Sat, Sep 11, 2004 - Page 19 News List

Japanese sluggers change landscape

AMERICAN BASEBALL Ichiro Suzuki, Kaz Matsui and Hideki Matsui have altered a previously held perception that stars from Asia couldn't get a lot of base hits in the majors

AP , SEATTLE, WASHINGTON

Ichiro Suzuki of the Mariners bunts during the second inning against the Red Sox at Safeco Field in Seattle, Wahsington, Thursday.

PHOTO: AP

Not so long ago, the thinking around Major League Baseball was that only pitchers had a shot at jumping across the Pacific Ocean from the Japanese leagues.

Ichiro Suzuki turned around that idea up when he became the AL MVP and Rookie of the Year in 2001 with Seattle. Then came a slugger as Hideki Matsui joined the New York Yankees last year. And this season, Mets rookie shortstop Kaz Matsui hit a first-pitch home run in his first at-bat.

"You're seeing an influx not just of players from Japan, but very good players. These guys are having a dramatic effect on the game," Seattle manager Bob Melvin said.

With Suzuki bearing down on his second batting title and aiming at the 84-year-old major league record for hits, Japanese position players are making a difference on both sides of the ocean.

"It's a very positive influence, not only for Japanese players but for children in Japan," Hideki Matsui said through an interpreter. "They can dream not only to play Japanese baseball, but to make it over here and have an impact."

These guys weren't the Japanese pioneers. Hideo Nomo, with his corkscrew delivery, was NL Rookie of the Year with Los Angeles in 1995.

Going way back, the first Japanese player in the majors was lefty reliever Masanori Murakami, who played with the San Francisco Giants in 1964 and 1965 before returning home -- a void unfilled until Nomo's arrival.

Today, major league rosters are dotted with Japanese relievers such as Shigetoshi Hasegawa in Seattle, Kazuhito Tadano in Cleveland and Shingo Takatsu with the Chicago White Sox.

Position players are special though, because they've shown they can make a difference every day.

"I'm very happy for that," Suzuki said through a translator. "It's starting to open up a little bit. There will be more opportunities for others. It's definitely a good thing."

Suzuki sure has made an impact. Four years in the majors, four All-Star appearances and three Gold Gloves in right field, along with becoming one of the game's best baserunners.

Though the Mariners won't be a factor this autumn, Suzuki remains one of US baseball's most closely followed stories this September.

By midweek, Suzuki had 227 hits -- 30 short of George Sisler's mark of 257 set in 1920 with the St. Louis Browns. It's a record that seems certain to fall, since Suzuki was hitting .377 with 24 games remaining.

Simply put, Suzuki is the game's most fascinating hitter.

"You can't try to pitch him a certain way because he's going to hurt you," Cleveland starter C.C. Sabathia said this week. "I just tried to hit my spots and hope he hit it at somebody because you're not going to strike him out."

Suzuki received a spontaneous standing ovation last week after a 5-for-5 performance in Chicago in an 8-7 loss to the White Sox.

"It shows where this thing is going right now," Melvin said. "A five-hit game, his third of the year. Everybody is really taking notice of it now."

It was once believed in Japan that American fans would never support a Japanese player, another myth that long ago was punctured.

"It's not true," Hasegawa said. "American fans like the good players -- Japanese, Dominican, American. They treat them all the same. Japanese people can see that now."

As of this week, Hideki Matsui had played in 1,550 straight pro games -- 1,250 with the Yomiuri Giants and 300 with the Yankees dating to the start of his major league career last season.

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