NEW YORK — Many Americans have recently begun enjoying sushi. The Japanese seafood dish has formed part of former major-leaguer Leron Lee's diet for years.
Lee, who spent eight seasons in the majors during the 1970s, has enjoyed great success playing baseball in Japan the last nine years. After being told by the Dodgers that he could no longer help them, Lee became a star playing ball in Jaoan.
He is enhancing his prominence by making commercials and records.
A former All-Star selection with the San Diego Padres, Lee, 37, has developed into one of the most popular "foreign" players in Japan.
Of all the American players who have drifted to Japan to prolong their careers, Lee is by far the most successful. He is the only American player to make his home in Japan permanently.
Lee, from Bakersfield, has married a Japanese woman, Vicquie, and has learned to speak the language. He also has a 1-year-old daughter, Juliet. Lee's team, the Lotte Orions of the Pacific League, provides him with his personal interpreter, Toyo Kunimitsu. Lee has an apartment in Tokyo and is a 30-minute drive from the stadium.
"Tokyo is a great place to live," said Lee, who spent time with the St. Louis Cardinals and Cleveland Indians as well as the Padres and Dodgers. "It's safe, it's clean and has all the conveniences. The subway system is one of the best and the food is the best in the world.
"The wonderful thing about Japanese history is that it is still used in daily life. It's a lot deeper than cowboys and Indians."
Lee said he is among the top five paid players in Japan. He makes "a little over $400,000 a year," which includes housing and travel. Lee prefers staying in Japan year-round because the off-season is so short.
"At the end of the season, you would come back (to the United States) and by the time you settle down you're ready to come back," Lee said. "I'd rather enjoy the Indian Summer over there."
Spring training in Japan will start Feb. 4 and last for two months. The regular season is scheduled to open April 7 and run through October. Each team is allowed two foreigners. At one point, Lee's brother, Leon, played with him on the Orions.
Since joining the Orions in 1976, the powerful left-handed-hitting first baseman/outfielder has hit Japanese pitching well. Four records are within Lee's reach this season. He is only three homers, 102 hits and 40 RBIs away from tying lifetime records for foreign players. If he can hit .300 this year, Lee would break the All-Japan record with nine consecutive .300 seasons.
Lee, a No. 1 draft choice, broke into the major leagues in 1969 with the Cardinals. In 1970, at 21, he was St. Louis' starting right fielder. At one point he was batting .288 but, when he started to dip, Manager Red Schoendienst took him out of the lineup.
Lee began seeing time as a pinch hitter and defensive replacement. On rare occasions, he filled in for Lou Brock.
"I'd find myself batting against Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver," Lee said. "When Lou Brock didn't want to play, they'd send me out there.
"One day in St. Louis, it was 110 degrees. At 11 in the morning, Lou comes to me and says 'Give me a break today, play left field.' I said, 'Fine.' He said, 'Nolan's pitching.' That was great. I struck out three times on 11 pitches."
Lee moved around the majors for a few years until the Dodgers gave him the option of returning to the minors or taking his release. Lee, persuaded by former major leaguer Jim Lefebvre, decided to play in Japan.
"The biggest thing that enticed me was that I had a chance to be the No. 3 or 4 batter and play every day," said Lee. "I had been sitting around for seven years."
When Lee first arrived in Japan, he felt pressure to produce immediately. A perennial slow starter, Lee had his manager worried when he went a couple of weeks without hitting a home run.
"In Japan, you have to be ready early," Lee said. "I wasn't hitting and the manager thought I had no power. He was upset. I hit my first home run four weeks into the spring over the center field backstop. It was the longest home run they had ever seen."
Soon after that, the Orions had to construct a new fence beyond the center field wall, which they called "Lee Fence" because Lee was breaking too many windows.
Lee said after he finishes playing, he would like to help improve ties between American and Japanese baseball. He would enjoy witnessing an expansion to Japan.
He said one possibility would be sending American teams to Japan to play at two-week intervals, similar to the way the Hawaii Islanders, a Triple A team in the Pacific Coast League, operate. Japanese clubs would then come to the United States two weeks at a time.
Tokyo is building a domed stadium, which should be ready by 1988, and Lee hopes that will attract some attention.
"There's talk of an international World Series. I hope it's in my time," Lee said. "It would be good for the fans and good for baseball."