Gettin Shig-ee With It

Shigetoshi Hasegawa pursues baseball, golf balls and the American dream

While he waited for the right opportunity, seven years ago, Hasegawa began vacationing in Southern California every off-season. "I was checking out how to spend life, you know?" he offers.

"Shige spoke very little English in those days," recounts Clevin. "But he would rent a house up in Ventura, on the water and close to the golf courses, and familiarize himself with American ways.

"Some of his initial impressions were a little unrealistic. He'd go into stores and see the prices, and, compared to Japan, he'd think they were just giving the stuff away. Over the years that he has earned American dollars as opposed to Japanese yen, he's found out that's not quite so."

But Hasegawa has discovered American life to be on the balance as agreeable as he expected. He has moved his wife and son to the U.S., and the family spends only one month per year back in Japan. Nonetheless, he hesitates to extrapolate too much of his experience into advice for others. Immigration and assimilation are delicate issues, he knows, loaded with the baggage of laws and politics and culture. He chooses to interpret his adaptation personally.

"I cannot speak for others because everybody is different," says Hasegawa. "Because of my personality, I can adjust to this culture. It fits me. But even so, I can't say it was always easy for me—especially in the first half-year."

But the problem Hasegawa chooses to cite as an example of trouble actually underscores the ease of his adjustment. "The checking system," he says exasperatedly. "We never had one in Japan."

Similarly, Clevin remembers Hasegawa's moment of panic the first time he received his meal money from the Angels: "He thought there had been some horrible mistake—that this was all he was getting paid for salary."

However, even that kind of minor misunderstanding hasn't cropped up for a long time.

"Shige has become truly Americanized," Clevin observes. "Not that he is going to become a citizen at the moment. Not that he is going to be the MC of a game show or anything. But he has grown as a person. He has become much more confident. He dives into things. He wants to explore everything. It's wonderful to see a good person living life to the fullest. It's inspiring, really."

The Angels clubhouse is entombed deep in the infrastructure of Anaheim Stadium, far behind the third-base dugout and far beneath the stands, at the end of a long beige corridor interrupted midway by a flight of stairs. But it's a luxury bunker. A security guard is posted at the entrance; he's seated at a podium, wearing a headphone and carrying a guest list. Inside, the room is softly lit, thickly carpeted and painted in a soothing color scheme. Hip-hop beats pulse from state-of-the-art speakers embedded in the walls. Trash TV shows glow from sets bolted to the ceiling. A couple of loud, laughing conversations gurgle in opposite corners of the room. Everybody is wearing caps, carrying bats and gloves, autographing balls, and wrapping themselves in pinstriped uniforms, but the place still feels a long way from the game of baseball.

"Fifteen more minutes," says Hasegawa without consulting a clock. He is flopped across an overstuffed couch in long underwear, absently soaking in the happy vibe, bouncing his head to the hip-hop, offering his take on that TV show, and trading a good-natured insult with somebody laughing in one of those corners. "We can talk now," he says pleasantly, "but I have to be on the field for warm-ups in 15 minutes."

Hasegawa stands, sighs softly and leads the way to his locker. He sits on a folding chair and begins to put on his uniform. He has done this thousands of times on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, but he doesn't hurry through the process. His motions are precise and full of care. As he proceeds, he seems increasingly inhabited by a sense of purpose.

"The first year I got here, I wanted to be a starting pitcher," Hasegawa admits, deftly slipping a T-shirt over his head and then flashing a self-conscious smile while flicking a few thinning forelocks back into place. His receding hairline reminds you he is 32. "This was natural. I was a starter in Japan, so of course I wanted to be a starter here, too. But soon, I'm thinking, I don't care about that. I just want to help the team."

That attitude is part of Hasegawa's nature, too, and it's the essence of what the Angels were after when they first brought him to their Arizona training camp in the spring of 1997. "Shige came highly recommended by former big-league pitcher Jim Colborn, who played the end of his career in Japan," recalls Tim Mead, an Angels vice president who led the team's push to sign Hasegawa. "Shige's laugh and smile are very infectious and he'll tend to underplay his accomplishments, but he has a burning desire to contribute. And he really was one of the premier pitchers in Japan."

But at the time—from the outside, at least—the arrival of Hasegawa looked like a small, sad attempt by the Angels to keep up with the latest fad. Japanese pitchers were suddenly becoming all the rage in the major leagues. Nomo was still dominating for the Dodgers, the great Hideki Irabu was headed for the New York Yankees, and Masato Yoshii and Takashi Kashiwada had arrived with the New York Mets. In comparison, the Angels' acquisition didn't look very impressive. Nomo and Irabu were tall, fireballing starters with names like powerful Pacific storms. Shigetoshi Hasegawa was a short, slight utilitarian pitcher destined for the bullpen. His name sounded like a case of the sniffles.

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