Of course, the question most people want to ask Japanese players, given their major league track records, is not When are you going to learn English? but How long are you going to last?
After his 7-1 start with the Dodgers in 1995, Nomo went 6-5 the rest of his rookie season and got shelled in his one postseason start. He had arthroscopic elbow surgery after the '97 season and kicked around the majors, then resurrected his career by throwing his second no-hitter (with the Boston Red Sox in 2001) and returning to the Dodgers to become one of their top starters. But at the end of last season he developed arm trouble again, and the gradual decline in his fastball was hard to miss. Irabu underwent elbow and knee surgeries and suffered blood clots in his lungs before heading back to Japan after six seasons. Hasegawa had the rotator-cuff injury, while Ishii ran out of gas in the second half of '02, his initial season in Los Angeles, and spent several weeks on the DL last year. Even Ichiro, after his spectacular rookie year, tailed off horribly in the second half of his next two seasons.
Some experts argue that the traditional Japanese "practice until you die" training ethic is the culprit. In Japan "voluntary" workouts start the first week of January, followed by dawn-to-dusk training camps and then lengthy, strenuous off-day and pregame workouts during the 140-game season. In the U.S. a player who says he's tired gets a day or two off; in Japan the player is told to work harder to overcome his loss of stamina. For pitchers in Japan, daily throwing sessions in the bullpen and high pitch counts in games are the norm. In his earlier incarnation as a Kintetsu Buffalo, Nomo threw as many as 191 pitches in one game and 180 in another and went over 140 pitches numerous other times (most major league pitchers come out of the game after 120), and he had arm surgery the year before he left for the U.S.
Hasegawa wrote a book about baseball, Adjustment, in which he stated his belief that the heavy workload during his early years in Japan and the lack of a sophisticated weight-training program for pitchers had indirectly contributed to his rotator cuff injury. Finally, some critics have cited Ichiro's exceptionally long pregame practice regimen as the reason for his late-season fades, which included a .243 batting average in August and September 2003.
At 36 Sasaki was not that old for a major league pitcher, perhaps, but ancient by the standards of the NPB. (Sasaki missed much of the 1999 season with Yokohama because of arm surgery.) His lifestyle didn't help. The 6'4", 220-pound reliever, nicknamed Daimajin after a giant stone samurai that comes to life on celluloid to rescue imperiled villagers, had lived alone in a Mercer Island condominium while with the Mariners. He bought a silver Porsche, frequented Seattle watering holes and was spotted hanging out at the University of Washington student union. On the road he was often wined and dined at expensive Japanese-only nightclubs by wealthy businessmen residing in the U.S.
Sasaki found himself the subject of media scrutiny in the U.S. and Japan early in the 2002 season when he made a 24-hour trip back to Japan. Concern over the health of his wife, Kaori, was what he told reporters at the Sea-Tac arrival lobby upon his return to Seattle. There was much skepticism in the Japanese press. The Shukan Post, a popular weekly magazine with a nose for scandal, speculated that a divorce might be imminent. Sasaki denied the divorce rumors. (As of this writing he was still married.)
In mid-2003 he was back in the news after he cracked several ribs and went on the DL for the second time that season. Sasaki said the injury occurred when he fell down the stairs in his home while carrying a suitcase. But it was a story that few people believed and that journalists in Japan and the U.S. questioned in print.
Sasaki supporters believed that this incident was the main factor in his decision to go home. But insiders held to their view that the big reason was Sasaki's pride, which was seriously dented not only by Hasegawa's taking his job last season but also by Seattle's December 2003 signing of free-agent closer Eddie Guardado, who had 41 saves last season. It was then that Sasaki realized Seattle no longer needed him and most likely would not offer him a new contract after the 2004 season—something that would represent for him an unbearable loss of face. By opting to go back to Japan this season, Sasaki would have an opportunity to prove that he still had what it took (albeit against lesser competition). Said sportswriter Osamu Nagatani, a close friend of Sasaki's, "Kazuhiro is still confident of his power and ability as a closer." And so, apparently, are the Yokohama BayStars, who gave him a contract estimated to be worth $5 million this year.
Whether this will be Sasaki's last season may depend on how much he's got left on his fastball. But even if he retires, his exit would not necessarily be a bad thing, nor an unusual one, in Japanese terms. As Osamu Mihara, one of Japan's alltime great managers put it, "It is better to shine brightly for a short time—like the cherry blossom—than never to shine at all."