But outside the ballpark is where adjustments are most difficult for Japanese players. Few of them speak English well enough to carry on conversations with teammates, so it is wearying for them to spend even an evening over dinner communicating through an interpreter. Thus most Japanese players pass their free time with other expatriates or visitors from Mother Nippon, catching up on news from home and trying to figure out what makes Americans tick.
Last season Hideki Matsui lived alone in a Manhattan high-rise. He did his own laundry and socialized mostly with his personal manager, Isao Hirooka, a few Japanese writers and visitors from Japan. He eschewed the museums and art galleries and other such New York City attractions, preferring to spend his free time eating at Japanese restaurants and going for long reflective drives along the Hudson River. At night he patronized sedate, refined Manhattan hostess clubs for well-to-do Japanese expats.
The Japanese players' sense of isolation is heightened by the constant travel, the long plane rides and the countless nights in strange cities where most people have never even met a Japanese. ( Kansas City is one of the least desirable destinations because it is difficult to find a decent Japanese restaurant there.) Shinjo described his three seasons on the road with the Mets and the San Francisco Giants as a constant battle against loneliness and boredom. "You play a game that ends at 10, and then you're ready to go out, but all the good places to eat—Japanese or otherwise—are closing up," he said. "You go back to your hotel room, order a cheeseburger from room service and turn on the TV, but you can't understand what the people are saying. It can really get to you after a while. I had to start carrying DVDs from Japan with me to keep my sanity."
Then there are the subtle and not-so-subtle discriminations that people of Asian origin sometimes face. While Ichiro, for one, said that he had not experienced bias in America, other Japanese players complained of hearing racially derogatory comments from the stands, if not from other ballplayers. At the beginning of his rookie season the pioneer Nomo received his share of hate mail—not only from Japanese fans angry that he had deserted them but also from racist fans in America. He received letters calling him a "yellow monkey" and demanding that he go home. "I could understand how gaijin [foreigners] in the Japan leagues must have felt," he said. There was a particularly ugly incident at Shea Stadium that triggered a four-man fistfight. Eddie Kochiyama, a third-generation Japanese-American attending the game, was quoted in the L.A.-based Rafu Shimpo as saying, "Each time a group of Japanese fans wearing Dodger caps and shirts held up NOMO and K signs, standing for strikeouts, some whites sitting in front of them would turn around and give them the finger and chant 'U-S-A.' "
If you asked Japanese players what they like most about the U.S., baseball aside, they would probably mention the vast spaciousness—in particular the roominess of the houses and the accessibility of golf courses (ideal for golf fanatics like Dodgers lefthander Kazuhisa Ishii). It compares most favorably to the cramped conditions on Japan's crowded islands. Adds Seattle-based sportswriter Masayoshi Niwa, "These guys absolutely love the freedom of being able to walk downtown in the cities without wearing sunglasses. It's something they can't do back in Japan—especially Ichiro. It's why he decided to stay in Seattle to train after the 2003 season. If he goes back to Japan, the media follow him everywhere."
Ballplayers' wives, if they come, might mention the higher social status of women in the U.S., in marked contrast to Japan, where men often treat their spouses like servants. Shinjo's wife was shocked when she visited him in New York in 2001 and he peeled fruit for her. "He never did anything like that for me back in Japan," she said.
Of all the baseball �migr�s who starred in these real-life dramas, perhaps none was as instructive as the Mariners' Hasegawa, who demonstrated that a Japanese player did not have to be a superstar at home to make it in the majors. In six years with the Orix BlueWave, Hasegawa had a solid record of 57 wins with a 3.11 ERA. Compact and muscular at 5'9", 170 pounds, he compensated for a low-octane fastball with a confusing array of breaking pitches that he could locate with remarkable accuracy.
Hasegawa's move to the U.S. in 1997, following his worst season (4-6, 5-32 ERA) with Orix, was regarded as something of a gamble for him and for the Anaheim Angels. If he had flopped, it could very well have had a negative effect on other Japanese aspiring to play in the majors. Assigned to the bullpen after failing early on as a starter, Hasegawa assiduously studied the weaknesses and strengths of the batters as well as the tendencies of American League umpires. By the end of the 1998 season he had established himself as a solid middle reliever (8-3, 3.14). Although he tore his rotator cuff in 2001 and was sidelined for part of the season, Hasegawa signed with Seattle as a free agent in January '02. When Sasaki went on the disabled list last year, Hasegawa became the closer, produced an eye-popping ERA of 0.77 over the first half of the year and earned a spot on the AL All-Star team.
Hasegawa's contributions to trans-Pacific relations extended beyond baseball. Bright and disciplined, he shunned the use of an interpreter and made a concerted effort to learn English, fearlessly babbling away to anyone who put a microphone in his face. His interviews in English were so fascinating to the folks back home that a publisher asked him to write a textbook. The resulting tome, My Way to Study English, became a best seller in Japan. Hasegawa reveled in life in the U.S. He bought a house in Newport Beach, Calif., and became an off-season golf junkie, spending an average of only two weeks in Japan. While his wife sometimes complained of little discriminations by Americans, Hasegawa never did. "I learned to speak English well enough to tell people off if I have to," he said.
Hasegawa was popular with his Seattle teammates, who liked his open, gregarious manner, and with the writers, who appreciated him because he was always willing to talk. Ichiro, constantly pursued by a squadron of mostly Japanese reporters, conducted postgame interviews through an intermediary, his back to reporters as he sat in front of his locker ("Is this some kind of Zen?" asked one befuddled American journalist), although he did partially redeem his image in an entertaining televised chat with Bob Costas in which he revealed that his favorite English expression was, "It's as hot as two rats f——— in a sock in August in Kansas City." Sasaki generally distanced himself from his teammates and the press, once even abruptly canceling a scheduled interview with a writer who had flown 5,000 miles from Japan and offering no apology, no explanation and no attempt to reschedule. Japanese players on other teams were similarly uncommunicative, especially the monosyllabic Nomo, who was exceptionally skilled at avoiding reporters no matter which side of the Pacific they came from.