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Friday, March 23, 2001

The Ichiro effect: What will star's departure mean for Japan baseball?


Staff writer

Much has been made over the past few months of former Orix BlueWave superstar Ichiro Suzuki leaving Japan and going to play for the Seattle Mariners. However, one aspect of Ichiro's big move has drawn little attention -- how will it affect Japanese baseball?

The Japan Times turned to an expert for his opinion, consulting new Boston Red Sox international scout Tadahiro Ushigome, who became Japan's top importer of foreign players during his 36 years working for the Yokohama BayStars, on the subject.

"Ichiro going to the majors will be a positive for Japanese baseball," says Ushigome. "I hope he is successful over there. If he is, Japanese players will see how good they can become. He will be an inspiration to them."

Ushigome, 64, believes that the top caliber players want to go against the best and that is why the 27-year-old Ichiro made the move.

"Outstanding athletes want to compete at the highest level. Japanese baseball is good, and the pitching is very good. But some levels of Japanese baseball are just better than the minor league Triple-A in the States. But hitters like Hideki Matsui (of the Yomiuri Giants) and Kazuo Matsui (of the Seibu Lions) can play in the major leagues without question and because of this, some owners and general managers on the Japanese clubs are starting to worry about losing these types of talents.

"But if those guys (Hideki Matsui and Kazuo Matsui) have a chance to play in the majors, young kids in Little League here will start to dream and that is good for baseball."

Ushigome, who retired from the BayStars after the 1999 season, is now working with the Red Sox renowned director of international scouting, Ray Poitevint, who has signed more than 200 players who have made it to the majors over the years.

"My primary job is to identify Japanese kids who will be able to play in the States," says Ushigome, who helped bring the talented tandem of Bobby Rose and Glenn Braggs to the BayStars during his tenure with the club.

Ushigome says there is no doubt in his mind that baseball will always be the No. 1 sport in Japan. "You are hearing a lot of talk about soccer and the World Cup now, but baseball is the top sport in Japan. There is a long history here.

"I can remember back to when I was a boy after World War II ended. At that time we didn't have any equipment. We would have our moms make us gloves from some different materials, but they weren't leather. Then we would try and cut from trees and make our own sticks for bats. Then we would play and enjoy it."

Ushigome says those days remind him of what it is still like in other countries to this day. "We produced many great players in Japan, much like the Dominican Republic does now, with little equipment. It is great for kids, because they learn how to dream. Dreaming is the best."

Ushigome realizes there is a lot riding on the success of Ichiro in the majors and, like just about every other Japanese, is hoping for the best. "I pray to God every day that Ichiro will do a good job."

Ushigome agrees with the assessment that if Ichiro starts to hit consistently in the majors, the reverberations back in Japan will dwarf the kind of attention Hideo Nomo got in 1995 when he debuted for the Los Angeles Dodgers and won Rookie of the Year honors.

"Nomo is a pitcher. Ichiro will be playing every day."

Ushigome offered his expert analysis on Ichiro's chances for success in the big leagues. "I like his batting style. He isn't bothered by left-handers and can hit anybody. He has good bat control and can hit to all fields.

"Defensively, I think he will be one of the best in the major leagues. He has a great arm and is very accurate. He can also run very well. Right field is the best position for him, but he can play center field too. I think he can steal many bases as well."

Ushigome says a new rule interpretation in Major League Baseball this season may well determine the level of success Ichiro enjoys.

"The high strike zone this year is going to be a key for Ichiro. He is a low-ball hitter. The first couple of months he may have some problems, but after that I think he will adjust. He is a smart kid. Overall, he is going to be a good player in the major leagues."

Japanese players in

U.S. Major Leagues

Masanori MurakamiSan Francisco1964-65
Hideo NomoLos Angeles

N.Y. Mets

Milwaukee

Detroit

1995-98

1998

1999

2000-

Makoto SuzukiSeattle

Kansas City

1996-99

1999-

Shigetoshi HasegawaAnaheim Angels1997-
Hideki IrabuYankees

Montreal

1997-99

2000

Masato YoshiiN.Y. Mets

Colorado

1998-99

2000

Takashi KashiwadaN.Y. Mets1997
Masao KidaDetroit Tigers1999-
Tomokazu OhkaBoston Red Sox1999-
Kazuhiro SasakiSeattle2000-
Tsuyoshi ShinjoN.Y. Mets2001-
Ichiro SuzukiSeattle2001-
All are pitchers except for Shinjo and Ichiro.



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