Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Cool-Thinking Hitter and a Long Title Drought:Cubs to win it all this year with new player from Japan

Published: February 12, 2008 in the New York Times, which rarely acknowledges that any baseball teams exist outside of New York and Boston. Now, I probably sound bitter and all (and I am), having grown up with the Cubs and never seeing a championship. The last time the Cubs were actually IN the World Series was 1945, where they lost to the Detroit Tigers. It's been 100 years since they won a world series. 1908. But I'm certain (and you hear it here first!) that this is the year they will win the World Series. Close friends know I say this every year. Of course. Hope springs eternal and all that. Plus, if you are a Cub fan, all you can do is hope. I'm sticking with my team, even if they've frustrated me year after year after year after year (to quote Steve Goodman). And Steve Bartman is no where to be seen......this article is interesting to me because it shows how international baseball continuse to become......

In place of a batter warming up, a rusty drum stuffed with burning timber sat in the on-deck circle warming a team of industrial league players as they endured the early February cold of suburban Osaka. Specks of ash fluttered in the air like snowflakes as players gathered behind home plate to listen to the batting advice offered by the only player not dressed in the red and white uniform of Nippon Life Insurance.

The advice was so riveting that a company executive in a tie felt compelled to practice shifting his weight on the muddy field while swinging an imaginary bat.
The special instructor was the most heralded professional to come out of Nippon Life as well as the newest member of the Chicago Cubs — Kosuke Fukudome (pronounced KOH-skay Foo-koo-DOUGH-may), a left-handed, power-hitting outfielder.

In a country where playing and practicing baseball is a year-round endeavor, Fukudome was taking his daily off-season workout regimen on a farewell tour to thank those who had helped him achieve his latest accomplishment: becoming the 10th Japanese position player to sign with a Major League Baseball team.
And not just any team, for that matter. The Cubs go to spring training with reminders all around them that this is the 100th anniversary of their last World Series title. It is a drought beyond comprehension and yet here comes Fukudome — who would not know Steve Bartman from Batman — to see if he can learn English, hit major league pitching and help conquer the Cubs’ curse.

In some respects, Fukudome is now unrecognizable as the player who starred here for three years after high school. The Central League’s Chunichi Dragons drafted him in the first round as a shortstop out of Nippon Life in 1998. He spent the first three years of his professional career on the left side of the infield before finally being asked to shift to the outfield.

Fukudome, who was interviewed for this article in Japanese, quickly replied with a laugh when he was asked what kind of shortstop he was: “The kind that caused my pitchers great anxiety.”

Unlike many poor-fielding infielders who are escorted to left field, Fukudome was converted to right. His strong arm and speed were seen as more appropriate for the higher demands of the position. But no one could have projected what he was about to accomplish. In his first season in right field, with no prior outfield experience, he won the first gold glove of his career.

“Early on, everyone tried to run on me because I was inexperienced out there,” Fukudome recalled proudly. “But I had 14 assists that year and 13 of them were direct throws to the base. In retrospect, right field was the position best suited to take advantage of the strength of my throwing arm. The gold glove came largely because of my high assists total.”

Maybe so, but even as base runners learned to respect his arm and his assists fell to single digits, a high aptitude for the new position allowed him to continue playing it at a gold glove level. He earned four gold gloves in six seasons as Chunichi’s right fielder.

Curiously, the same year he devoted himself to learning the nuances of the outfield, he also hit over .300 for the first time. Fukudome was a .265 hitter in his first three seasons, but he prevented Hideki Matsui of the Yomiuri Giants from winning the triple crown in 2002 by hitting .343 to capture the first of his two batting titles.
“I definitely don’t think it’s a coincidence that my batting improved when I shifted to right field,” Fukudome said. “I was always on edge in the infield because you don’t know when the ball’s going to come shooting at you. I found the outfield much more relaxing. Even when the ball’s hit my way, the spatial difference allows me plenty of time to react. The higher relaxation meant a better rhythm, and I was able to take that into the batter’s box.”

The left-handed hitting Fukudome settled into that smoother rhythm nicely with three more .300-plus seasons over the next five years. He won another batting title in 2006, when he was the most valuable player of the Central League. He also began showing power more appropriate for his 6-foot, 188-pound frame by hitting 34 home runs in 2003 and topping 30 again in 2006. He led the league in doubles three times and in triples twice. Perhaps most enticing to the Cubs was Fukudome’s solid on-base percentage, which exceeded .400 in four of his final five seasons in Japan.
By the time he reached free agency this off-season, Fukudome had established himself as a consistent, formidable threat on offense and defense. While he acknowledges having no major league heroes as a child and no particular affinity for the game in the United States, he says he sees his four-year deal with the Cubs as the natural progression for his career as he approaches his 31st birthday in April.
“People often describe players jumping to the major leagues as challengers, but I don’t feel that way at all,” he said. “To me, it’s just the logical next step in my career. I’m always looking for ways to better myself as a baseball player, and the road just happened to go through M.L.B. I didn’t go in search of it; it was just there when I was ready to take the next step.”

That next step begins at the Cubs’ spring training camp in Mesa, Ariz. Fukudome is expected to arrive there Thursday, before the reporting date for position players, so he can adjust to his new surroundings and continue his workouts.
Because he insisted he would rely on the same principles that led him to the majors, it seemed worthwhile to find out what he said that so captivated the group at Nippon Life’s home field.

“I was explaining to them that if you told a man to stand on his hands for a day, he couldn’t do it,” Fukudome said. “But if you told him to stand on his legs for a day, that would be no problem. The point is your legs have more power than your arms so when you’re batting, you’ve always got to be concerned with how to transfer the power of your legs to the bat in your hands.

“Since the hips are the midpoint between the two, the way you rotate them is crucial for delivering the strength from your legs. This isn’t the stuff of home runs, it’s about effectively harnessing the power from below to make contact with a strongly pitched ball and not be beaten by its strength.”

If those are the kinds of thoughts Fukudome has when he stands on a baseball field in the numbing cold, he may be well suited for Wrigley Field in April. The Cubs are hoping he will have such thoughts in the chill of October, too — as they try to keep 100 years of frustration from turning into 101.

By the time he reached free agency this off-season, Fukudome had established himself as a consistent, formidable threat on offense and defense. While he acknowledges having no major league heroes as a child and no particular affinity for the game in the United States, he says he sees his four-year deal with the Cubs as the natural progression for his career as he approaches his 31st birthday in April.

1 comment:

Clay Eals said...

Good to see your Cubs analysis and its passing mention of Steve Goodman. He often doesn't get his due. You might be interested in my new 800-page biography, "Steve Goodman: Facing the Music." The book delves deeply into the genesis of Goodman's Cubs attachment and his several Cubs songs, notably "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request" and "Go, Cubs, Go."

You can find out more at my Internet site (below). The book's first printing just sold out, all 5,000 copies, and the publisher has authorized a second edition that will be out later this month. The second edition includes hundreds of little updates and additions, including 30 more photos for a total of 575.

To sign up to be notified about the availability of the second printing, visit my Internet site (below) and click on the "mailing list" page. Or you can pre-order a second-printing copy at the "online store" page. Just trying to spread word about the book. Feel free to do the same!

Clay Eals
1728 California Ave. S.W. #301
Seattle, WA 98116-1958

(206) 935-7515
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