It's not often that a major leaguer walks away from $8.5 million, but that's what Kazuhiro Sasaki did in January when he unexpectedly bid sayonara to the Seattle Mariners and returned home to Japan with one year left on a two-year, $16 million contract. After saving a franchise-record 129 games, the righthanded reliever declared that he wanted to be with his wife and two children, who, leery of life in a foreign country, had stayed behind in Yokohama during his four seasons in the U.S. Sasaki said he reached his decision after his kids begged, "Papa, ikanai de [Papa, please don't go]." Unable to resist their plea, Sasaki said he had no choice but to put away his passport and consider a return to the Yokohama BayStars, the Japan Central League team with which he had spent 10 seasons before jumping to the major leagues.� Skeptics among the Japanese media suggested that the decisive factor was something else—perhaps his embarrassment at losing his closer's role last year to countryman Shigetoshi Hasegawa, a demotion prompted by Sasaki's two stints on the disabled list, a disappearing fastball (once clocked at 95 mph, it topped out at 85 at times last year) and a 4.05 ERA. With a reputation for overdoing it in the bullpen (Sasaki's 50 warmup pitches before each appearance were two or three times more than most relievers throw), Sasaki, who was about to turn 36, appeared burned-out. Japanese reporters speculated that the pitcher, who was the American League Rookie of the Year after saving 37 games in 2000, had lost confidence in his ability to slam the door on big league hitters. Rather than risk further embarrassment, the theory went, Sasaki decided to cut his losses. The Mariners, by all accounts, weren't sad to see him go.
Whatever the reasons, Sasaki's career arc is being duplicated by many Japanese players as they attempt to adjust to American culture and the physical demands—particularly the increased travel between cities—of major league baseball while also struggling with the language barrier and, in most cases, the absence of their families. As a result, there are mounting questions about the staying power of Japanese imports at the major league level.
From 1995 through 2003, 17 Japanese players made their way from the Japan leagues to the majors. They made that move in order to test themselves at a higher level and to break free from the stifling strictures and excessive training in the Japanese game. And in many respects the experiment has been a big success.
Starting it all was righthander Hideo Nomo, who in 1995 won seven of his first eight decisions with the Los Angeles Dodgers, was the National League starter in the All-Star Game and triggered a wave of Nomomania in Southern California. Erratic righthander Hideki Irabu showed flashes of brilliance with the New York Yankees in '97 and '98 that led pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre to appraise him as "one of the very best I've ever seen, when he's on." In 2001 the sunglassed Ichiro Suzuki, an outfielder and the first Japanese position player to reach the majors, won the American League batting title and MVP award and became one of the most-talked-about players in decades. Last year outfielder Hideki Matsui proved so popular in his first year with the Yankees, for whom he drove in 106 runs, that PEOPLE magazine chose him as one of its "men we love." Kazuo Matsui, the 28-year-old New York Mets import, was chosen in a turn-of-the-millennium survey in Japan as the best shortstop in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) history, and when he arrived this spring he was hailed by the New York media as the next big thing from the Far East.
Americans liked these young men because of their belief, generally speaking, in the team ethos and their commitment to the idea that playing baseball is its own reward—monetary considerations coming later. Ichiro, for example, has turned down $35 million in commercial endorsements that he believed would adversely affect his reputation or his concentration on the game. Such players were welcome additions to an American pastime that seems increasingly consumed by greed and ego.
Back in Japan, by contrast, they were admired for other reasons. These players demonstrated to their countrymen new and different ways of life, imparting lessons about bravery and self-reliance, things that were not taught in Japanese schools. Reporter Tateo Shimizu of the newspaper Asahi Shimbun touched on this when he wrote, "In American school textbooks, the purpose is to teach individual responsibility and create strong individuals, as seen in the story of The Ant and the Grasshopper. In elementary Japanese textbooks, however, such themes are largely absent; the most important thing is learning the value of smooth human relations and the group.... Instead of staying in Japan where [the players] could have had a stable, secure and assured future, they chose a more difficult path, relying on skill and technique to test themselves. Ichiro and the others inspire countless young people to say, 'O.K., I can make it on my own too.' "
As for the players themselves, they found several reasons to remain in the U.S., beginning with the new validation of self-worth and the benefits of the looser, freer major league system, where for the first time they had a real say in determining their practice routines as well as in negotiating their salaries. Said Nomo, who has played for eight American managers, "It's a great feeling to be responsible for yourself and to be free to be yourself. In Japan you're treated like a child." Although many players did accept less money to emigrate to the U.S. in the beginning, they stood to pocket more lucre in the long run, given the major league salary structure and the potential for increased commercial endorsements not only in the U.S. but also at home, where many players became more popular than ever because of their major league cachet.
Other aspects of the American game that appealed to Japanese players included ballparks with natural grass, which allowed them to dive for balls they might not have gone after so enthusiastically on the artificial turf that is prevalent in Japan, and the unrestrained expressiveness of U.S. fans, even those in New York. As Hideki Matsui put it, "In the U.S. they are easy to understand. When you play well, they give you a big round of applause. When you do bad, they boo you. In Tokyo it's always the same: trumpets, whistles and chanting in the oendan [cheering section]. Silence in the rest of the stands." Ichiro agreed, saying the U.S. fans were "fun to watch. They're every bit as individualistic as the players."
Of course, the American experience has hardly been unalloyed joy for the Japanese besuboru migrant. While, on the one hand, most Japanese players appreciate the less regimented U.S. baseball culture, they also think that it helps create "unfinished" athletes, players who are less skilled in the fundamentals and the finer points of the game-such as the bunt, the hit-and-run, hitting to the opposite field, baserunning, defensive relays—because they do not practice them endlessly from Little League on up the way young players in Japan do. The constant emphasis on power, they believe, is a detriment to equally important parts of the game, such as advancing the runner. As Ichiro put it to a startled St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa during an off-season dinner discussion, "You Americans would be much better if you practiced like you should."
Japanese also look askance at such long-standing American baseball customs as chewing tobacco and spitting it on the dugout floor—"disgusting" is how cleanliness-conscious Japanese players commonly describe it. They find confusing the myriad unwritten rules of behavior that major leaguers have concocted to protect their all-important pride: No bunting or stealing with a big lead is one; no crowd-pleasing fist in the air (gattsu pozu) is another. The Japanese cannot understand why opposing players took offense when outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo touched home plate with his hand after his first home run of spring training or why American players in the Hawaiian Winter League took exception to Kazuo Matsui's celebratory gestures when he played there in 1995. To fans in Japan, such behavior is reminiscent of that of former Seibu Lions star Koji Akiyama, who would do a cartwheel and a backflip whenever he hit a game-ending blast. Why is such conduct viewed in the majors as "showing up the opposition" and an invitation to reprisal in the form of a fastball to the ribs, when players get away with similar behavior in the NFL and the NBA? Then there is the puerile tendency of U.S. big leaguers to play practical jokes, like putting itching powder in a teammate's talcum container. This is simply not done in Japan, where wa (group harmony) is so important.