Ichiro Suzuki is amazed at how quickly Munenori Kawasaki has been drawn to the bosom of the baseball fans in Toronto.
"I thought he handed out free pizza to the crowd or something," said the legendary outfielder, future Hall of Famer and now New York Yankee, during the weekend series with the Blue Jays.
His eyes twinkled when he said that.
What Ichiro isn’t surprised about, as he expressed through long-time translator Allen Turner, is how the Toronto shortstop has already adapted to a situation where he is the only Japanese on a team in a city he only arrived in a week ago.
Kawasaki, says Ichiro, would be like he is no matter if it were with "the Maple Leafs, Manchester United or in the jungle.
"I wouldn’t survive three days in the jungle."
Toronto isn’t the jungle, but it is a place that traditionally falls for a certain type of athlete -- hard working, blue collar, technically sound, 100 per cent effort in everything. And Kawasaki fits the bill to a batting T.
So much so, that just three home games into his tenure the fans were chanting "Ka-wa-sa-ki" loud enough for opposing players to peek out of the dugout wondering what was going on. And after hitting ninth upon his arrival, he was moved up to the leadoff spot.
Brought up from triple-A Buffalo on April 13 as a short-term fill-in for a long-term injury to Jose Reyes until something better came along, the former Seattle backup has already pretty much cemented a spot.
At least as a backup when the starter is due back after the July All-Star break.
On Friday night of the Yankee series, the first Kawasaki jersey was seen. He signed it.
A day later, four guys showed up with No. 66 t-shirts, and on Sunday the Jays’ souvenir shop was doing a nice business (30 minutes to make a Kawi shirt for $150, and a number of people were going for it).
A seriously good player
Munenori Kawasaki is cute and fun and enthusiastic and kind of goofy.
He’s also a superbly trained defensive shortstop with a track record to match.
Coming out of Kagoshima Prefecture, in southern Japan, Kawasaki was drafted in the fourth round of the pro draft in 1999 and, after two big seasons in the minors, made his debut with Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in 2002 (36 games).
Full time a year later, he was almost immediately recognized as one of the nation’s best shortstops, making eight all-star teams and winning the Gold Glove twice, and being selected to the Top 9 (voted best at his position) on two occasions.
The great Ichiro Suzuki says it’s no surprise to anyone who watches Japanese baseball how good defensively Kawasaki is.
There were also good hitting numbers with the Hawks, including five seasons over .300, batting with a style deeply reminiscent of his hero, Ichiro. So an opportunity, as a free agent, to sign with the Mariners and play with Suzuki seemed perfect.
Didn’t work out however, as Kawasaki hit just .192 in 104 plate appearances, and was released at the end of the season.
Looking for some minor league depth, the Jays grabbed him in March and immediately put him on the triple-A roster where he actually backed up young Ryan Goins.
Brought up to fill for the injured Jose Reyes because of his defence and experience, Kawasaki’s offence seems to be returning. He’s hitting .261 in 23 at bats through Sunday.
Better, however, is that the shortstop can be relied on to do things other Jays tend to struggle with, such as bunting, moving the base runner up by hitting to the right side, hitting a sacrifice fly and offering smart play on the base paths.
Toronto fans are loving it.
"I’m very thankful to be in Toronto right now … the fans here are very warm and welcoming," he said, through translator Anna Machizawa. "I’ll do my very best to express myself out on the field, so the fans can enjoy the game and I want to enjoy the game to the fullest out there myself."
And he most certainly does.
Kawasaki’s antics are a show in themselves. He is always doing knee bends on the field and at bat. He hustles everywhere. This week, on a close play at first, he turned and bowed to the umpire, who reflexively bowed back.
When he reminds the left-fielder about the number of outs in an inning, as all shortstops do, he gives the signal and then bows in that direction.
Part of the early legend was an incident in the Chicago series last week where he came out of the batting cage during pre-game, put his bat and gloves down on the ground and sternly admonished them not to move because he’d be right back.
In the dugout, teammates have been quoted extensively about Kawasaki’s enthusiasm, how he is always exhorting and supporting. They don’t understand much of what he’s saying, but they still love it.
Language still a barrier
Munenori Kawasaki is 31 years old and speaks almost no English, despite spending his first big league season in Seattle last year where he played sparingly (104 at bats, .192, 0 homers, 7 RBI).
"Yes, the language barrier is difficult," he admits. "I speak in Japanese, they speak in English, and we can’t understand each other, right?"
Baseball is supposed to be a universal language, but at the highest level being able to chat with your fellow infielders when you are a shortstop is vital, leading one to assume Kawasaki speaks "infield" better than English.
How do he and Brett Lawrie, the third baseman, do it? "That’s a team secret," he says, smiling.
Some words and phrases are coming along.
"Well, usually [it’s] ‘What’s up? How’re you doing? Good morning. Have a good one. Take care. Banana. Apple. I like apple. I’m from Japan. I’m Japanese. My English isn’t good enough."
Just over 40 players have come from Japan to the majors, almost all of them after carving out long careers in the Central or Pacific leagues there. Most faced the dual problem, upon arrival, of the language barrier and immersing in a culture they simply don’t have a natural feel for.
By contrast, players from Latin America tend to arrive as teenagers and have some years in the minors to learn the ways of their new world.
Put another way, Japanese players face in the majors the same obstacles found by North American-born former big leaguers going the opposite way to play pro in Japan.
Warren Cromartie understands completely.
The former Montreal Expos outfielder went to Tokyo in 1984 to play a couple of seasons with the Yomiuri Giants, the country’s most famous team. He stayed seven star seasons (.321/171 HR/556 RBI), and saw a lot of gaijin come and go.
"It’s a difficult thing for any person to go to another country, to make an immediate impact," says Cromartie, on the line from Florida. "There’s something … the person has to bring with him -- he must mentally prepare himself."
That means being open to the culture, to learning the habits, the ways of your new land.
A good example of success, Cromartie believes, is New York starter Hiroki Kuroda, who after an 11-year career with the Toyo Carp, in Hiroshima, came to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2008 and immediately settled in.
"He made a [real] attempt to live abroad. He lived in Los Angeles. He lives in New York. He put his kids in school in the States, picked up some of the mannerisms."
As did Cromartie himself.
"I did the little things that showed I wanted to adapt, using the hashi [chop sticks] right away, for example," he said.
But the language was something, at first, he didn’t think was going to be as important.
"I signed a two year deal [with the Giants] and I didn’t bother with it. I was going to go back to the majors. Well, that didn’t transpire. I was there seven years, and I started picking up the language [well] toward the fifth year -- sixth year for sure."
Later, he added "I was around the language 24/7, constantly around the Japanese etiquette, the pace, the greetings, the mannerisms."
Kawasaki said this weekend that coming to the majors had been part of the plan for a while, part of a progression from high school to pro, and then from the Japanese major leagues to North America.
"If he had that particular plan, he left out a very important part [learning English]," said Cromartie, who believes any player in Japan who is considering in any way coming to North America should work on his English, and vice-versa.
Might be a good idea for Masahiro Tanaka to be working on a new language right now.
The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles pitcher with a killer split-finger fastball, is mentioned by some of the top Japanese media as the next player to follow Yu Darvish, now of Texas, across the Pacific in time for 2014.