In 1993, the New York Daily News sent me to Tokyo to write a series of stories on baseball in Japan. Of course, I did the obligatory "American in a strange land" story, through the eyes of ex-Yankee Mel Hall. I also did an overview of the game in Japan: how it looks, sounds and smells compared to American baseball. But the piece I remember most was about the center fielder for the Seibu Lions.
His name was Koji Akiyama and the reason I was writing about him was because, at the time, he was The Man. Every American player I asked, "Who here could play in the big leagues?" had the same answer: "Akiyama."
He could run and throw and hit for power and, more than anything, he was a showman. And get this -- whenever he hit a walk-off (they call it a sayonara) home run, he would touch home plate after doing a cartwheel and a back handspring as he ran down the third base line. I wanted to see him do that in the major leagues, if only to see what kind of beanball war it might have ignited.
So I arranged an interview with Akiyama at Seibu Stadium, and thanks to a translator named Kota Ishijima -- who greeted me with, "Did you bring any copies of the News? I miss reading it, man" -- I was able to get some really honest answers.
For one thing, Koji really wanted to play in the major leagues.
For another, he knew it would never happen.
"If I was younger," said Akiyama, who was 30 at the time, "I would try to do it because I'd want to see how I stand up against the best in the world. But I'm not even my best anymore, and my contract won't allow me to go. Some day, you will see Japanese players in the major leagues; I have no doubt, because a lot of players talk about going to a place where they will be more free to express their individuality."
At the time, Japanese baseball was so very conservative and serious -- known for its pre-game regimen of drills and sweat and its in-game philosophy that all players shall work in harmony, and that no one player should
stand out from the group.
I thought of Akiyama as I followed Ichiro Suzuki through his first few weeks in the major leagues. I'm not sure I'd say Ichiro is what the players would call a "style-master," but he's got swagger. When he picks up a ground ball in right field, he'll stare in at the runner as if to say, "Where you goin?" And while he's been careful of what he's saying to the press, his
teammates told me he does not lack one bit for confidence.
So I asked him if he wanted to come to the U.S. for the same reasons that Akiyama spoke of -- namely, to show off his skills and his personality. "No, I expressed myself in Japan, that was never a problem," Ichiro said through a translator. "The reason I wanted to come here is because my fans wanted to see me take on a new challenge. Playing in Japan was not so interesting anymore."
Ichiro's first month has been very interesting. So interesting, in fact, you have to wonder how long it will be before the next Japanese position player follows in his footsteps.
Somewhere, I'm sure, Koji Akiyama is smiling.
Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail email@example.com.
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