Asian Invasion: Baseball's Ambassadors. (Global Notebook)

Article excerpt

The 2001 US Major League Base ball (MLB) season heralded greater prominence for a relatively new presence in the American national pastime--that of Asian baseball players.

Ichiro Suzuki--better known as "Ichiro"--after dominating Japanese pitchers for seven years, joined the Seattle Mariners as the first Asian-born position player to sign a major-league contract. He became the American League (AL) batting champion and top vote-getter in the All-Star Game, earned both a Silver Slugger Award and a Gold Glove Award, and was elected both AL Rookie of the Year and AL Most Valuable Player (MVP).

Ichiro's achievements, which made him a household name in the United States, were not last season's sole accomplishments by Asian defectors to the major leagues. Hideo Nomo, a previous recipient of Japan's equivalent of the Cy Young Award for pitching success in a season, threw his second career no-hitter for the Boston Red Sox this past April. South Korean-born Byung-Hyun Kim led the World Series champion Arizona Diamondbacks in saves, playing an integral role in their yearlong success before faltering in two World Series games. Japanese Kazuhiro Sasaki served as the Mariners' closer in the most successful season of the franchise's history. Other Asian exports have become significant players in North America, including Japanese Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Masato Yoshii, and Hideki Irabu, as well as South Koreans Chan-Ho Park and Sun-Woo Kim.

This influx of talent from Asian nations, though likely to accelerate with time, does not promise to resemble the spate of Latin American ballplayers which has changed the face of American baseball over the past 30 years. Acceleration will result from the greater attention paid to professional Asian baseball leagues, especially with the appreciable success of past imports. The Japanese and Korean baseball leagues, however, can be expected to limit the mining of their leagues by the United States, creating roadblocks to MLB's signing of players from Asia.

Some fans and commentators have likened the emergence of Asia as a source of baseball talent to the attention afforded to Latin America by major league ballclubs. The analogy is surprisingly apt. In 1996, the New York Mets and San Diego Padres opened the season in Monterrey, Mexico, in the first regular-season game played outside the United States and Canada Four years later, the Mets took on the Chicago Cubs at the Tokyo Dome to inaugurate the 2000 season in the first regular-season game played in Asia. The season openers demonstrated a growing awareness of the increasingly prominent contributions made by Latin America and Asia to the MLB.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, Puerto Rican Roberto Clemente changed the landscape of American baseball as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates, which ultimately earned him a plaque in baseball's Hall of Fame. Similarly, Dominican Sammy Sosa has in recent years changed the sport as few other ballplayers have, with his prodigious home runs for the Chicago Cubs. His consistent superstar numbers have launched him both into the record books and to the status of fan favorite. However, Clemente and Sosa stand taller than their mere statistics and accolades. They have come to represent a culture's presence in baseball, and they have increased the awareness of the talent that Latin America offers to baseball.

Ichiro, like Clemente or Sosa in the past, changed the baseball world last year with one of the best all-around seasons in history In the same way as Clemente and Sosa, he has come to represent a foreign culture's presence in baseball, increasing the awareness of potential Asian talent. …