Cubs making Fukudome feel at home
Teammates aid Japanese import's transition to Majors
MESA, Ariz. -- It starts with good morning. When Kosuke Fukudome arrives at the Cubs' practice facility, he is greeted in English as well as attempts by his teammates at the greeting in Japanese. Ohayo gozaimasu.
Fukudome is never quite sure what to expect in his locker, especially if Carlos Zambrano gets to the ballpark first. Zambrano greeted Fukudome on the first day by wearing the outfielder's No. 1, saying, "I'm No. 1 here," and has promised more pranks.
The 10th Japanese position player to sign with a Major League team, Fukudome will be the first to wear a Cubs uniform in the Major Leagues. The team is banking $48 million over the next four years that the left-handed hitter who won two batting titles and four Gold Gloves in Japan can make a smooth transition to the U.S. as the Cubs' starting right fielder.
"The key to his success is how he adjusts to American style," said Hirokazu Higuchi of the Chunichi Shimbun newspaper.
A big part of that adjustment is off the field. The Cubs hired an interpreter, Ryuji Araki, and a trainer, Yoshi Nakazawa, who used to work for Fukudome's former team, the Chunichi Dragons. Nakazawa is preparing meals for Fukudome during Spring Training, and even found a Japanese grocery store in the Phoenix area.
Some of the Cubs players invited Fukudome to play golf. There is a six-page cheat sheet with Japanese words for the players to learn, and includes everything from directions ("migi" is right) to animals ("kuma" is bear).
"Joe [Urbon] told me Fukudome is thrilled and couldn't be happier," Cubs assistant general manager Randy Bush said about a conversation he had last week with Fukudome's agent. "His teammates are trying to speak to him in Japanese. Everybody has made him feel welcome, and I think that started way back with the whole process that [general manager Jim Hendry] went through with being respectful with his culture and how he wanted to leave Japan the right way and not get ahead of himself."
Urbon and his company, Octagon, did their part to prep Fukudome, too. The outfielder was taught how to sign his autograph, and not in the Japanese kanji style, but in a script that included his No. 1 (sorry, Carlos). Urbon has received numerous offers from companies who want Fukudome to endorse their product, but those are on hold. Fukudome's first priority is to be a good teammate, a word he uses often.
Fukudome has tried to keep the Japanese media from being a distraction, and holds his daily briefings outside of the clubhouse. The Cubs haven't been overwhelmed the way the Boston Red Sox were last year when Daisuke Matsuzaka made his debut. About 300 Boston and Japanese media attended Matsuzaka's first spring workout. There were 30 on the Cubs' first full day of practice, and there will likely be five or six regulars who follow him during the season.
Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano played three seasons in Japan. The biggest challenge?
"The language," Soriano said. "You feel like you can't speak their language. That will be hard for him."
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"There's no difference," Soriano said. "It's the same ball, the same game. He has to concentrate and learn the league, but it's the same ball they throw to home plate."
Ryan Theriot's locker is next to Fukudome's, and the personable shortstop answers questions that Fukudome may have -- with Araki interpreting. And it's little things that need explaining. For example, Fukudome didn't know where some of his uniform pants were.
"Coming up in the Minor Leagues, there's always a language barrier with some players," Theriot said. "If both parties are willing to work on it, it's amazing to see how fast you start to pick up each language. That stuff's important, to feel like you can communicate, and not only here, but at a restaurant or wherever it may be. It makes you feel at home, makes you feel comfortable. We're going to work extra hard to do that."
Why all the extra effort? The career .305 hitter who has a .397 on-base percentage is needed in the Cubs' very right-handed lineup. When he was acquired, Lou Piniella projected Fukudome would hit either second or fifth, but lately is leaning toward inserting him third to get some speed and runners on base ahead of Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez.
"If he hits anything like we hear he can hit, I think he's a good addition to any lineup, but especially this one," Lee said. "We are right-handed dominant. To throw a lefty in the middle of the order will be big for us."
"He's a Gold Glove-caliber defender, MVP, he can run, he's strong, he's got surprising pop, which I think he'll show when he gets acclimated over here," said Bush, who scouted Fukudome in Japan. "What we expect him to do is play outstanding right field, be the kind of guy who gets on base a lot, be patient at the plate as a lot of hitters there are. When he gets on base, steal a base.
"One of the things that's unique in Japan is the three-hole hitter doesn't run," Bush said. "They all play the same type of baseball, and strategy-wise he's always hit third, but they don't run with the three-hole hitter. He runs good and is a good base runner. Depending on what Lou asks him to do, you could see a lot more stolen bases out of him also."
Hall of Famer Billy Williams has been watching Fukudome since he first arrived in Mesa, and likes the outfielder's balance at the plate.
"When you've got good balance, you have a good swing," Williams said. "I picked up his bat, and it's not a very heavy bat, but he's quick and gets it through the strike zone. The most important thing with him, I see when he takes batting practice, he hits a lot of balls to the opposite field. I think that's his game -- using the whole field. I was taught many years ago that when you use the whole field, there aren't many defenses that can stop you."
Most Japanese players see their home run numbers go down when they come to play in America. Fukudome's personal best was 34 in 2003.
"The ballparks are smaller over there," Bush said. "I would think, realistically, for Fukudome, you could figure in a full season he'll hit 15 home runs his first year. Depending on where he hits in the lineup, he'll drive in runs, he'll steal bases and get on base a lot. We'll take that. I think the power will show up more as he gets acclimated here. He definitely has power to hit the ball out of the ballpark."
Right now, the emphasis is on learning how to communicate. On Friday, Fukudome could be heard yelling, "I got it" during a fielding drill. Cubs hitting coach Gerald Perry worked with Ichiro Suzuki in Seattle.
"If he's anything like Ichiro, he'll pick it up real quick," Perry said.
"He's got a great work ethic," Theriot said of Fukudome. "He's here early, stays late. You never catch him standing around on the field. He stays inside the ball really well, a good contact hitter. And, as advertised, he's a great defender. We're excited to watch him work out there. I think we can learn from his work ethic."
And hopefully pick up a few phrases along the way.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.