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Rising Sons With timely hitting and superb defense, the Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki and the Mets' Tsuyoshi Shinjo are boosting the stock of Asian players

April 23, 2001
April 23, 2001

Table of Contents
April 23, 2001

Pro Football
Allen Iverson

Rising Sons With timely hitting and superb defense, the Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki and the Mets' Tsuyoshi Shinjo are boosting the stock of Asian players

Last Friday night, in what was a less-than-ringing endorsement for
Adjustment, Anaheim Angels reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa's 2000
book about adapting to life and baseball in America, Seattle
Mariners rightfielder Ichiro Suzuki slapped the first major
league pitch he saw from Hasegawa--the first big league pitch any
Asian hitter had ever seen from an Asian pitcher--for an infield
single. "I know he wrote a book, but I haven't read it," Suzuki
said of his teammate of five years with Japan's Orix Blue Wave.

This is an article from the April 23, 2001 issue Original Layout

It's too bad, because if Suzuki had whiffed on one of Hasegawa's
nasty splitters, then the author, who in five years with Anaheim
has become the team's premier middle reliever, could point to his
tome and say, "Well, friend, you should've shelled out a few
yen...." Still, if there's one thing Suzuki showed in his first
two weeks with Seattle, it's that a good Japanese hitter need not
necessarily change much to succeed in the majors. Doing the same
things he did for seven seasons as an icon in Japan--slapping the
ball all over the field and wreaking havoc on the bases--Suzuki
has more than justified the $13.1 million the Mariners paid the
Blue Wave just for the right to negotiate with him in the
off-season. (Signing him to a three-year contract set them back
another $15 million.)

The 27-year-old Suzuki wasted little time making a good
impression Stateside. In the eighth inning on Opening Day at
Seattle's Safeco Field, he beat out what had been intended as a
sacrifice bunt, sparking a 5-4 win over the Oakland A's. "He's
the same type of player as [A's leadoff man] Johnny Damon," says
Seattle righthander Aaron Sele. "He's doing a great job getting
on base and mixing things up." At week's end Suzuki was hitting
.321 as the leadoff man for the Mariners, who had small-balled
their way to a 9-3 record and a 2 1/2-game lead over the Texas
Rangers in the American League West.

In the season's first two weeks, however, Suzuki had to share the
spotlight with other players from Asia. On April 4 Boston Red Sox
righthander Hideo Nomo, the second player from Japan to play in
the majors when he came up with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995,
pitched his second no-hitter, a 3-0 victory over the Baltimore
Orioles. Suzuki's Mariners teammate and countryman (and last
year's American League Rookie of the Year), righty closer
Kazuhiro Sasaki, led the league at week's end with six saves. The
first 13 batters faced by Arizona Diamondbacks righty setup man
Byung-Hyun Kim, a native of South Korea, didn't even put the ball
in play (nine strikeouts, four walks). Finally, New York Mets
rookie rightfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo, late of the Hanshin Tigers
of the Japanese Central League, was captivating Shea Stadium fans
with his bat (.314 average, .385 on-base percentage), his glove
and his charisma.

"There are guys over there who can not only play in our league
but can also be a big part of it, and you're going to see more
and more," says Angels manager Mike Scioscia, for whom Hasegawa
led Anaheim in wins last year, with 10. "These guys are going to
make their mark in the majors."

This month Suzuki and Shinjo--the first Japanese position players
in the big leagues--are the ones under the microscope. Suzuki's
Opening Day feat was made more impressive by the fact that it was
the first time he had bunted in a game in seven years. "He's
probably one of the greatest bunters in the world," says Ted
Heid, Seattle's director of Pacific Rim operations, pointing out
that Suzuki has been clocked from home to first in a blinding 3.7
seconds. "But people didn't pay to watch him bunt. It would be
like Mark McGwire bunting. They came to watch him hit."

Suzuki seldom disappointed them. He had a .353 lifetime average
and won seven batting titles in his seven full seasons. "Bottom
line," says Heid, "Ichiro is an exceptional athlete. He's a
player that any manager would love to have."

The same can't necessarily be said of Shinjo, a flashy
righthanded-hitting free swinger with gaudy taste (you could use
one of his bright-orange wristbands as a sweater for your poodle)
and not-so-gaudy numbers (a .249 career average and 145 homers in
10 seasons with Hanshin) who joined the Mets as a free agent in
December. Like Suzuki, he is dangerous on the base paths and has
a superior arm, but the 29-year-old left spring training as the
team's fourth outfielder. Injuries to Benny Agbayani and Timo
Perez, however, thrust him into an every-day role, and a week
into the season the city had a full-blown case of Shinjo fever.
His homer off Atlanta Braves righty reliever Jason Marquis in New
York's 9-4 home-opening win on April 9 was followed by a
my-lumber-is-too-hot-to-touch bat toss, just the kind of
showmanship New Yorkers love.

With Suzuki and Shinjo off to such terrific starts, the obvious
question is, What took teams so long to import Asian position
players? "You can judge pitchers with radar guns and watch the
drop and movement of the ball and say to yourself, Well, that's
major league quality," says Mets manager Bobby Valentine, who
managed the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan in 1995. "When you watch
a hitter in Japan, his abilities are discounted because [people]
say he's not hitting against major league pitching."

Americans tend to envision Japan as a land of junkball hurlers,
but as Jim Marshall, the Diamondbacks' director of Pacific Rim
operations, points out, "At least two pitchers on each [Japanese]
staff throw over 90 [miles per hour]." Japanese pitchers, though,
do tend to rely more on breaking balls than do U.S. pitchers.
Over the winter Mets officials watched a videotape of Shinjo's at
bats in which he saw 85 straight off-speed pitches. Heid thinks
that playing in a country where the fastball has earned its
status as ol' number one should help Shinjo. "He can hit the
fastball," Heid says. "If teams start realizing they can get him
out with the soft stuff, it's going to be tougher on him."
Shinjo's 417-foot homer off Marquis came on a fastball, as did a
410-foot fly-out he hit off Braves righty Kevin Millwood on the
same day.

As for the lefthanded-hitting Suzuki, if there's a good way to
pitch him, no one in Japan found it. If he can't turn on a pitch,
he has an uncanny ability to go the other way with his inside-out
swing. Furthermore, if he can get around on an inside pitch, he
has surprising pop for a player listed at 5'9" and 160 pounds, as
evidenced by the 10th-inning game-winning two-run homer he yanked
out to right off reliever Jeff Zimmerman in the Mariners' 9-7 win
over the Rangers on April 6.

In the spring of '99, when Suzuki spent a few days at Seattle's
training camp, Ken Griffey Jr., a Mariner at the time, sized up
Suzuki and proclaimed, "He's got no booty." Two years and an
additional 15 pounds of muscle later, Suzuki is still relatively
bootyless, prompting some to wonder how he'll hold up under the
rigors of a 162-game schedule with frequent long-distance road
trips. (The Japanese season lasts 135 games, and no trip takes
more than four hours.) Japanese players, however, are used to far
more rigorous practice schedules, so much so that after his first
workout this spring, Shinjo asked Valentine what time he should
return for the evening workout. When Valentine told him major
leaguers only practice once a day, Shinjo, who is 6'1" and weighs
185 pounds, worked out alone, swinging a bat in the parking lot
of the team hotel under the starry Florida sky. "These guys will
work so much less [in the States] that by season's end they'll
think it's midseason," says Valentine. "There's no reason to
think there will be any physical drain on Japanese players."

In fact the most draining aspect of life in the bigs might be
dealing with the media circus their debuts have created. In Japan
writers are never allowed in the clubhouse, and postgame
"interviews" generally consist of giving a quote to a public
relations person and having it distributed. In the States,
though, Suzuki and Shinjo have been trailed by packs of Japanese
reporters at least 60 strong. Suzuki has jokingly told the
American writers who follow the team that the only thing he
doesn't like about America is the Japanese media, but that
statement might contain a kernel of truth. Suzuki doesn't face
the media. Rather, he faces his locker, sitting in a chair and
giving short answers to the questions journalists direct at the
back of his head. (His refusal to look the media in the eye may
not be a question only of manners; rumor has it that a Japanese
publication has offered up to $2 million for a photo of him
naked.)

Shinjo, on the other hand, seems to be basking in his newfound
American fame. He is far more flamboyant than Suzuki. His
nickname in Japan is Uchu-jin, or Spaceman. Speaking through his
interpreter, he has been animated with the Japanese and the
American media. After his homer in his first game at Shea, he
reenacted the moment for reporters. As he mimed his batting
stance, he said, "Kita!" which means "it came." Then he took an
imaginary swing and said, "Haichatta!" which roughly means "it
went."

"It was good that in Japan the media couldn't come into the
clubhouse," Shinjo says, "but instead of that they'd follow me
everywhere outside the ballpark. Here nobody chases me outside
the ballpark. That's part of the reason I came to the U.S."

The main reason he came, though, was that he wanted to be a
trailblazer. Had the idea of a Japanese hitter plying his trade
in the U.S. not been novel, he says, he would have stayed home.
Instead, he turned down Hanshin's offer of $12 million over five
years to sign a one-year deal with the Mets for $400,000. "In
other countries a player wants to come here because he can make
so much money and the lifestyle is so much better," says
Valentine. "Japan's not that way. I don't understand it,
personally."

Because Shinjo's skills are more in line with the typical
Japanese hitter's, he's the one his former colleagues view as a
trial balloon. "I think Shinjo is more important because Ichiro
is a big hero, a big star, like Mark McGwire or Ken Griffey,"
says Hasegawa, whose English is excellent. "Well, not a home run
hitter, more like Rod Carew. But if Shinjo or I prove we can
play, a lot of players will try to follow." While the Japanese
wait and see how Shinjo fares, a few Pan-Pacific prospects are
waiting in the wings. Among others, the Chicago Cubs have a
22-year-old Korean first baseman named Heep-Seop Choi who almost
won the first base job after hitting a total of 25 homers in
Class A and Double A last year. The Dodgers are touting
23-year-old Taiwanese outfielder Chin-Feng Chen, who hit 31
homers in A ball in 1999.

Meanwhile, the ones who have already arrived are making their
mark. On April 11, Suzuki made a laserlike eighth-inning throw to
nail Oakland's Terrence Long at third, a key play in Seattle's
3-0 win. Two nights later Shinjo went 3 for 3 in the Mets' 3-2
loss to the Cincinnati Reds. Later that evening in Anaheim, in
the half-inning before the historic Hasegawa-Suzuki meeting,
Suzuki stifled an eighth-inning rally by the Angels when he
leaped against the wall to snare a Tim Salmon drive, then doubled
Orlando Palmeiro off first. Half an inning after the showdown,
Seattle's Sasaki gave up a homer to Garret Anderson, making a
winner of his countryman. As Hasegawa made his way into the
hallway outside the clubhouse to face the throng of Japanese
reporters, which abandoned Suzuki for the night to mob him
instead, Angels bullpen catcher Orlando Mercado perfectly
captured the evening's essence, calling to him, "Viva Japan!"

Or as Shinjo might say, Kita.

It came.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BRAD MANGIN Pathfinder With his knack for reaching base and his savvy once he's there, Suzuki is off to a fast start as the table-setter for Seattle.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: ROB TRINGALI JR./SPORTSCHROME (2) Different strokes The artful Suzuki (left) is deft at bat, but there's little finesse to Shinjo's free-swinging approach to hitting.
"Bottom line," says Heid, "Ichiro is an exceptional athlete, a
player any manager would love to have."
"If Shinjo proves he can play," says Hasegawa, "others will
follow."