Kazuhiro Sasaki, 31, is the most accomplished relief pitcher in the history of Japanese baseball, with 229 saves in his 10 seasons with the Yokohama BayStars in the country's Central League. The 6'4" hurler is now hoping to extend that success in the U.S., having signed a two-year contract with the Seattle Mariners, as their main closer. Lured by the chance to compete with the world's best, more and more of Asia's top players are jumping ship for America's big leagues. Sasaki spoke to TIME contributor Tim Noonan as baseball seasons got under way in the U.S. and Japan--where Major League Baseball played its first-ever games outside North America last week.
TIME: Did the success of Hideo Nomo with the Los Angeles Dodgers influence your decision to play in the American major leagues?
Sasaki: No, I had wanted to play here for over six years...before Nomo came over. But obviously his success encouraged me. When I became a free agent after the last season, I felt I had accomplished everything that I had hoped for in Japan and I felt that it was a good time to pursue my dream of playing in America.
TIME: Did the fact that the Mariners were owned by a Japanese company (Nintendo) play a role in you coming to Seattle? And how have you adjusted to the United States?
Sasaki: The Mariners were one of the teams I had hoped to play for. And Seattle had all the things that I looked for in a city, so I felt very comfortable. I had visited the U.S. before so there was no problem. There is not much that surprises me about America. The Japanese ownership issue was also a positive.
TIME: What is it about the American game that appealed to you?
Sasaki: The style of baseball is different. Pitchers challenge hitters: power against power. The way they play in America is the way I feel the game should be played.
TIME: What advice would you give to younger Japanese players who want to come over to play in North America?
Sasaki: I think that young players have to find a style of play that is comfortable to them. They should not compromise their feelings for baseball, they should be able to enjoy it and they will see positive results.
TIME: What sort of changes do you think Japanese baseball officials can make to keep their best players?
Sasaki: They have to honestly examine why a lot of the good players like Nomo and Hideki Irabu are coming over here. A large part of the reason is that there needs to be a feeling of enjoying baseball. It needs to be more fun as opposed to work, otherwise all the younger Japanese players are going to want to come over here. Being able to accomplish your dream and reach the top of baseball--whether it is in the Japanese professional league or the North American league--is a great accomplishment which takes sacrifice and hard work. Fans...need to know that the players are enjoying it. In Japan they need to treat the fans better--without the fans we have no game. In America there is a great deal of interaction between fans and players, and it means so much to baseball.
TIME: What do you think about having a World Cup for baseball?
Sasaki: I think it would be a great idea and it would be more competitive than people think. It would also allow the amateurs to play in the Olympics, which is the way it should be. The professional leagues would showcase our talent and the Olympics would showcase the amateurs' talents.
TIME: Are you happy?
Sasaki: I feel like a little boy again.