Early in spring training, Los Angeles Dodgers rookie lefthander Kazuhisa Ishii could often be seen walking around camp with a wad of bubble gum in his mouth. Catcher Paul Lo Duca noticed this and asked the former Japan League All-Star if he had taken a special liking to American gum. "Actually, he says it's horrible," Ishii's interpreter, Scott Akasaki, relayed. "He just chews it because you guys do."
Ishii has since ditched the chew and found a far more effective way to gain acceptance as one of the guys: by winning his first six starts. After a 3-2 victory over the Chicago Cubs last Saturday night, Ishii was 6-0 with a 2.95 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 36? innings.
The 28-year-old Ishii, who spent 10 seasons with the Yakult Swallows before signing a four-year, $12.8 million contract with L.A. in February, is the latest in a line of foreign-born Dodgers pitchers whose talent has lost nothing in the translation. He follows in the footsteps of compatriot Hideo Nomo, the righthander who was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1995; Korean righthander Chan Ho Park, who won 75 games over the last five seasons; and Mexican lefthander Fernando Valenzuela, who as a 20-year-old in '81 won the league's rookie and Cy Young awards.
With four pitches—fastball, curve, slider and splitter—he can throw for strikes, Ishii has quickly gained the respect of some of the game's elite hitters. "I got one pitch I felt I could hit, and I popped it up," 2000 NL batting champ Todd Helton of the Colorado Rockies told The Denver Post after striking out twice in the Dodgers' 9-2 win on April 6. "Other than that, he made me look like a child."
Ishii isn't yet generating the buzz that the team's previous foreign phenoms did—Dodger Stadium doesn't sell out every time he pitches, as it did at the peak of Fernandomania—but with his flowing brown locks and quick smile, he could very well become the Next Big Thing in L.A. Although he has kept a relatively low profile in order to fit in with his teammates, Ishii has a somewhat zany personality that has made him a regular guest on comedy and variety shows on Japanese television. In his homeland he has even been called the Asian version of Charles Barkley. While he hasn't been nearly that outrageous in the U.S., Ishii has a temperament that is better suited to being the center of attention than those of players like Nomo and Seattle Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki. Ishii is far more comfortable with the media, perhaps because he is married to a Japanese TV personality, Ayako Kisa, with whom he has a five-month-old son, Kanta.
Ishii is the kind of fellow who apologizes at the end of an interview when he thinks his answers haven't been witty enough. And he doesn't mind when a laugh comes at his expense. A Los Angeles columnist noticed the patent-leather satchel Ishii sometimes carries his wallet in and jokingly suggested that a purse doesn't make him seem intimidating enough. "Then I will carry two purses," Ishii replied.
Though he doesn't throw particularly hard—his fastball tops out in the low 90s—Ishii keeps hitters off balance by changing speeds and altering his angle of delivery. His teammates have also been impressed by his intelligence and resourcefulness. On April 28 he was struggling in Chicago against the Cubs, having hit a batter and given up three walks and a home run in the first three innings, when he decided to pitch exclusively from the stretch. "I felt I had better command of my pitches in that position," he says. He struck out six of the next 12 batters and didn't give up another run before he was pulled after the seventh.
Ishii is more easily distracted when he's not on the mound. He was being interviewed in the dugout before a game last week when he noticed a group of attractive young women on the field posing for pictures with some of his teammates. The reporter assured him the interview would be over soon enough for him to join in the fun. "No," Ishii said. "I'm happy to be right here." The only ones happier may be the Dodgers.