New King in Town

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New Yorkers had been waiting for this moment for 44 years. The New York Mets had already clinched a berth in American baseball's World Series, and the legendary New York Yankees were ready to claim the other spot, creating the first subway series—so called because supporters of both teams can shuttle between home and away games on the underground—since the 1956 clash between the Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. But standing in the way last Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, were the Seattle Mariners and their ace relief pitcher from Japan, Kazuhiro Sasaki. A closer whose forkball from hell almost invariably finishes off opponents, Sasaki had a perfect record in the American League playoffs, sealing two victories over the Chicago White Sox and two wins in the series against the Yankees. As Game 6 entered the 7th inning, the Mariners were leading 4-3, and Yankee fans were already dreading the 8th and 9th innings—Sasaki time. If anyone could shove a speeding subway train off the tracks, it was the man known as Dai-majin, the Great Genie.But Seattle's faithful and millions of supporters back in Japan never got the chance to see if their hero could derail the Yankee Express. Sasaki could only watch from the bullpen as teammate Arthur Rhodes gave up a three-run homer in the 7th inning, putting the Yankees ahead to stay and setting off a raucous chorus of We want the Mets in Yankee Stadium. Kazmania—the word was flashed on the scoreboard at Seattle's Safeco Field all summer long—was suddenly over, at least for this season.The abrupt ending couldn't detract, however, from Sasaki's remarkable debut in American baseball, a success of Pokémon proportions. During the regular season he saved 37 games, a record for a first-year Major Leaguer, in 40 opportunities. That could win him American League Rookie of the Year honors.Yet how can the term rookie be applied to a 32-year-old superstar who is the greatest relief pitcher in Japanese history? In 10 seasons with the Yokohama Bay Stars (formerly the Taiyo Whales), he was a Central League all-star six times and saved a record 229 games. At his peak in 1998, he chalked up a Japanese season-record 45 saves, including an unprecedented 22 in a row, and led Yokohama to victory over the Seibu Lions in the Japan Series.Such feats were not enough for Dai-majin, who got his nickname from an old Japanese film in which a great genie protects a village from its enemies. About seven years ago, Sasaki told Time, he began thinking of going to the U.S.: I wanted to play against the best. Because of Japanese rules designed to keep young players at home, he was not eligible to leave until after 1999, and even then his dream nearly vanished. In August of last year, he had season-ending surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow.Undaunted, he embarked on an American tour last November to prove he could still pitch. He threw for scouts for the Mariners, Mets, Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks, and all those clubs wanted him. The Mariners had the inside track all along because of Seattle's large Japanese population and the fact that the club's principal owner was none other than Hiroshi Yamauchi, president of Nintendo of Japan. What really impressed Sasaki was that when he visited Seattle, he was chauffeured to a dinner in a Mercedes personally driven by Minoru Arakawa, Nintendo of America president and Yamauchi's son-in-law. It was reported that Sasaki signed for two years, but the successful completion of his rookie year guarantees him a third season. He will make, according to his agent, close to $18 million over the three years, even more than the $5 million annual salary he was pulling down with Yokohama.At first, the Mariners thought Sasaki would be the set-up man for closer Jose Mesa, a former Cleveland Indians hurler with World Series experience. But Sasaki was so good in spring training that he took Mesa's job away. Because he was still recovering from the surgery, his fastball didn't hit top speed (more than 90 m.p.h.) until July, but his forkball was lethal. Looking initially like a fastball, it darts down as it reaches home plate, leaving batters flailing at thin air.The city of Seattle embraced Sasaki from the start. People showed up at Safeco Field wearing headbands with the Japanese characters for sanshin (strikeout) and held up signs that said made in japan. And if Dai-majin was merciless on the mound, he was easy-going off it. He could sing a mean version of Unchained Melody in karaoke bars, and he liked to hang with teammates, even when his interpreter wasn't around. We try to teach him as much English as we can, says Mariner rightfielder Jay Buhner, but unfortunately it isn't always proper English. Sasaki gave Buhner a bottle of sake, which they planned to share after winning the World Series.As unhittable as he was in the regular season, the pitcher admitted to being nervous when he took the mound at Yankee Stadium to protect a 2-0 Seattle lead in the 9th inning of Game 1 of the championship series. It was the atmosphere, he said. That may have been the most diplomatic term ever used to describe the boorish, bellowing fans who inhabit what is often called the Bronx Zoo. It's appropriate that Yankee home games begin with the loudspeakers blaring the Guns N' Roses song Welcome to the Jungle. Sasaki got into a jam that first outing, giving up two singles, but then bore down to get two flyouts that preserved the Mariner win. When the last ball was caught, he broke into a huge grin that endeared him to millions of TV viewers (at least those who hate the Yankees).But a week later he wasn't grinning in the visitors' clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, after the Game 6 loss that eliminated his team. As the usual horde of journalists crowded around, he didn't want to talk about what a wonderful season he had completed. He was just disappointed, he said through his interpreter, because we could have gone farther. It took Buhner to break the somber mood. Pushing his way through the reporters, he tossed a string of unprintable expletives at Sasaki. The pitcher fired back four straight expletives of his own. Very good, chuckled Buhner, the English teacher.As Sasaki and Buhner gave each other a hug and headed for the bus that would take them from the scene of their defeat, the rightfielder was thinking about next year. We're coming back, Buhner said. We'll get a chance to break the seal on that sake and celebrate. With reporting by Hiroko Tashiro/Tokyo