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The Foreign Legion

Exchange Students From Japan Bolster Montclair Prep


VAN NUYS — Hiroyuki Tazaki doesn't have full command of the English language, but he didn't need an interpreter to translate his coach's body language after getting thrown out stealing in his first American high school baseball game.

"[Tazaki] missed a sign and he took off, trying to steal a base with our No. 4 batter up," Montclair Prep Coach Marc Saraceno said. "He ran us right out of the inning. He obviously knew I was not too happy. Let's just say I was in a little state of unhappiness."

While body language may be universal, English is not. And these days, the language barrier is among the biggest obstacles facing Tazaki and three teammates.

Tazaki, a senior third baseman, is one of four Japanese exchange students playing baseball at Montclair Prep.

Through an interpreter, the group--which met a year ago--said they came to the United States to "get an education and play American baseball at the same time."

The Japanese foursome enrolled at Montclair Prep in March 1997 and had to attend classes for a year before gaining high school eligibility. All live in dormitories on campus.

All four say they understand English well enough to study in this country, but none feel comfortable enough around a stranger to speak English.

Even Saraceno, in his first year as coach at Montclair Prep, relies heavily on senior catcher Hideyoshi Misawa for much of the translation.

"I see them understand a majority of what I've got to say, but if I speak too fast, get raring and going to get whatever point across, they could be overwhelmed," Saraceno said. "The speed of the language has got to have a gap, a missing link."

Misawa, a Japanese native who came to the Valley before his first birthday, is the glue closing the gaps for the Mounties. Misawa speaks Japanese fluently because his parents had him take classes for nine years.

Those classes are paying off for Montclair Prep.

For Tazaki, Natsuki Maeda, Tomohiro Kawasumi and Shoichi Tateo, Misawa is more than a teammate. He is a good friend--and the group's voice and ears--who has made the foursome's transition into American culture much easier.

The translations haven't been lost on Misawa.

"It's been fun for me," Misawa said. "I learn a lot from them about Japan and their culture."

Montclair Prep is reaping the benefits.

Since the foursome was granted eligibility before the third game of the season, the Mounties (6-2) are unbeaten in six games.

"They filled right in and beefed up our lineup," Saraceno said.

Three of the four are pitchers.

Kawasumi, considered the ace of the Mounties' staff, has found instant success. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound right-hander is 3-0 with a 1.41 earned-run average.

"Tomo definitely has had some experience," Saraceno said. "He can get more than a couple of pitches over for strikes. He's a good high school pitcher."

Kawasumi, who has command of an 80 mph fastball, a curve and a forkball, has struck out 20 and walked four in 17 innings. He is also among the Mounties' best hitters, batting .474 with nine runs batted in.

While some might assume Kawasumi dreams of becoming the next Hideo Nomo, he said that assumption couldn't be further from the truth. Kawasumi said he is using the United States as a training ground for a career he hopes will land him back in Japan.

"He wants to play professional baseball in Japan," Misawa said. "That's been his dream."

As for the reference to Nomo, none of the four count the Dodger pitcher among their heroes.

"Other American pitchers are way better," said Misawa, after hearing from each of the four Japanese natives.

Tateo, a 6-3, 230-pound right-hander who is carrying a 3.5 grade-point average at Montclair Prep, is the only one in the foursome who is thinking more about education than baseball. Tateo's dream is to get a education in the U.S. and become an athletic trainer.

All but Maeda have remained in the United States since their arrival last year.

Maeda returned to Japan for one month while his teammates played in summer leagues.

Away from family and friends for the first time in their lives, they say they are not homesick.

"They're not lonely or anything, but they want to eat their own home cooking," Misawa said.

They say the eggs and pancakes they face each morning in the cafeteria at Montclair Prep have made them long for their traditional breakfast of miso soup, rice and fried fish.

"They're just not used to it," Misawa said.

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