Kosuke Fukudome is a player. He’s a baseball player, quintessential and classic. And that’s good enough for me.
More than good enough, in fact. After only one game, I’ve already anointed the 30-year-old Chicago Cubs right fielder as my player-to-watch this season. Why?
At the plate, he’s smart and efficient. No wasted energy or bravado. And in the field he’s swift and clean, and he possesses the kind of arm that will make the nightly highlights.
And he’s good. I’m not just going by his exciting 3-for-3 debut earlier this week when Fukudome (his full name is pronounced OH-skay foo-koo-DOUGH-may) hit a game-tying homer in the ninth and came within a triple of the vaunted cycle. He’s true ball: He was a two-time Japanese Central League batting champion with a .305 career average and .397 on-base percentage in 1,074 career games with the Chunichi Dragons. (MLB needs a team called the Dragons!)
He also has four Gold Gloves and he was a key member of the gold-medal 2004 Olympic baseball team.
All of that is why the Cubs signed him, rather quietly, to a four-year, $48 million deal. Yes, quietly.
Quietly because most of us had never heard of Fukudome. Because he is Japanese. That is why folks are mostly buzzing about him in the same sentences with Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideo Nomo.
They’re Japanese, too, of course. And they’re baseball players, pure and simple.
Who’ll be the best Japanese import ever?
Baseball is evolving to into a global sport, clearly. Probably third among the major sports leagues behind the NHL and NBA, but it’s happening, and that’s a good thing.
Baseball recently revealed that of the 827 players on Opening Day rosters and disabled lists, 230 were born in 17 nations beyond our boundaries. That’s nearly a third. Eighteen of them are of Asian descent.
The evolution is reminiscent, of course, of the years following the breaking of baseball’s color barrier in 1947. Over the next decade, one by one, major-league teams signed black players, most of whom were already stars in the Negro League. Many remained stars, some faltered, a few were signed too late in their careers to match their peak season.
For years those players were a nation within the province of baseball, compared only with one another, included but excluded from the discussion about their greatness relative to baseball, and not merely Negroes in baseball.
It’ll happen again for Japanese players. In fact, it’s already starting to emerge. Ichiro, likely the first Japanese player to reach the Hall of Fame for his MLB career, is solidly recognized as one game’s best hitters ever. And Dice-K has the potential to earn a place among clutch pitchers.
Hitters. Pitchers. Like Kosuke Fukudome, whom a writer at MLB.com recently compared with the great Latin hitter, Tony Oliva, they’re baseball players.
And that should be all right with each of us.