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Kosuke Fukudome Tastes Good

May 05, 2008
May 05, 2008

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May 5, 2008

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Kosuke Fukudome Tastes Good

Plenty has gotten lost in translation for the newest Chicago icon, but not this: With his all-around game, he has won over fans like no Cub since Sammy Sosa

HE HAD agreed tothe contract. He had put on the jersey. He had taken his seat inside thestadium club, at the table draped in bunting, and he had begun that final riteof free agency, the introductory press conference. Only then did the magnitudeof what he'd signed on for become clear. ¶ His interpreter was translatingreporters' questions from English to Japanese, but one question, even whentranslated, sounded incomprehensible: Did it factor into your decision that ithas been 100 years since the Cubs won a championship? ¶ Kosuke Fukudome knewenough history to recognize that he was not joining a dynasty. He realized thatthe Cubs were in the midst of a difficult stretch. But a difficult century? Forsome reason, team officials had neglected to mention this little detail in thethree-plus years they had spent scouting and courting him.

This is an article from the May 5, 2008 issue

So Fukudomescratched his head. He took a breath. He flashed a nervous half-smile. Hiscontract was for four years, and his name was already stitched across the backof his jersey. He could not exactly run out of Wrigley Field and fly back toJapan. He also could not act daunted. "That didn't factor too much into mychoice," he told the assembled reporters on Dec. 19. It was no lie, nottechnically. How could something be a factor if he had not even been aware ofit?

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 thatKosuke Fukudome stuck around is making this 100th-anniversary season a wholelot easier to stomach. Instead of picking at old scabs, the Cubs arecelebrating a new player who does not know Bartman from Bart Simpson. Fukudomehas been a Cub for only a month, but he already gets the loudest pregameovations at Wrigley Field. Every time he walks to home plate, the organistplays a catchy melody that inspires chants of "FOO-koo-DOUGH-may."Vendors say his jersey is their best seller, by approximately two to one. Hehas also spawned a cottage industry outside the ballpark, where you can buybandanas with Fukudome's name spelled in Japanese characters or T-shirts withshout-outs such as FUKUDOME IS MY HOMIE. (The Cubs, though, did have to pullone unlicensed T-shirt from the outdoor marketplace because it featured theirbear logo with slanted eyes and Harry Caray glasses, over the words HORRYKOW.)

Fukudome, though,should not be viewed as some novelty act. There are plenty of reasons why theCubs were in first place in the Central Division at week's end: therediscovered power stroke of first baseman Derrek Lee, a strong bullpen and,not least of all, a newfound plate discipline that starts with Fukudome(sidebar, page 36). Through Sunday, the lefthanded-hitting Fukudome was batting.326 with a .444 on-base percentage. The notoriously rowdy fans in the Wrigleybleachers not only hang signs of tribute to him in Japanese, but they alsochant in the rightfielder's native tongue. Their efforts are flattering, ifoccasionally puzzling, to Fukudome. Placards with the Cubs' slogan IT'S GONNAHAPPEN in Japanese have been read by Fukudome to say IT'S AN ACCIDENT. And onewell-meaning bleacher bum keeps yelling a phrase that translates as, "Ittastes good!"

"It's like hebecame a legend here," shortstop Ryan Theriot says. "In oneday."

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

Here's anotherreason Fukudome's instant popularity is a surprise: Nobody saw it coming. Inspring training Fukudome batted a soft .270, with one home run and threedoubles in 82 plate appearances. Most of his hits were weak liners or groundballs that scooted through the infield. He rarely drove the ball. It seemedobvious that Fukudome would need a couple of months to adjust to big leaguepitching.

Nonetheless, whenFukudome 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 theWrigley bleachers, the letters of his last name painted across their chests. Itwas 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 alllooked 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 hisfirst at bat was no fluke, he went 3 for 3 and hit a game-tying three-run homerin the bottom of the ninth inning off Eric Gagné. The Cubs lost the game, but aphenomenon was born. Ten years after Sammy Sosa hit 66 home runs, turning therightfield bleachers into his private cheering section, Fukudome had done thesame, with 65 fewer homers. "When Sosa ran out there, they all tapped theirchests," says Cubs broadcaster and former third baseman Ron Santo. "Nowthey bow."

At 31, Fukudome isstarting a new life, largely on his own. His wife, Kazue, still lives in Japanwith their baby boy, Hayato. After Hayato was born in December, Fukudomeexplained 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 intohis downtown Chicago loft in mid-April, he hung only one piece of art on thewalls. It was a framed photograph of his Opening Day home run—a snapshot of themoment he had truly arrived in the United States.

WRIGLEY FIELD hasseen plenty of one-day wonders over the years. Most famously, Cubscenterfielder Karl (Tuffy) Rhodes hit three home runs off Mets starting pitcherDwight Gooden on Opening Day 1994, only to hit just five more during the restof his major league career. (Coincidentally, Rhodes ended up in Japan, wherehe's hit more homers—412—than any other foreign-born player.) But Fukudome'sstaying power has nothing to do with the long ball. He will never hit as manyhome runs as Matsui. He won't steal as many bases as Ichiro. What separatesFukudome is his eye.

From the beginningof spring training Cubs pitchers noticed something odd about Fukudome when theythrew him batting practice. He took an inordinate amount of pitches. When gamesbegan, his approach was not much different. Most major league hitters, ifbehind in the count, will swing at any pitch they believe is a strike. Fukudomewill only swing at a pitch he believes he can hit. The difference is subtle butsignificant. "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 swingat 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 unusuallyselective. 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 theCactus League lead with 15 walks in 23 games. And this season he has drawn 19walks in 24 games, seeing 4.5 pitches per plate appearance, second most in themajors.

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

Cubs hitting coachGerald Perry, who had the same role under Piniella in Seattle, recalls havingmore concerns about Ichiro in his rookie season than he does about Fukudome.Ichiro, after all, swung at pitches outside the strike zone. Fukudome doesnot.

In an April 16 gameagainst the Cincinnati Reds, Fukudome showed major league pitchers just howserious 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 theoutside corner, two just below the knees. Fukudome took all four, another walk.Afterward Weathers sat at his locker, shaking his head. "That fish ain'tbitin'," he said.

Fukudome does notdrive 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 2004Summer Olympics in Athens to scout for the Cubs, he had never heard ofFukudome. But as he watched the Japanese team, he found himself drawn to theirgap-toothed rightfielder. Hughes checked off all the tools that Fukudomepossessed—run, field, hit and hit for power. The only skill that remained amystery was his arm.

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

As Hughes walkedthe streets of Athens, he noticed a display of baseball cards in a hotel lobbyfeaturing many of the Olympians. Hughes grabbed a Fukudome card and brought itback to the United States, where it has sat in his desk ever since. As aspecial assistant to Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, Hughes immediatelyrecommended that Hendry sign Fukudome. But Fukudome was not a free agent, andthe Dragons did not want to post him, which would have allowed major leagueteams to bid for the right to negotiate with him. In 2005 Hughes flew to Japanto watch Fukudome. The following year he did the same. After the '07 seasonFukudome finally became a free agent, and he signed with the Cubs in Decemberfor four years and $48 million. "I've never waited so long to get a playerI wanted," Hughes says. "I kept that baseball card in my desk for threeyears. Now, I'm trying to get him to autograph it."

IT'S TWO HOURSbefore 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 ismeticulous about his bats. He keeps a portable scale in his locker to make sureall of the bats weigh precisely 920 grams. Some of them, he fears, got a littlelight in spring training because of the dry Arizona air. These will not be usedduring games.

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

The Cubs alsoappreciate that Fukudome makes an effort. During a bus ride from Phoenix toTucson in spring training, Theriot sat in the back row of the bus with MarkDeRosa and Daryle Ward, having a private conversation. Fukudome sat one row infront of them. After about 45 minutes Theriot noticed Fukudome typingfeverishly into a small keyboard. "I looked closer, and I saw that it washis little electronic translator," Theriot says. "He was keeping trackof every word we were saying."

Fukudome has a bluenotebook in which he jots all of his observations, usually about opposingpitchers and teams. But with the Cubs there is so much to learn. On April 16Cincinnati's Adam Dunn hit a home run onto Waveland Avenue, and 15 balls cameflying out of the bleachers and back onto the field, one of which nearly hitFukudome in the head. Fukudome was aware of the Wrigley tradition that homeruns 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 anopposing player, they can throw a different one back onto the field. AfterwardFukudome sounded confused. "I didn't know we gave up that many home runstonight," he cracked.

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

Four months later Fukudome came clean on the subject ofhis team's championship drought. "I HAD NO IDEA IT HAD BEEN 100YEARS."

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PHOTOPhotograph by Al TielemansEND OF THE SLIDE Fukudome is giving Cubs fans hope that the centennial anniversary of their last championship might conclude with another title.PHOTOAL TIELEMANSHOMIE SWEET HOMIE Ten years after Sosa's magical summer, the Windy City has anointed a new rightfield savior.PHOTOFRANK POLICH/REUTERSINSTANT IMPACT After an underwhelming spring, Fukudome had a memorable home opener that included a ninth-inning homer.PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER (MATSUI)A CROSS BETWEEN TWO STARS Fukudome's swing starts out like Hideki Matsui's (far left), but his finish, in which he slides both feet forward, is similar to Ichiro's (far right).PHOTOJIM BRYANT/AP (ICHIRO)[See caption above]SIX PHOTOSAL TIELEMANS (FUKUDOME)[See caption above]PHOTOKYODO NEWSALMOST FAMOUS At 18, Fukudome showed promise, but he was never the fan favorite in Japan that he is now in Chicago.