Gettin Shig-ee With It

Shigetoshi Hasegawa pursues baseball, golf balls and the American dream

But while the other high-profile Japanese imports have bounced around the majors to mixed reviews, the 2000 season marks Hasegawa's fourth with the Angels. It's been arguably his best. He's certainly been the team's most dependable and durable pitcher. Although working exclusively in relief, Hasegawa leads the club with nine victories and is among the team leaders in innings pitched. His earned-run average has been in the low 3's for much of the season. And for a few weeks in August, when the Angels were surprising everybody by seriously contending for a playoff spot, Hasegawa assumed the high-profile role of the closer, filling in for the injured star, Troy Percival. Even as the team has faded in the stretch, Hasegawa is one of the players that mark the Angels as a team perhaps ready to bloom next season.

Hasegawa has truly become a part of the team. Even so, there has been a tendency to interpret his play through a cultural filter. Marveling at his poise on the pitcher's mound, TV analysts often speculate that it has something to do with his Japanese heritage.

"That's not Japanese; that's my personality," Hasegawa laughs. "That's because I'm trying so hard to remember what I learned about this hitter or that one, especially when I was in the new role of closer. That's why it looks like I'm easygoing on the mound."

For most of his tenure, Hasegawa has been the Angels' so-called short man, their setup man, the reliever assigned to preserve a lead or keep the score close through the seventh or eighth inning—or both—until the closer comes in to finish things off. It has been one of the least-glorified roles in baseball, but with the way the modern game is played—with starting pitchers usually asked to go only seven innings—it has become an increasingly critical one.

"When I got here, I didn't even know what a setup guy was," Hasegawa says. "In Japan, we only have a starter and a closer. But now I'm the short guy, the setup guy, and I'm a very much enjoy."

As he hears himself finish the sentence, Hasegawa pauses and purses his lips. For the first time, he seems a bit uncomfortable. Unlike most of the players who have come to America from Japan, Hasegawa has never relied on a translator. But rather than discouraging him, this moment of difficulty in his usually excellent English seems to ignite his desire to make some larger points.

"You know, I am really just a pitcher," Hasegawa says, shrugging off the various terms and nuances that modern American baseball insists on applying to the game's nine basic positions. "When the manager needs a pitcher, he can use me. I don't have any 95-miles-per-hour fastballs or a good forkball, so he doesn't want to use me as a starter. That's okay. And the setup guy? The closer? That's okay, too. I mean, to me, that's the same thing—they are always in a close situation. See, that's the point for me."

Hasegawa scans the clubhouse, taking in the opulence of his surroundings, including his well-rewarded teammates. He considers his own rewards: what it has taken to reach them and what it has taken to keep them.

"This is my dream, to come here. But to have my dream when I come over here, I got to learn about American baseball," Hasegawa says. "Maybe other players from Japan or Cuba—maybe they don't have to learn so much because they are already so good. But for me, anyway, I got to learn because my fastball is not fast enough when I get over here. The first time I pitched against big-league players—yeah, especially when I pitched against Barry Bonds —my sinker was my best pitch, but he could hit it easy, you know?

"So I got to talk to people. Coaches, trainers, the other players. Troy Percival, especially—he was very good, very helpful, going out to dinner, just talking about baseball and everything. Then I did a lot of workout—you know, heavy weight training. And I did more watching the video. Yeah, I got to work hard. For me, that's the point:to work very hard. Because also, that way, it's very fun."

Hasegawa has finished tying his shoelaces. He puts on his cap and grins. "Thank you; time to go to work," he says cheerfully, darting out the clubhouse door into the tunnel that will take him out to the field. He still hasn't looked at a clock. But after he's gone, you do. It has been precisely 15 minutes.

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