By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 25, 2008
CHICAGO -- Above Wrigley Field, the midday sun is making its presence felt for the first time this season, and pale, bare arms and legs suddenly become visible in the timeless bleachers. A half-dozen seagulls, who no doubt recall fondly their first trips to Wrigley with their fathers and grandfathers years ago, circle overhead. There is virtually no electronic intrusion -- no JumboTron, no earsplitting music -- to destroy the scene, the purest, most Midwestern, most Rockwellian in all of baseball.
And then the Chicago Cubs take the field, and in the right field corner you begin to notice it: A chant of "Fu-ku-do-me! Fu-ku-do-me!" rises from the stands. Fans in samurai-style headbands and waving small Japanese flags stand and bow toward the right fielder -- and the right fielder, who is both the franchise's most popular player and its first of Japanese descent, turns and modestly bows back.
The Cubs arrive at Nationals Park in Washington on Friday as one of baseball's hottest teams -- with a 15-7 record and nine wins in their last 11 games-- and as one of its best, most enduring stories, celebrating (though that is not exactly the right word) the 100th anniversary since their last World Series title.
And more than a little credit for the blistering start must go to Kosuke Fukudome, the biggest sensation to hit the North Side since the memorable summer of '98, when Sammy Sosa was bashing homers and blowing kisses and a young Kerry Wood was blowing away batters by the dozens.
Fukudome, a two-time batting champ of Japan's Central League, is hitting .338 with a .463 on-base percentage. He is also wearing down opposing pitchers, seeing through Wednesday's games a major-league-best 4.65 pitches per plate appearance -- which, if he were to sustain the pace, would be the highest by a big leaguer in the past 20 years.
"He's playing exactly how our scouts described him to us and how we thought he'd play," said General Manager Jim Hendry, who landed Fukudome this winter with a four-year, $48 million contract. "He's a tough out. He plays great in the clutch. He's outstanding defender, an outstanding base runner. He's just an outstanding player."
A year ago, Cubs hitters tied for 25th in the majors in walks; this year, thanks primarily to the addition of Fukudome (and perhaps the subtraction of free-swinging slugger Alfonso Soriano, who has been out with a strained calf muscle), they rank fourth. If it is possible for plate discipline to be contagious, Fukudome has passed his condition on to his teammates as if it were the flu. No fewer than five other Cubs regulars -- Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramírez, Ryan Theriot, Mark DeRosa and Ronny Cedeño -- sport on-base percentages that are at least 50 points higher than their career number.
"He's amazing. Every at-bat goes 3-2," said Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster of Fukudome's ability to work the count. "He's a pitcher's nightmare."
Fukudome has managed to thrive in the National League despite having to adjust to the different, bigger major league strike zone, something that has caused trouble for other Japanese hitters. Fukudome's solution? He has maintained his own, internal strike zone as before, even if it means occasionally getting called out on strikes on borderline pitchers.
"If I try to adjust, I'll lose what I've been doing," Fukudome said at his locker. In an adjoining locker is a small scale Fukudome uses to weigh his bats -- he won't use one unless it is precisely 920 grams (about 31 1/2 ounces).
In a two-game sweep of the New York Mets at Wrigley Field earlier this week, Fukudome terrorized Mets pitchers, reaching base seven times in nine plate appearances. On Monday, in the game's crucial sequence, he outlasted Mets reliever Aaron Heilman in the eighth inning, fouling off five straight 2-2 pitches before singling on the 10th pitch of the at-bat, leading to a five-run inning and a 7-1 win. On Tuesday, he reached base in all five plate appearances in another blowout win.
"Even on days when I don't get a hit," Fukudome, who will turn 31 on Saturday, said through an interpreter, "if I get on base to help out the team, it's a good thing."
But on-base percentage alone doesn't explain Fukudome's popularity around the "Friendly Confines," where a thriving black market of merchandise has sprung up around him at the corner of Addison and Clark, beyond Wrigley's home plate. The headbands, most of which feature Japan's iconic Rising Sun symbol and Fukudome's name written in Japanese, are the most popular items -- even though, as Fukudome himself points out with a laugh, many fans wear them upside down.
There are also T-shirts, the most popular of which features his picture and the phrase, "Fukudome is My Homie!" (The rhyme, however, is imprecise, as his name is correctly pronounced "Fu-ku-DOH-may.")
"It's Fukudo-mania!" said a vendor named Tony who declined to give his last name. "People can't get enough of him."
Individualism is not part of the game in Japan, and Fukudome has yet to fully embrace the concept -- as on Opening Day at Wrigley, when fans demanded a curtain call after he hit a game-tying homer, and Fukudome initially resisted.
Eventually, after some goading from teammates, he relented, and quickly ascended the same dugout steps that Sosa once climbed, and Ryne Sandberg and Ron Santo and Ernie Banks and all the others before that, and gave a timid wave to the roaring crowd, neither the crowd nor the player quite sure what to make of the other, but certain in the belief the future holds something wonderful in store.