarded as something of a gamble for him and for the Anaheim Angels. If he had flopped, it could very well have had a negative effect on other Japanese aspiring to play in the majors. Assigned to the bullpen after failing early on as a starter, Hasegawa assiduously studied the weaknesses and strengths of the batters as well as the tendencies of American League umpires. By the end of the 1998 season he had established himself as a solid middle reliever (8-3, 3.14). Although he tore his rotator cuff in 2001 and was sidelined for part of the season, Hasegawa signed with Seattle as a free agent in January '02. When Sasaki went on the disabled list last year, Hasegawa became the closer, produced an eye-popping ERA of 0.77 over the first half of the year and earned a spot on the AL All-Star team.

Hasegawa's contributions to trans-Pacific relations extended beyond baseball. Bright and disciplined, he shunned the use of an interpreter and made a concerted effort to learn English, fearlessly babbling away to anyone who put a microphone in his face. His interviews in English were so fascinating to the folks back home that a publisher asked him to write a textbook. The resulting tome, My Way to Study English, became a best seller in Japan. Hasegawa reveled in life in the U.S. He bought a house in Newport Beach, Calif., and became an off-season golf junkie, spending an average of only two weeks in Japan. While his wife sometimes complained of little discriminations by Americans, Hasegawa never did. "I learned to speak English well enough to tell people off if I have to," he said.

Hasegawa was popular with his Seattle teammates, who liked his open, gregarious manner, and with the writers, who appreciated him because he was always willing to talk. Ichiro, constantly pursued by a squadron of mostly Japanese reporters, conducted postgame interviews through an intermediary, his back to reporters as he sat in front of his locker ("Is this some kind of Zen?" asked one befuddled American journalist), although he did partially redeem his image in an entertaining televised chat with Bob Costas in which he revealed that his favorite English expression was, "It's as hot as two rats f--- in a sock in August in Kansas City." Sasaki generally distanced himself from his teammates and the press, once even abruptly canceling a scheduled interview with a writer who had flown 5,000 miles from Japan and offering no apology, no explanation and no attempt to reschedule. Japanese players on other teams were similarly uncommunicative, especially the monosyllabic Nomo, who was exceptionally skilled at avoiding reporters no matter which side of the Pacific they came from.

Of course, the question most people want to ask Japanese players, given their major league track records, is not When are you going to learn English? but How long are you going to last?

After his 7-1 start with the Dodgers in 1995, Nomo went 6-5 the rest of his rookie season and got shelled in his one postseason start. He had arthroscopic elbow surgery after the '97 season and kicked around the majors, then resurrected his career by throwing his second no-hitter (with the Boston Red Sox in 2001) and returning to the Dodgers to become one of their top starters. But at the end of last season he developed arm trouble again, and the gradual decline in his fastball was hard to miss. Irabu underwent elbow and knee surgeries and suffered blood clots in his lungs before heading back to Japan after six seasons. Hasegawa had the rotator-cuff injury, while Ishii ran out of gas in the second half of '02, his initial season in Los Angeles, and spent several weeks on the DL last year. Even Ichiro, after his spectacular rookie year, tailed off horribly in the second half of his next two seasons.

Some experts argue that the traditional Japanese "practice until you die" training ethic is the culprit. In Japan "voluntary" workouts start the first week of January, followed by dawn-to-dusk training camps and then lengthy, strenuous off-day and pregame workouts during the 140-game season. In the U.S. a player who says he's tired gets a day or two off; in Japan the player is told to work harder to overcome his loss of stamina. For pitchers in Japan, daily throwing sessions in the bullpen and high pitch counts in games are the norm. In his earlier incarnation as a Kintetsu Buffalo, Nomo threw as many as 191 pitches in one game and 180 in another and went over 140 pitches numerous other times (most major league pitchers come out of the game after 120), and he had arm surgery the year before he left for the U.S.

Hasegawa wrote a book about baseball, Adjustment, in which he stated his belief that the heavy workload during his early years in Japan and the lack of a sophisticated weight-training program for pitchers had indirectly contributed to his rotator cuff injury. Finally, some critics have cited Ichiro's exceptionally long pregame practice regimen as the reason for his late-season fades, which included a .243 batting average in August and September 2003.

At 36 Sasaki was not that old for a major league pitcher, perhaps, but ancient by the standards of the NPB. (Sasaki missed much of the 1999 season with Yokohama because of arm surgery.) His lifestyle didn't help. The 6'4", 220-pound reliever, nicknamed Daimajin after a giant stone samurai that comes to life on celluloid to rescue imperiled villagers, had lived alone in a Mercer Island condominium while with the Mariners. He bought a silver Porsche, frequented Seattle watering holes and was spotted hanging out at the University of Washington student union. On the road he was often wined and dined at expensive Japanese-only nightclubs by wealthy businessmen residing in the U.S.

Sasaki found himself the subject of media scrutiny in the U.S. and Japan early in the 2002 season when he made a 24-hour trip back to Japan. Concern over the health of his wife, Kaori, was what he told reporters at the Sea-Tac arrival lobby upon his return to Seattle. There was much skepticism in the Japanese press. The Shukan Post, a popular weekly magazine with a nose for scandal, speculated that a divorce might be imminent. Sasaki denied the divorce rumors. (As of this writing he was still married.)

In mid-2003 he was back in the news after he cracked several ribs and went on the DL for the second time that season. Sasaki said the injury occurred when he fell down the stairs in his home while carrying a suitcase. But it was a story that few people believed and that journalists in Japan and the U.S. questioned in print.

Sasaki supporters believed that this incident was the main factor in his decision to go home. But insiders held to their view that the big reason was Sasaki's pride, which was seriously dented not only by Hasegawa's taking his job last season but also by Seattle's December 2003 signing of free-agent closer Eddie Guardado, who had 41 saves last season. It was then that Sasaki realized Seattle no longer needed him and most likely would not offer him a new contract after the 2004 season-something that would represent for him an unbearable loss of face. By opting to go back to Japan this season, Sasaki would have an opportunity to prove that he still had what it took (albeit against lesser competition). Said sportswriter Osamu Nagatani, a close friend of Sasaki's, "Kazuhiro is still confident of his power and ability as a closer." And so, apparently, are the Yokohama BayStars, who gave him a contract estimated to be worth $5 million this year.

Whether this will be Sasaki's last season may depend on how much he's got left on his fastball. But even if he retires, his exit would not necessarily be a bad thing, nor an unusual one, in Japanese terms. As Osamu Mihara, one of Japan's alltime great managers put it, "It is better to shine brightly for a short time-like the cherry blossom-than never to shine at all."

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