Move over, Sammy Sosa. While the Chicago Cubs slugger and hero of the Dominican Republic remains a darling of the Cactus League, a growing number of other foreigners are grabbing attention this year at spring training - especially back home.
With every pitch, Kazuhiro Sasaki, a Japanese ace signed by the Seattle Mariners, sends hordes of TV photographers elbowing for position, knowing their shots will delight millions across the Pacific.
Sasaki is hardly the first Japanese import to cause a sensation. But his impact symbolizes how Major League Baseball - "America's game" - is taking on a global flavor. From Japan to Korea to Australia, more and more foreigners are donning American cleats - subtly changing the culture of a game that has been called a form of native American ballet.
Perhaps nothing underscores the shift more than the fact that the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets will open their regular season this week with a two-game series in Japan - the first time US teams have ever done so.
"We are excited about opening the first season of the 21st century in Japan," baseball commissioner Bud Selig said. "The Japanese people have a great love for the game of baseball and we are pleased to ... share this historic moment with them."
Major League Baseball is developing its own blueprint for expanding the game into foreign markets. There is even talk of one day having the American and National leagues being joined by an International League, consisting of Latin and Asian teams whose pennant champion would vie for a World Series crown.
Still, a fan need only visit the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues to get a sense of how the appeal of baseball is spreading to the rest of the world.
In turn, this globalization has brought an international flavor to US ball clubs - affecting everything from how players communicate (these days, it's often in Spanish - or sometimes through translators), to subtle differences in playing styles.
Last year, the major-league rosters on opening day included 178 players from 16 foreign countries and Puerto Rico - 1 of every 5 in the big leagues. Leading the parade of non-US players in the majors is the Dominican Republic, with more than 60 players - including the Cubs' Sosa. These stats do not reflect the hundreds of other foreign-born players found in the minors.
In Japan, where baseball is nearly as old as in the US, many scouts predict an influx into the US. Japan and Korea are both recognized in particular for developing young pitchers.
Besides Sasaki with the Mariners, Hideki Irabu - whom many credit with starting the Japanese invasion - is pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays; Shigetoshi Hasagawa has signed with the Anaheim Angels; Masato Yoshii is with the Colorado Rockies; and there are two or three others.
To some observers, cultural differences can translate into different pitching styles. Japanese pitchers are known for being more cautious, relying on strategy rather than strength.
Spring training certainly takes on a distinctive Asian flavor in Peoria and Yuma, Ariz., which are annual destinations for teams from Japan and Korea. Instead of offering hot dogs or sodas between workout sessions, for example, some Japanese teams enlist a private chef to serve up generous helpings of sushi and herbal tea.
There's also a difference in attitude. "Japanese players are respectful. They show gratitude even to the groundskeepers," says Dan Dorn, an American consultant for the Yakult Swallows - a corporate-owned professional club that plays in the Japanese major league. "[T]hey don't have the reputation for whining that some of the American players have," he says.
In the fall, Arizona becomes a baseball nexus again with the start of the fall instruction leagues, which attract hundreds of players from Latin America, hoping to get noticed by big-league scouts.
"When you walk through the clubhouses during the fall, you will not hear English being spoken," says Jim Brink, who coordinates the international players at the Peoria Sports Complex.
Part of the explanation for more international players in the big leagues, experts say, can be attributed to broader worldwide interest, but the main reason is necessity. As more US cities get teams, the locally-grown talent pool has been depleted, forcing clubs to aggressively scout players from other countries.
"Beating the bushes to shake out talent has become intense,"says Greg Bouris, director of communications with Major League Baseball's Player's Association. "It used to be that baseball organizations would assign scouts to bird-dog around high-school sandlots in the US. Now you almost have to cover the four corners of the world."
Sometimes, it has produced international intrigue, as in the case of ballclubs inviting players to defect from a country like Cuba, or trying to sign Latin players who have barely passed out of puberty. It also has resulted in athletes being plucked from such untraditional bastions of the game as Canada, England, and Australia.
According to Bouris, nearly every major league team has hired Far East representatives. Similarly, Japanese teams now scout American players.
Marketers of the game realize that having non-American players on their roster can have tremendous appeal among immigrant populations in major cities. Just as Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela galvanized the support of Mexican-Americans in the 1980s, so, too, have players from the Far East appealed to Asian immigrants along the Pacific Coast.
But Brink says that for baseball fans and general managers, the ultimate decider is not ethnicity but a player's ability to perform. "Teams are not recruiting players from Japan or Latin America or anywhere else to attract more fans from a given ethnic group in the stands," he notes. "They are recruiting players because they have talent to help the team win."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society