MESA, Ariz. – A handful of Kosuke Fukudome’s teammates were working over their mid-day sandwiches while the good-natured Japanese right fielder walked through his assimilation tactics.
It seems everyone in the Chicago Cubs clubhouse is adopting a Japanese word or two, and they dust Fukudome with them occasionally as he pads by. He nods and smiles or repeats the words, gently correcting the emphasis here or the misplaced something there, and they take another stab at it as he wanders out of earshot.
Some are pretty random. For example, the word for “word.”
The exercises kill a little time in late February, when the new guy is still a curiosity, particularly as he treads his first weeks though a quirky and scary place, a culture known to most of us as the Chicago Cubs. But, you know, what’s 100 years to a man whose own civilization dates to 30,000 BC?
So, as lunch went fast at a rectangular table in the middle of the clubhouse, Fukudome gave his own tutorial a shot.
“I am new,” he said evenly, loudly, and with some effort, “to this country.”
His teammates approved and Fukudome grinned.
He’s been here a little more than a week. With a month left before the regular season, his progress will come by the game and by the plate appearance, and then, chances are, he’ll bat third for the Cubs on Opening Day in Chicago. Meantime, it can’t all be about baseball amid the easy structure of Lou Piniella’s spring training, so every little development is notable.
Asked through his translator if he could describe his acclimation on the field as well as away from it, Fukudome’s answered, “In terms of life, now I can drive to the ballpark by myself.”
Small steps, small victories. Followed by rights on reds. And guessing which way the retirees will veer.
It’s all part of it for Fukudome, who in a couple games here has presented himself as an athletic and capable right fielder and a patient left-handed hitter. In nine seasons with Japan’s Central League Chunichi Dragons, Fukudome twice hit more than 30 home runs and twice drove in more than 100 runs. He missed about half of last season because of elbow surgery, and those who saw a lot of him in Japan say his arm isn’t yet where it once was, though in recent days it certainly has appeared right-field worthy.
The Cubs and their general manager, Jim Hendry, were among the first to target Fukudome in free agency, pursuing him to end their post-Sammy Sosa uncertainty in right field (Jeromy Burnitz, Jacques Jones, Cliff Floyd and a lot of friends), to extend some starting pitchers in an otherwise swing-first, ask-questions-later batting order, and to balance out the marquee bats in the lineup, all of which are right-handed (Derrek Lee, Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez).
“It’s too early [for exact impressions],” Piniella said. “He’s a player, though. He’s a solid major-league player. Just needs some at-bats to get used to the pitchers over here in this country, get a feel how they’re going to pitch him. It is work. But, remember, the pitchers have to work to adjust to him, too.”
For Fukudome, who will be 31 in April, the Cubs spent $48 million of Sam Zell’s money over four years and there’s no reason yet to believe they overspent. He is a breezy clubhouse personality who, according to some scouts, projects to a .300-ish batting average and a healthy on-base percentage, with enough pop for cozy Wrigley Field. In the batting cage, he is upright and still until he draws his right knee back and up, stressing the back-leg stability that lies at the core of the Japanese game. He’s had six plate appearances, a few of them against legitimate big-league pitchers, and hasn’t swung and missed yet. He walked twice Friday against the San Francisco Giants, though the pitches he took were well out of the borderline category, and in his final at-bat, perhaps anxious to put a ball in play, flew to center field on the first pitch.
“I don’t think myself to be as picky at the plate as everybody thinks,” Fukudome said. “I’m going to be swinging.”
It does not appear Fukudome will spend time over-thinking the American game. While there are dozens of ballparks and hundreds of pitchers to learn, he dismissed the task as routine, part of a process he’d try not to hyper-analyze. For one thing, there’s little that can be done before the bullpen door swings open, bringing yet another set of pitches and arm slots. For another, Fukudome acts and talks like a player who runs on instinct. His swing, for the moment, is short, his hands tight against his body, better to attack the ball from the inside and open the field.
Life as Fukudome gets more interesting from here, of course, as the Cubs set out on their anniversary season with World Series ambitions.
Yes, he is new to this country, new to this game, but certainly he comprehends the nature of the Cubs, and what it is that lies across all their shoulders. He smiled.
“I want everybody in Chicago to see that I’m having fun playing baseball,” he said. “It’s very important. When I was a child and wanted to be a professional baseball player, I watched and they looked like they were having fun. The kids here, they should see that it’s fun.”