Kosuke Fukudome Tastes Good
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.
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