Go West, Young Man

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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

When Hideo Nomo made his pitching debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995, he was something of a novelty. Sure, the guy could pitch, but what really energized fans on both sides of the Pacific was the fact that an Asian player had managed to make it in American big-league baseball. And not just make it, but dominate it. Nomo, who had pitched for the Kintetsu Buffaloes in Japan before heading West, won 13 games that year and was selected as the starting pitcher on the National League's All-Star team.

Fast forward to the present, and the novelty is long gone: the trickle of Asian talent to the U.S. is accelerating into a small flood. After Nomo came star Japanese pitchers Hideki Irabu and Masato Yoshii and the rise to glory of South Korean ace Chan Ho Park. Now, Asian talent is pouring through the American turnstile: this year, North American clubs will field 30 Asian-born players in the major and minor leagues. That's still a tiny percentage of the nearly 3,000 foreign players under contract (most of whom hail from Latin America), but it's the beginning of what insiders expect will be an explosion of imports from Asia, as major league squads set up scouting offices across the region and agents rush in to represent the best players. Asia is a very fertile reservoir of baseball talent, says Tim Ireland, the Colorado Rockies' Pacific Rim scouting coordinator. Now that they have seen players like Nomo and Park succeed in America, Asian players know that dreams of playing in the major leagues are within reach.

The new season heralds another milestone: Asia's baseball exports are no longer limited to pitchers. It's a significant breakthrough in the continuing effort to knock down stereotypes and other barriers that have kept Asian talent out of North America. Once, conventional wisdom held that Asians simply lacked the skills and physical strength to make it in American baseball. That notion had to be revised after the success of small but lethal pitchers like Nomo and Yoshii. And now a few Asian everyday players--catchers, infielders, outfielders--are lacing up their spikes in the West. These pioneers include Taiwanese outfielder Chen Chin-feng of the Los Angeles Dodgers and South Korean first baseman Hee Seop Choi, whose powerful swing and smooth fielding skills have prompted the Chicago Cubs to list him as their No. 2 prospect. Time to rewrite conventional wisdom yet again.

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Advertisers look to make money from patriotic fervor The Asian invasion began, sort of, in 1964, when the long-forgotten lefthander Masanori Murakami took the mound for the San Francisco Giants. Murakami pitched in 50-odd games but returned home in 1965 when his Japanese team, which still owned the rights to his services, called him back. Three decades would pass before Nomo became the second Japanese player to make it to the show. It was Nomo's performance that convinced scouts that Asians could succeed, big time, in America. When he coached Japan's Chiba Lotte Marines in 1995, current New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine estimated there were 20 pitchers in Japan who could play in the North American big leagues. He now says the number may have doubled.

The onslaught also reflects a shift in Asian attitudes. In the past, Japanese players in particular were content to stay at home, enjoying glamour and prestige in their native, baseball-mad country. The flood moved the other way, with American ballplayers--many of them past their prime--filling roster spots on Japan's top teams. But the best Japanese players are finding it increasingly hard to resist prospects of salaries several times more than what they earn at home. And some Japanese simply prefer the quality of the American game, which tends to be more aggressive and muscular than Japan's somewhat delicate version. I feel comfortable here, says Kazuhiro Sasaki, the greatest relief pitcher in the history of Japanese baseball, who signed a two-year contract with the Seattle Mariners last December. Pitchers challenge hitters: power against power. The way they play in America is the way I feel the game should be played. The 32-year-old Sasaki, who notched 229 saves in 10 seasons with the Yokohama BayStars, says he feels like a little boy again. The Mariners' principal owner, Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi, was so delighted to land Sasaki that he presented him with a stuffed toy Pikachu at his signing press conference.

If the American baseball ethic is Work Hard, Play Hard, the Japanese game emphasizes only the Work. Training regimens are grueling, and it's not unusual for a pitcher to destroy his arm from overuse. Baseball officials in Japan need to examine why a lot of good players like Nomo and Irabu want to come over here, says Sasaki. The game needs to be more fun, or else all the younger players in Japan are going to want to leave.

There are still restrictions, however. This is a nation that takes its baseball as seriously as the U.S. does, and Japanese baseball interests aren't prepared to let their top talent slip away. Players are bound to their clubs for the first nine years of their careers, which means young stars like 19-year-old Seibu Lions fireballer Daisuke Matsuzaka and the Yomiuri Giants' 25-year-old pitcher Koji Uehara may have to wait years before getting the chance to face the best hitters in the world. The biggest impact could be felt next year when the top player in Japan, Orix Blue Wave outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, completes his required nine campaigns. Of course I would like to play in America, says the six-time batting champ, who led the Pacific League with a .343 average last season.

The changing face of American baseball was clearly on display in Fort Meyers, Florida, where the Boston Red Sox wound up their spring training last week. The Sox had four Asians, all pitchers, on their Grapefruit League roster, more than any other American team. Three are from South Korea, which launched its own professional league in the early '80s and is beginning to develop top-notch international talent. Of the 30 Asians under contract in North America this year, 15 are Korean, compared with only 12 Japanese and three from Taiwan. We like the discipline and strength of the Korean pitchers, says Dan Duquette, Boston's general manager. The coaching in Korea is very structured, and I think the players have a very good understanding and instinct for baseball. Korean players are also relatively easy to sign, although they must complete more than two years of military service before age 27. The country's most famous export--power pitcher Park of the Dodgers--was exempted from his military commitment after helping South Korea win a gold medal in baseball at the 1998 Asian Games.

Park struggled when he first came to America in 1994. But he came into his own in 1997, winning 14 games. Scouts are now looking to Red Sox lefthander Sang Hoon Lee, 29, to follow in Park's footsteps. Lee, who won the Korean version of the Cy Young Award in 1995 as the league's top pitcher, is a renegade personality whose reddish hair spills defiantly from under his baseball cap. On the mound, however, Lee is all business. The important thing is that he can get the hitters out, Duquette says. That's a universal measuring stick. Younger teammate Sun Woo Kim, who attended the same Korean university as Lee, could mature into an equally impressive hurler--and just as importantly, he has won over local fans with his English skills. A few years ago, Kim played with Korea's national team in an exhibition at Boston's Fenway Park. After the game, he took some of the dirt from the pitching mound home with him and vowed that he would return one day as a professional. That story is starting to become part of New England sports folklore, says Duquette.

The newest source of big-league talent is Taiwan. Although the island has long been a dominant force in the Little League World Series--winning 17 of the past 30 championships--the Taiwan professional league is something of an embarrassment, riddled with spotty play and corruption. Many of the best players leave, usually to compete in Japan. But Ireland, the Rockies' scout, recently outbid the Yomiuri Giants to sign one of Taiwan's budding stars, 18-year-old pitcher Tsao Chin-hui, to a contract that includes a club-record $2.2 million signing bonus. Tsao had a dream to play in the majors, and he is ready to pursue it, says Ireland. Last month, Tsao made his professional debut against the Seattle Mariners in a spring training game in Peoria, Arizona. Facing three established big-league hitters, Tsao needed only 11 pitches to retire the side, striking out two of the batters. The game was televised live in Taiwan. It was very exciting getting to play against major league players, says Tsao. This was very important for me and the people in Taiwan.

Despite the wealth of talent, Major League Baseball is wary of poaching the best players from Asia. We are very sensitive to the baseball structure of Asian countries, so I want to be careful that we respect their system, says major league commissioner Bud Selig. How that plays out, only time will tell. What's certain is that the flow will increase. While it's too early to predict how Tsao, for instance, will perform against seasoned professionals in regular-season games, it's a safe bet that Colorado Rockies paraphernalia will move well in Taiwan, just as Boston Red Sox merchandise should be a hit in South Korea. Having an Asian player on one's roster can be a marketing boon on both sides of the Pacific. While every personnel decision is based upon baseball evaluations, certainly the marketing aspect of our team is important, says Mets general manager Steve Phillips. As diverse as New York is, it makes a lot of sense to have a very diverse team. With the Asian floodgates open, that's going to become a lot easier in the coming years.

With reporting by Michael Kitchen/Taipei