Friday, July 29, 2011

Japanese baseballers not flowing to Chicago as much as to other ball clubs

Knowing the luck of Chicago baseball, outfielder Kosuke Fukudome is likely to go to the Cleveland Indians and become the integral piece that helps that team maintain a lead and actually win something this season.

Fukudome will live up to his potential once he’s no longer a member of the Chicago Cubs; since he was traded Thursday to the Indians for minor-league prospects.

IT BRINGS AN end to the Fukudome era in Chicago, since he was supposed to be the Japanese baseball star who would help make the Cubs a contender, while also making “history” in the sense that he’s the first Japanese ballplayer to play for the home team at Clark and Addison.

Japanese ballplayers are now a fixture in Major League Baseball. But it seems that our teams in Chicago have not had the luck in finding the star magnitude of an Ichiro Suzuki – the Seattle Mariners outfielder who may well become the first ballplayer to get inaugurated into the baseball Halls of Fame both in Cooperstown, N.Y., and in Japan.

Fukudome as a Cub wasn’t anywhere near that level. This season alone, he has a batting average of .273 and as one report indicated, his 13 runs batted in this season equal the $13 million he will be paid for playing baseball in 2011.

It’s quite a comedown from what was expected back in 2008 when baseball teams were in a bidding war for Fukudome and where the Chicago White Sox actually offered him more money than the Cubs did ($48 million for four seasons).

BUT ONE OF the reasons Fukudome gave back then for picking the North Side over the South Side was that he wanted to ensure he would be the first Japanese player ever for his respective team.

He wouldn’t have been that for the White Sox – who had their Japanese “first” in 2004 with relief pitcher Shingo Takatsu, then counted on infielder Tadahito Iguchi as their regular second baseman when they went on to win an American League championship and World Series title the following year.

Both of those ballplayers are long-gone from Chicago, and Iguchi probably gets the “honors” for the most significant Japanese ballplayer on a Chicago team.

Being part of one of the few championship ball clubs in Chicago sports history helps overcome the fact that he’s a lifetime .268 hitter (.278 with 74 runs scored and 71 runs batted in for that ’05 season) whose U.S. baseball career lasted four seasons.

FUKUDOME, BY COMPARISON, is a part of that ’08 National League division winner that managed to get knocked out of the playoffs with three straight losses. And that’s it.

Neither one of them would ever be mistaken for Hideki Matsui, the Oakland Athletics ballplayer who back when he was with the New York Yankees was the Most Valuable Player for the 2009 World Series (when the Yankees beat the Philadelphia Phillies) and who earlier this season got public attention in some quarters when he hit his 500th home run (a combination of his time in U.S. baseball and with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan).

Which is why from my perspective, the most interesting ballplayer in Chicago to come out of Japan may well be Takatsu – who is one of the greatest relief pitchers ever in Japanese professional baseball and who continues to play ball in the Chinese Professional Baseball league.

He once had the record for saves in Japan, and likely will always have that 0.00 (as in perfect) Earned Run Average pitching in Japan Series games – which gave him that nickname “Mr. Zero.”

AND FOR A time, it seemed like he might do the same thing in Chicago when he signed with the White Sox in 2004. Something about that sidearm delivery that could throw effective pitches at 61 m.p.h. was intriguing to watch.

For that first season, it even was effective (19 saves, an ERA of 2.31, 50 strikeouts in 62 1/3 innings pitched), although perhaps because it was a novelty.

He wasn’t nearly as effective in 2005, and was released by the White Sox in mid-season. Then again, maybe it was his age (he was a 35-year-old “rookie” when he broke in with the White Sox), which was the main reason that other teams weren’t interested in signing him – despite his Japanese accomplishments.

A part of me can still hear in my mind the echo of that silly gong that would ring at U.S. Cellular Field every time Takatsu would enter a game. What will Cubs fans remember of Fukudome?

I HOPE IT’S not that school official at Elgin High School who made a student remove her Cubs jersey because Fukudome’s name was somehow interpreted to mean a particularly foul obscenity?

Then again, having a ballplayer whose legacy was to be thought of as a dirty word would be so typically Chicago Cub-ish.


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