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'He's going to change that label'

Posted by Adam Kilgore, Globe Staff  February 26, 2009 05:30 PM

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Takashi Saito, 38, was among the first Japanese baseball players to come to America. He arrived only after 14 seasons with Yokohama of the Japanese Central League, the elite league in Japan. He signed a minor-league contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2006 and made the team as a non-roster invitee.

Junichi Tazawa, 22, is among the latest Japanese baseball players to come to America. He arrived four seasons in the Japanese Industrial League, an amateur league in Japan. The Red Sox lured him with a large signing bonus, and his skipping over the step of playing in a professional league rankled baseball people on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.

Saito and Tazawa represent two different generations, two very different modes of coming from Japan to the United States to play baseball, and, perhaps, the poles of a shift in how Japanese players fit into Major League Baseball.

“I think that he is going to become the type of person that’s going to change what it means to be a Japanese baseball player,” Saito said. “In a few years, maybe he won’t need an interpreter. Maybe he won’t need all the Japanese staff that surrounds him today. And I think that he’s going to change that label of being Japanese. I really think and hope that that’s what he is going to accomplish.”

(There was very funny moment during Saito’s press conference. While Saito spoke in Japanese about players no longer needing interpreters, Sox interpreter Masa Hoshino rolled his eyes warily and jokingly at Saito. The Americans in the room got the joke later, as Hoshino translated. “I need a job,” Hoshino said playfully.)

The Red Sox have been impressed with Tazawa’s transition. Saito reflected on what his countryman has accomplished already, before Tazawa even leaves his first spring training.

“I look at Tazawa and I think of when I was 23 years old and I was a rookie,” Saito said. “I certainly wasn’t that calm and collected. He’s here in a camp surrounded by all these famous, major league ballplayers. He’s keeping a very level head about him and putting in his work and working very hard. Compared to me 18 years ago, I think he’s got it together really well. I think that his challenge to be here, just in and of itself, is an amazing thing.”

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