Fukudome soon to be household name
04/02/2008 9:17 AM ET
By Jim Molony / MLB.com
CHICAGO -- Do not try to tell any of the frenzied, flag waving fans sitting in the right-field seats at Wrigley Field on Opening Day that Kosuke Fukudome won't rank with Daisuke Matsuzaka, Ichiro Suzuki and Hideo Nomo on the list of Major League Baseball's most significant Japanese imports.
He's only played in one Major League game, and yet Kosuke Fukudome (pronounced KOH-skay foo-koo-DOUGH-may) is rapidly gaining rock-star status in the Windy City.
Cubs fans have not only already learned to correctly pronounce his name, they are chanting it when the 30-year-old Fukudome comes to the plate. Some painted Fukudome's name on their chests or shirts or held banners in support of him. They waved Japanese flags and welcomed him each time he returned to right field at the top of the inning. His No. 1 jersey can be seen frequently around Wrigleyville.
There probably hasn't been this much positive applause showered on a Cubs right fielder since Sammy Sosa was chasing Mark McGwire for the home run record a decade ago.
The fans chanted even louder after Fukudome's game-tying three-run homer in the ninth inning, the pinnacle of what would have been a storybook day for the Cubs had they won.
What can you say about a rookie who hits the first pitch he sees as a Major Leaguer -- from Milwaukee ace Ben Sheets no less -- for a ringing double? He came within a triple of hitting for the cycle and drew a walk in his only other at bat.
"How was that for a first day?" teammate Ryan Theriot asked.
Fukudome earned a curtain call from fans in his debut, and the Cubs' new right fielder remained topic No. 1 in the city on Tuesday.
"I think he's the real deal," said one scout who watched Fukudome during Spring Training in Arizona and Monday's opener. "The most impressive thing to me is his knowledge of the strike zone. This guy doesn't chase pitches out of the zone. He'll take the walk, and if you give him a strike, well, you saw [Monday] what he can do with those."
Virtually unknown in this country until the Cubs signed him to a four-year, $48 million contract in the offseason, Fukudome is a household name in Japan. The two-time Japanese Central League batting champion compiled a .305 career batting average and .397 on-base percentage in 1,074 career games with the Chunichi Dragons.
In 2002 Fukudome's .343 batting average beat Hideki Matsui's for the league batting crown. Fukudome was the Central League MVP in 2006 and was also a key contributor on Japan's World Baseball Classic Championship team that year. He played on the Gold Medal Olympic team in 2004.
"I think he's going to do very well," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "There's an adjustment every player makes coming here from Japan, and vice versa. I don't think we should put too many expectations on him, but I like what I've seen from him. He has good patience at the plate, a very good swing. He hit very well in his country, there's no reason to think or assume he won't hit well here. He has the tools, obviously."
"I think he's going to do very well. ... I don't think we should put too many expectations on him, but I like what I've seen from him."
-- Lou Piniella
Watching the six-foot, 190-pound left-handed hitting Fukudome brings to mind a young Tony Oliva.
For those old enough to remember the Twins' sweet swinging right fielder, Oliva was a career .304 hitter over 15 seasons (1962-76).
A three-time batting champion and eight-time All-Star, Oliva stood two inches taller than Fukudome, but with a similar build (both 190 pounds). Oliva led the American League in hits five times and doubles four times. He averaged 20 homers per year during his career.
Fukudome, known more as a gap hitter than slugger, could provide Oliva-type production for the Cubs.
"He's got power, but I don't think he'll be a 30-homer guy. I think he'll hit a lot of doubles, hit for average, draw a ton of walks," the scout said.
Sounds like Oliva, who also won a Gold Glove. Fukudome won four Gold Gloves in Japan. Fukudome's 15 walks during Spring Training tied Jim Thome of the White Sox for second most in the Major Leagues, trailing only Andre Ethier of the Dodgers (16).
Fukudome's smooth swing has no apparent holes, and combined with his quickness through the strike zone and knowledge of that zone there's no reason to believe he won't enjoy the kind of success here that he had in Japan.
"He's got an excellent swing and great balance in the batter's box," said Cubs senior advisor and Hall of Famer Billy Williams, a man who certainly knows sweet swings. "I think he's going to be fine."
Fukudome also appears to have the intangibles that will enable him to handle the pressure that comes with starting for the Cubs.
He appreciates, but is not awed by all the attention around him, which includes not only the fans but a contingent of more than four dozen Japanese media who were on hand documenting his American debut.
Fukudome, through an interpreter, said he appreciates the fans' support but his focus is on helping the Cubs win.
"I am still learning [the Major League game]," he said. "[During Spring Training] I was able to learn some things, and I am still [learning]."
He's apparently a quick study.
The Brewers saw Fukudome during Cactus League action, but will have to rethink their approach to him after what he did on Monday.
"We still don't have that kid figured out," Milwaukee manager Ned Yost said. "We thought we did, a little bit, but he changed his approach today compared to the times we saw him in Spring Training. He was a different hitter today. We kind of have to go back to the drawing board on this guy.
"He's an awful smart player if he was [hiding something], because we thought we had him figured out. He was totally different in his approach. We'll look at it."
Piniella batted Fukudome fifth in the order in the opener, and the rookie's presence there should provide a cushion for cleanup hitter Aramis Ramirez. The right-handed-hitting Ramirez should see more pitches to hit this year and pitchers will have a more difficult task facing them than last season if they try to pitch around Ramirez in 2008.
Piniella has also considered taking advantage of Fukudome's high on-base percentage by inserting him in the second spot in the order against lefties.
Either option doesn't faze Fukudome.
"It doesn't make a difference to me," Fukudome said. "Either [spot] is OK."
The Fukudome fans at Wrigley didn't even get to see what some consider the most eye-popping aspect of the outfielder's game: Fukudome's exceptional arm.
Fukudome made some sensational throws during Spring Training, but events didn't call for his arm to come into play during Monday's game. Sooner or later it will happen. And the fans will cheer Fukudome some more.
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