Who's the New Ichiro? Wanted: Japanese Baseball Players for U.S. Teams. Must Be Quick, Aggressive and Willing to Relocate. All Positions Available. Good Looks, Charisma a Plus
The Seibu Lions set only one ground rule for interviewing their superstar shortstop Kazuo Matsui: don't ask him whether he wants to come to the United States to become the next Ichiro. In the wake of the amazing success of Seattle's expatriate right fielder, the lords of Japanese baseball are more than a little worried about their all-stars' becoming our all-stars.
But Matsui, breathing heavily in the Seibu Dome dugout after a workout, has no qualms about addressing the subject. He explains that in 2001, Japanese pro-baseball players--like their fans--are obsessive viewers of Seattle Mariners baseball games broadcast almost daily. "We have a big TV set and watch the games constantly," he says. Matsui recalls vividly the time he faced Pedro Martinez in an exhibition game, and he'd like another shot at him. Will he seek that opportunity next year, joining Ichiro, Hideo Nomo, Kazuhiro Sasaki and Tsuyoshi Shinjo in what threatens to be a Pacific airlift of prime baseball talent? "After the season I will think about it," he says carefully. Translation of this translation: he's outta there.
If Matsui arrives, he'll have company. In the wake of Ichiro's emphatic proof that Japanese hitters can excel in the majors, "the interest [in them] has increased dramatically," says Bill Stoneman, the Anaheim Angels' general manager. American scouts in unprecedented numbers are combing not only professional parks but high-school matches, seeking the next Ichiro and also bargain-priced role players like Shinjo, a merely competent Hanshin Tigers outfielder who has provided some key hits this year for the Mets. Japanese players figure that if Shinjo can do it, they can, too. Shinjo himself tells ex-colleagues that the water's fine. "I tell them if they're brave enough, they can be successful here."
The main obstacle to any player's making the jump is the system that binds players to their teams. There are two escape routes. Free-agency kicks in after nine years, but waiting this out is costly, because it means resisting lucrative long-term contracts. The other option is to ask your home club to post you on a list of players available for sale to the Bigs. By "posting" Ichiro, the Blue Waves were able to collect $13 million.
The Japanese baseball establishment won't allow a wholesale exodus of its luminaries to the United States. But stateside demand, and the eagerness of Japanese owners to cash in, makes it inevitable that some major-league teams will nab some willing Japanese all-stars. Here are the leading candidates for a future Rookie of the Year award.
Kazuhisa Ishii. The most likely import is a 27-year-old lefty starter who throws in the mid-90s and has been a consistent Central League ace. Mariners scout Ted Heid has compared him to Mike Hampton. Though not a free agent until 2002, he's expressed his desire to play in the majors next season. Ishii spent some time this spring working out in California; Anaheim reliever and Japanese import Shigetoshi Hasegawa remarked that if Ishii joined the team, he'd instantly be the No. 1 or No. 2 starter. And Ishii's boss, Swallows owner Yoshikazu Tagiku, has said he wouldn't stand in the way. (He would, presumably, accept a big check for this concession, as the Blue Waves did for Ichiro.) Another Ichiro parallel: like the Mariners' star, Ishii married a popular TV newscaster a few years his senior.
Kazuo Matsui. The 25-year-old "Barry Larkin of Japan" has matinee-idol good looks, an appealing smile and Ichiro-like speed--from home to first in 3.5 seconds. …