Kosuke Fukudome Tastes Good (cont.)
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 Cedeņo 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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