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Saturday, Oct. 8, 2005

Stellar play fosters globalized mindset

LOS ANGELES -- Some things are just nice to see, and there's not much more to it than that. In America around this time every year, one of the nicest things to see -- especially for the inveterate sports fan -- is the invariably engrossing finale of the long Major League Baseball season.

Baseball remains tremendously popular in the States, as it does in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. And in America, players from Asia and elsewhere are more prominent and popular than ever before.

Take two stellar Asian players on the New York Yankees team roster. This storied club won its eighth consecutive American League East title in Boston last Saturday afternoon. Two key members of this star-studded team are Hideki Matsui and Chien-Ming Wang.

Matsui, from Japan, where the home-run hitting "Godzilla" (as the media had dubbed him) played for the formidable Yomiuri Giants, is easily one of the most popular of all the Yankees. Any anti-Asian animosity in the bleachers quickly evaporates the moment Matsui picks up his bat and strides methodically to the batter's box. He faces the pitcher with the impassive glare of a proud ancient warrior, and does his thing.

Part of his popularity is due to the fact that the thing he does is outstanding. Matsui delivers. On Saturday, this clutch hitter whacked a timely home run and solidified his standing among the top-ten hitters in the American League.

He makes a fortune doing this of course -- his 2005 salary hovers at $8 million. But New Yorkers don't resent financial success (what else could possibly explain the continuing popularity of Donald Trump?), and they especially appreciate quiet high-level performance.

Says Matsui: "I hope to serve as a bridge between Japan and America, and between Japanese baseball and American baseball." There is no question that he has done just that -- and with style.

There is a certain kind of admirable stoicism in Matsui's game, as there is with another prominent Asian on the Yankee team, pitcher Chien-Ming Wang. Though this Taiwan native speaks very little English, he is a favorite not just with New York fans but, perhaps more importantly, with his fellow players. They like this work ethic, his aplomb, his quiet determination.

On Oct. 1, for the first time in his young career, he started a game at historic Fenway Park in Boston. As it turned out, the Yankees lost that game, but it's a tough park and Boston is a tough team and so no one on the Yankees faulted Wang for the effort.

On Wednesday, he became the first Taiwanese player to start a postseason game. Although the Los Angeles Angeles managed to scratch out a 5-3 victory in Anaheim, Wang's winning ways during the regular season have served up a devilish assortment of pitches.

Before the game in Boston, Yankee manager Joe Torre had told the news media that he had no hesitation in deciding to anoint the 25-year-old from Taiwan the starting pitcher.

"You find yourself in the dugout, and you're not worried at all when he's pitching. That's the only thing I can go on," said Torre.

Nothing seems to fluster Wang, who could be one of the game's great future talents. His evident serenity -- on the surface, anyway -- in a sense mirrors that of his colleague Mariano Rivera, the Yankees' ace closer.

Rivera -- from Panama -- got the three final outs last Saturday at Fenway to help the Yankees wrap up their season with a first-place finish. With careful professional attention and perhaps quiet rapture and awe, Wang -- from Taiwan -- and Matsui -- from Japan -- watched the artful performance from the dugout.

The boys of summer, as they are called in America, had their triumph. But perhaps for America -- for its baseball fans, for its culture, for its future -- what was most significant is that it really mattered not one bit that Matsui was Japanese or that Rivera was Panamanian or that Wang was Taiwanese. This is when America and its national pastime, baseball, are at their very best.

Some things are just nice to see, and there's not much more to it than that.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a veteran journalist, is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy.
Copyright Tom Plate 2005

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