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Saving his high notes

After becoming frustrated because of injuries and contemplating retirement in Japan, Dodgers closer Saito has won over his teammates with his relief pitching on the field -- and his karaoke singing off

July 15, 2007|Dylan Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

Every time Takashi Saito prepares to run out of the Dodgers' bullpen, he taps himself twice on the chest and asks himself aloud, "Takashi Saito, what did you come here to do?"

Every time he asks himself that question, Saito says, he wants to feel the answer. Because when he no longer feels it, it will mean he no longer belongs here, an ocean away from his wife and two daughters in Japan.

Saito was seriously pondering retirement when his contract with the Yokohama BayStars expired in 2005. Only the frustration of playing hurt most of the previous three seasons had prevented him from quitting. He didn't want his career to end like that, with baseball no longer being fun.

The day he learned he had been chosen for the All-Star team, Saito faintly smiled, sighed and shook his head.

"I'm glad I didn't quit," he said.

Because baseball is fun again.

"For me, every day is like an All-Star game," said Saito, 37. "Every day, I feel like I'm surrounded by All-Stars and facing All-Stars. I might've been called into the All-Star game, but I've felt like an All-Star every day."

In Japan, he felt like a failure.

He was paid nearly $7 million over his last three seasons to be the BayStars' ace, but his body betrayed him. Slowed because of back problems and a hernia, he failed to win 10 games in any one of those seasons.

"I could barely throw 90 miles per hour," he said. "It was pitch and get hit, pitch and get hit. I thought the end was near."

He thought of being a television analyst or coaching kids.

But he wanted one more chance, one more season. He wanted a clean start and a shot at playing the game at its highest level.

So he asked his wife. They had two daughters, and he would be taking a huge pay cut without a guarantee of employment.

She let him go.

Though Saito had agreed to the terms of a minor league deal with the Dodgers, he left Japan in January 2006 without a signed contract. When he flew out of Narita Airport, only his family and agent knew.

Saito said he was aware of how his move would be perceived in Japan: that he was headed to the U.S. to make one last memory and retire.

The way he was perceived here -- in particular, how little was expected of him -- was made clear to him the day he was introduced to reporters at Dodger Stadium. He had faced a room full of reporters and cameras when he was a first-round draft pick from college in Japan, but here, there were maybe 10 Japanese reporters and a few television cameras.

And when Saito reported to spring training, he initially had trouble finding his place.

The shift from being a veteran to a rookie was difficult.

"What was common sense to me wasn't common sense over here," Saito said. "I knew that'd be the case, but it was hard when I was confronted with that reality."

One player went out of his way to tell him that his previous experience with a Japanese teammate was negative. Others refused to acknowledge his presence.

Saito started stretching alone. Then, one day, he was approached by pitcher Brad Penny.

When Saito revealed in small talk that he liked karaoke, Penny organized a trip to a karaoke bar.

Once there, Saito was thrust onto the stage. He chose the one song he knew how to sing in English, the Beatles' "Hey Jude." Saito had been forced to learn the song as a junior in college, when his class sang it as part of a farewell for the graduating seniors.

Saito's teammates crowded the stage and applauded.

"We wanted to have a little laugh," catcher Russell Martin said. "His English wasn't very good yet. I didn't think he was going to do it. But it was unbelievable. Everybody in there just stopped. It was crazy."

Soon, a karaoke machine was brought into the clubhouse so he could perform in front of the entire team.

"He can definitely sing," third baseman Nomar Garciaparra said.

That improved his relationship with his teammates. For the remainder of the spring, he was frequently summoned into the trainer's room to sing.

"I never imagined that something like that could help me," Saito said. "Karaoke is completely Japanese. That karaoke is even here is strange."

But Saito didn't make the major league roster after spring training.

When he reported to triple-A Las Vegas, practice on that day already had ended and the clubhouse was empty. He went into the dining room to eat, finding only crackers. They tasted bad.

He wondered whether he had made a mistake. A friend, former Angels and Mariners pitcher Shigetoshi Hasegawa, had warned him of this possibility.

Saito's toughest time was when his wife and two daughters visited him for the Freeway Series against the Angels before opening day. When he took them to the airport, they were crying.

"Dad, try your best," his daughters told him through their tears.

"It was sad seeing my children's tears and my wife's tears," Saito said. "It's sad seeing the tears of your family. Those tears were caused by my selfishness. I had a family, but I came here to chase a dream."

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