When the major
league teams sit down in June to make their draft choices, one name will be in
a lot of heads, if not on a lot of lips. Many clubs are believed to be
interested in obtaining the services of a 21-year-old Japanese-American pitcher
who most often is referred to as "that kid from Hawaii" or "Derek
Whatsisname." To be sure, all general managers know the name; it's just
that some of them don't know how to say it. Actually, the pronunciation isn't
that difficult. The name is Tatsuno, spoken, Hawaiian-style, as Tot-SUNE-oh.
It's worth remembering. Even practicing.
Tatsuno, a junior
at the University of Hawaii, is a 5'10", 175-pound lefthander whose
pitching is the main reason the Rainbows have a 61-6 record so far this season
and the No. 1 ranking in the nation. Until he lost 12-4 last Sunday to Cal
State-Fullerton, he had won 20 games, a streak that dated back to May 2, 1978.
That victory string is only one figure in a set of career statistics that
really should be chanted instead of reduced to type.
people have never amounted to much as linguists—remember the youngest Alou's
struggle to be called "Hay-soos"?—but they read numbers well. They
started scrutinizing Tatsuno's when he was still pitching for Honolulu's Aiea
High. At the end of his senior year, he had an ERA of 0.34 and a career record
of 27-1. The Reds drafted him then, but Tatsuno, one of the sanest southpaws
ever to toe a rubber, felt he wasn't ready for pro ball.
specialty at Hawaii is horticulture, and he has a 2.8 grade average. In the
spring of 1977 he won 11 games for the Rainbows, lost two, struck out 146
batters in 116 innings and had an ERA of 2.87. In 1978 he fell off to 9-3, but
lowered his ERA to 1.45 and whiffed 161 batters in 112 innings. Before Hawaii's
recent series with St. Mary's of California and Mississippi State, Tatsuno's
ERA after 14 games in 1979 was an incredible 0.76. But he then allowed 11 runs
while beating the Gaels and the Bulldogs, pushing his ERA up to 1.20.
Tatsuno said his
fastball had no zip and his curve hung in those games, but though he needed
some ninth-inning heroics by his teammates to pull out a 6-5 win against State
and keep his streak alive, he did have enough on the ball to strike out 23
batters in the two outings. And lest the visiting mainlanders think that
Tatsuno's reputation was some island fantasy, he came back to beat State 10-0
in a second game. In that victory he fanned nine and allowed only five hits,
one of which should have been scored as an error. Even with his loss to
Fullerton, which slapped him for five runs in the fifth inning, Tatsuno has now
won 75 high school, college, summer league and college all-star games. He has
lost 12. "He's about the best I've seen in 13 years of coaching," says
Mississippi State skipper Ron Polk. "I'm on the All-America committee, and
he's got my vote."
Tatsuno's coach, Les Murakami, adds the title of "the No. 1 college pitcher
in the world," which is no idle boast. The last two springs Tatsuno pitched
for the U.S. college all-stars in their annual series with the Japanese college
all-stars. He was named outstanding pitcher both times and is now a celebrity
in his ancestors' homeland. It may not be long before he becomes famous in the
U.S. as well, because the team that picks him in the upcoming draft will
probably have to give him a major league contract to get him to sign.
Tatsuno may be
ready for the bigs right now. His repertoire is remarkably diverse—a hopping
fastball, a late-breaking curve, a deceptive changeup, a sneaky slider and a
screwball that still needs work.
It would seem
that any pitcher so sophisticated at such a tender age must have had some
high-powered coaching. But when Tatsuno is asked who taught him how to pitch,
he says, "I don't really know. I started playing baseball when I was six,
mostly with neighborhood kids who were three or four years older, and when I
was eight, I started at shortstop in Little League ball. It was Coach Kagawa's
idea to make me a pitcher—funny, I can't remember his first name. But he didn't
show me how to pitch. I just sort of knew.
school, Coach Anzai"—a pause and a brief grin—"that was George Anzai,
helped me with mixing up pitches and trying for spots, but he had been a
catcher and didn't tell me how to throw." Tatsuno looks a little
embarrassed. He is a well-mannered, respectful young man, and the last thing he
wants to do is claim for himself all the credit for his pitching. Still
searching, Tatsuno says, "Coach Les [Murakami] has been great, and so has
Coach Jim [Fujimori, an assistant coach who handles Hawaii's outfielders and
helps with the pitchers], but they really don't talk to me much about
pitching." Murakami, a onetime pitcher, agrees, saying, "Derek had it
all when he got here."
Is it possible
that this Sansei Japanese boy, the son of Nisei parents—Tatsuno's father
Herbert is a maintenance man at a Honolulu department store—was born with an
innate ability to pitch masterfully? Apparently. "It's really amazing,"
says Don Dennis, manager of the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks. He saw Tatsuno
whip the Panners, perennially one of the best amateur teams in the U.S., in a
1977 game in which Tatsuno allowed only five hits. "He has the build, the
easy pitching motion, I can believe that. But the pitches, the tempo, all those
fine touches, how could he have been born with them?" Tatsuno, it seems,
may be that rare athlete, the genuine natural.