April 29, 2008

He had agreed to the contract. He had put on the jersey. He had taken his seat inside the stadium club, at the table draped in bunting, and he had begun that final rite of free agency, the introductory press conference. Only then did the magnitude of what he'd signed on for become clear.

His interpreter was translating reporters' questions from English to Japanese, but one question, even when translated, sounded incomprehensible: Did it factor into your decision that it has been 100 years since the Cubs won a championship?

Kosuke Fukudome knew enough history to recognize that he was not joining a dynasty. He realized that the Cubs were in the midst of a difficult stretch. But a difficult century? For some reason, team officials had neglected to mention this little detail in the three-plus years they had spent scouting and courting him.

So Fukudome scratched his head. He took a breath. He flashed a nervous half-smile. His contract was for four years, and his name was already stitched across the back of his jersey. He could not exactly run out of Wrigley Field and fly back to Japan. He also could not act daunted. "That didn't factor too much into my choice," he told the assembled reporters on Dec. 19. It was no lie, not technically. How could something be a factor if he had not even been aware of it?

Four months later, sitting in the coffee shop of a downtown Chicago hotel, Fukudome came clean. "I had no idea it had been 100 years," he said through his interpreter, Matt Hidaka.

The fact that Kosuke Fukudome stuck around is making this 100th-anniversary season a whole lot easier to stomach. Instead of picking at old scabs, the Cubs are celebrating a new player who does not know Bartman from Bart Simpson. Fukudome has been a Cub for only a month, but he already gets the loudest pregame ovations at Wrigley Field. Every time he walks to home plate, the organist plays a catchy melody that inspires chants of "FOO-koo-DOUGH-may." Vendors say his jersey is their best seller, by approximately two to one. He has also spawned a cottage industry outside the ballpark, where you can buy bandanas with Fukudome's name spelled in Japanese characters or T-shirts with shout-outs such as FUKUDOME IS MY HOMIE. (The Cubs, though, did have to pull one unlicensed T-shirt from the outdoor marketplace because it featured their bear logo with slanted eyes and Harry Caray glasses, over the words HORRY KOW.)

Fukudome, though, should not be viewed as some novelty act. There are plenty of reasons why the Cubs were in first place in the Central Division at week's end: the rediscovered power stroke of first baseman Derrek Lee, a strong bullpen and, not least of all, a newfound plate discipline that starts with Fukudome. Through Sunday, the lefthanded-hitting Fukudome was batting .326 with a .444 on-base percentage. The notoriously rowdy fans in the Wrigley bleachers not only hang signs of tribute to him in Japanese, but they also chant in the rightfielder's native tongue. Their efforts are flattering, if occasionally puzzling, to Fukudome. Placards with the Cubs' slogan IT'S GONNA HAPPEN in Japanese have been read by Fukudome to say IT'S AN ACCIDENT. And one well-meaning bleacher bum keeps yelling a phrase that translates as, "It tastes good!"

"It's like he became a legend here," shortstop Ryan Theriot says. "In one day."

The fanfare has come as a bit of a surprise to Fukudome, who came to the States without the mythology that preceded Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka, each of whom is a celebrity in Japan. Fukudome believes he already has more fans in Chicago than back home in Japan, where he was merely a very good player with two batting titles, four Gold Gloves and an MVP award, in 2006. His Japanese team, the Chunichi Dragons, played in a midsized market and went 53 years without a championship before capturing the Central League title last season -- without Fukudome, who was recovering from right-elbow surgery. The Dragons were perhaps most famous for a former manager, Senichi (Burning Hat) Hoshino, who grew so frustrated with his team during its title drought that he occasionally punched players in the face when they made mistakes. (Fukudome, who insists that he escaped any abuse, compares Hoshino with Cubs manager Lou Piniella -- "because of their intensity.")

Here's another reason Fukudome's instant popularity is a surprise: Nobody saw it coming. In spring training Fukudome batted a soft .270, with one home run and three doubles in 82 plate appearances. Most of his hits were weak liners or ground balls that scooted through the infield. He rarely drove the ball. It seemed obvious that Fukudome would need a couple of months to adjust to big league pitching.

Nonetheless, when Fukudome jogged out to rightfield on Opening Day against the Milwaukee Brewers, he was struck by the sight of eight shirtless men standing side by side in the Wrigley bleachers, the letters of his last name painted across their chests. It was 44°. On the first pitch of the first at bat of Fukudome's Cubs career, against Ben Sheets, he laced a double off the centerfield wall. "We all looked at each other in the dugout," says Cubs righthander Ryan Dempster. "And we were like, O.K., maybe this guy does know what he's doing."

Proving that his first at bat was no fluke, he went 3 for 3 and hit a game-tying three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning off Eric Gagné. The Cubs lost the game, but a phenomenon was born. Ten years after Sammy Sosa hit 66 home runs, turning the rightfield bleachers into his private cheering section, Fukudome had done the same, with 65 fewer homers. "When Sosa ran out there, they all tapped their chests," says Cubs broadcaster and former third baseman Ron Santo. "Now they bow."

At 31, Fukudome is starting a new life, largely on his own. His wife, Kazue, still lives in Japan with their baby boy, Hayato. After Hayato was born in December, Fukudome explained the origin of the name. "Chicago is called the Windy City," he told reporters. "Hayato means windy, healthy, fast and first boy." Fukudome is constantly showing off pictures of Hayato. But when he moved into his downtown Chicago loft in mid-April, he hung only one piece of art on the walls. It was a framed photograph of his Opening Day home run -- a snapshot of the moment he had truly arrived in the United States.

Wrigley field has seen plenty of one-day wonders over the years. Most famously, Cubs centerfielder Karl (Tuffy) Rhodes hit three home runs off Mets starting pitcher Dwight Gooden on Opening Day 1994, only to hit just five more during the rest of his major league career. (Coincidentally, Rhodes ended up in Japan, where he's hit more homers -- 412 -- than any other foreign-born player.) But Fukudome's staying power has nothing to do with the long ball. He will never hit as many home runs as Matsui. He won't steal as many bases as Ichiro. What separates Fukudome is his eye.

From the beginning of spring training Cubs pitchers noticed something odd about Fukudome when they threw him batting practice. He took an inordinate amount of pitches. When games began, his approach was not much different. Most major league hitters, if behind in the count, will swing at any pitch they believe is a strike. Fukudome will only swing at a pitch he believes he can hit. The difference is subtle but significant. "I just try to focus on the pitches I can handle," Fukudome says. "If it's an outside strike that I can't reach, I won't swing at it. I'll just say, 'I'm sorry,' and walk away."

Even in Japan, where hitters are well-known for their plate discipline, Fukudome was unusually selective. His on-base percentage over the last three years was .443, .438 and .430, tops in the Central League each season. This spring he tied for the Cactus League lead with 15 walks in 23 games. And this season he has drawn 19 walks in 24 games, seeing 4.5 pitches per plate appearance, second most in the majors.

Fukudome's stance looks a lot like Matsui's, his bat pointed straight up to the sky, but his swing is more like Ichiro's. As the pitch approaches, he inches forward in the batter's box, sliding both feet forward and often swinging on the move. When he misses, he can look silly, doing a full pirouette. Some managers might be tempted to tinker with Fukudome's form. But Piniella managed Ichiro in Seattle and knows not to mess.

Cubs hitting coach Gerald Perry, who had the same role under Piniella in Seattle, recalls having more concerns about Ichiro in his rookie season than he does about Fukudome. Ichiro, after all, swung at pitches outside the strike zone. Fukudome does not.

In an April 16 game against the Cincinnati Reds, Fukudome showed major league pitchers just how serious he is about working counts. He came to the plate in the sixth inning, with the Cubs ahead 10-1, a situation in which hitters generally swing freely. Reds reliever David Weathers threw Fukudome four pitches -- two just off the outside corner, two just below the knees. Fukudome took all four, another walk. Afterward Weathers sat at his locker, shaking his head. "That fish ain't bitin'," he said.

Fukudome does not drive only pitchers crazy. Gary Hughes has spent 42 years scouting ballplayers, and none tested his patience as much as Fukudome. When Hughes went to the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens to scout for the Cubs, he had never heard of Fukudome. But as he watched the Japanese team, he found himself drawn to their gap-toothed rightfielder. Hughes checked off all the tools that Fukudome possessed -- run, field, hit and hit for power. The only skill that remained a mystery was his arm.

It wasn't until the seventh game Hughes watched Fukudome play in the Olympics that he finally got to see him throw. Fukudome had to track down a base hit into the rightfield corner. He gloved the ball, came up firing and in one furious motion threw out the runner trying to sneak into second base. "Holy smokes, he can do it all!" Hughes exclaimed. "At that point I fell in love."

As Hughes walked the streets of Athens, he noticed a display of baseball cards in a hotel lobby featuring many of the Olympians. Hughes grabbed a Fukudome card and brought it back to the United States, where it has sat in his desk ever since. As a special assistant to Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, Hughes immediately recommended that Hendry sign Fukudome. But Fukudome was not a free agent, and the Dragons did not want to post him, which would have allowed major league teams to bid for the right to negotiate with him. In 2005 Hughes flew to Japan to watch Fukudome. The following year he did the same. After the '07 season Fukudome finally became a free agent, and he signed with the Cubs in December for four years and $48 million. "I've never waited so long to get a player I wanted," Hughes says. "I kept that baseball card in my desk for three years. Now, I'm trying to get him to autograph it."

It's two hours before game time, and Fukudome is weighing his bats in the Cubs' clubhouse. Fukudome is not as fanatical about his pregame routine as Ichiro is, but he is meticulous about his bats. He keeps a portable scale in his locker to make sure all of the bats weigh precisely 920 grams. Some of them, he fears, got a little light in spring training because of the dry Arizona air. These will not be used during games.

Japanese players are often viewed as curiosities by their American teammates. But the Cubs have embraced Fukudome as thoroughly as their fans have. Theriot carries a Japanese-English dictionary. Ace starter Carlos Zambrano wrote his own name in Japanese characters on the back of his cleats. Shortstop Ronny Cedeño choreographed a handshake with Fukudome that includes a bow at the end. Though the Cubs have never had a Japanese player before, several are well acquainted with Japanese baseball. Outfielder Alfonso Soriano began his professional career in Japan. Lee's father, Leon, played 10 years in Japan before becoming the first black manager there.

The Cubs also appreciate that Fukudome makes an effort. During a bus ride from Phoenix to Tucson in spring training, Theriot sat in the back row of the bus with Mark DeRosa and Daryle Ward, having a private conversation. Fukudome sat one row in front of them. After about 45 minutes Theriot noticed Fukudome typing feverishly into a small keyboard. "I looked closer, and I saw that it was his little electronic translator," Theriot says. "He was keeping track of every word we were saying."

Fukudome has a blue notebook in which he jots all of his observations, usually about opposing pitchers and teams. But with the Cubs there is so much to learn. On April 16 Cincinnati's Adam Dunn hit a home run onto Waveland Avenue, and 15 balls came flying out of the bleachers and back onto the field, one of which nearly hit Fukudome in the head. Fukudome was aware of the Wrigley tradition that home runs hit by opposing players are to be thrown back. He was not aware, however, that many fans carry their own baseballs, so if they catch a home run from an opposing player, they can throw a different one back onto the field. Afterward Fukudome sounded confused. "I didn't know we gave up that many home runs tonight," he cracked.

A sense of humor is crucial when playing for the Cubs. There will be more misunderstandings and mispronunciations as the year unfolds. But so far, it tastes good.

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