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These Players Are in Prime Position

Japanese major leaguers are expanding beyond the pitching mound and making a big impact in the field.

September 12, 2004|From Associated Press

SEATTLE — Not so long ago, the thinking around baseball was that only pitchers had a shot at jumping across the Pacific Ocean from the Japanese leagues to the majors.

Ichiro Suzuki turned around that idea up when he became the American League MVP and Rookie of the Year in 2001 with Seattle. Then came a slugger as Hideki Matsui joined the New York Yankees last year. And this season, Mets rookie shortstop Kaz Matsui hit a first-pitch home run in his first at-bat.

"You're seeing an influx not just of players from Japan, but very good players. These guys are having a dramatic effect on the game," Seattle Manager Bob Melvin said.

With Suzuki bearing down on his second batting title and aiming at the 84-year-old major league record for hits, Japanese position players are making a difference on both sides of the ocean.

"It's a very positive influence, not only for Japanese players but for children in Japan," Hideki Matsui said through an interpreter. "They can dream not only to play Japanese baseball, but to make it over here and have an impact."

These guys weren't the Japanese pioneers. Hideo Nomo, with his corkscrew delivery, was National League Rookie of the Year with the Dodgers in 1995.

Going way back, the first Japanese player in the majors was lefty reliever Masanori Murakami, who played with the San Francisco Giants in 1964 and 1965 before returning home -- a void unfilled until Nomo's arrival.

Today, major league rosters are dotted with Japanese relievers such as Shigetoshi Hasegawa in Seattle, Kazuhito Tadano in Cleveland and Shingo Takatsu with the Chicago White Sox.

Position players are special though, because they've shown they can make a difference every day.

"I'm very happy for that," Suzuki said through a translator. "It's starting to open up a little bit. There will be more opportunities for others. It's definitely a good thing."

Suzuki sure has made an impact. Four years in the majors, four All-Star appearances and three Gold Gloves in right field, along with becoming one of the game's best baserunners.

Though the Mariners won't be a factor this fall, Suzuki remains one of baseball's most closely followed stories this September.

By midweek, Suzuki had 227 hits -- 30 short of George Sisler's mark of 257 set in 1920 with the St. Louis Browns. It's a record that seems certain to fall, since Suzuki was hitting .377 with 24 games remaining.

Simply put, Suzuki is the game's most fascinating hitter.

"You can't try to pitch him a certain way because he's going to hurt you," Cleveland starter C.C. Sabathia said this week. "I just tried to hit my spots and hope he hit it at somebody because you're not going to strike him out."

Fans are coming out to see Suzuki perform. He had two hits off Sabathia in a 5-0 loss to the Indians on Monday, when a thin Safeco Field crowd diminished even more after Suzuki's ninth-inning single.

"The last at-bat, I heard some cheers and then I saw some people leaving," Suzuki said.

He received a spontaneous standing ovation last week after a 5-for-5 performance in Chicago in an 8-7 loss to the White Sox.

"It shows where this thing is going right now," Melvin said. "A five-hit game, his third of the year. Everybody is really taking notice of it now."

It was once believed in Japan that American fans would never support a Japanese player, another myth that long ago was punctured.

"It's not true," Hasegawa said. "American fans like the good players -- Japanese, Dominican, American. They treat them all the same. Japanese people can see that now."

Meanwhile, Hideki Matsui snapped an 0-for-16 slump with three hits -- including a two-run double -- in Tuesday's 11-2 win over Tampa Bay.

The Yankees are in a pennant race, and that was Matsui's first game in the cleanup spot -- a prestigious position in the lineup on either side of the ocean but considered a great honor in Japan.

"I don't really place that much emphasis on where I hit in the lineup," Matsui said with typical modesty. "Being a cleanup hitter has its responsibilities, but I don't really change my approach based on where I hit."

As of this week, Matsui had played in 1,550 straight pro games -- 1,250 with the Yomiuri Giants and 300 with the Yankees dating to the start of his major league career last season.

Kaz Matsui attracted attention this season by demonstrating that an infielder could make the leap from Japan. Until going on the disabled list Aug. 15 with back spasms, he was hitting .275 with 41 RBIs. He had 31 doubles and 13 stolen bases.

He has struggled in the field, however, committing 23 errors.

Other players have struggled to make the cultural adjustment. Most recently, former Mariners closers Kazuhiro Sasaki voided the final year of his contract so he could return to Japan to be with his family.

The consensus among baseball insiders, though, is that more Japanese players are coming, and the path cleared by the likes of Nomo, Suzuki and the Matsuis will only make things easier for those who follow.

"These guys have opened the avenues for other players," Melvin said. "Guys can say, 'Hey, I've got a shot to come over and make a difference, too.' It's going to keep happening."

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