Gettin Shig-ee With It

Shigetoshi Hasegawa pursues baseball, golf balls and the American dream

Shigetoshi Hasegawa was sitting literally on a bed of roses. Two years after leaving Japan for Newport Beach, changing his uniform from the Orix Blue Wave to the Anaheim Angels, and realizing his dream of playing major-league baseball for a living and paying low greens fees to golf in his spare time, Hasegawa was riding a float in the 1999 Rose Parade—a smiling, waving floral arrangement of the 20th century's dreamy California fixation.

"At the time, I'm not so sure that Shige [pronounced Shig-ee] knew exactly what the Rose Parade was all about," muses Ed Clevin, a Boston-based sports agent who negotiated the financial aspects of Hasegawa's globe-spinning assimilation. "He just knew he wanted to be a part of the culture here."

As the Edison International float motored slowly through the dazzling pageantry of that crisp, bright New Year's morning, it soon became obvious that the hundreds of thousands of people applauding along the Pasadena parade route weren't so sure about Hasegawa, either. Most of them saw his baseball uniform and Japanese features, quickly added them up in their heads, and shouted out this greeting: "Nomo! Nomo!"

They thought he was Hideo Nomo.

"People still ask me about Hideo Nomo," Hasegawa acknowledges now, nearly two years later, and he breaks into a smile when he says it. "I guess I should be happy about that. Because I can only dream to be a pitcher like Hideo Nomo."

Nomo is the Japanese ballplayer who smashed through the international date line to become an instant superstar with the Dodgers in 1995. He was the best pitcher in Japan when he opted to test his success against America's hitters, who are the best in the world. His decision was controversial, offending many fans back in his homeland; it was considered presumptuous or a mere curiosity by many of those awaiting him in the United States. Upon his arrival, he was followed by a swarming media entourage that recorded nearly everything he said or did and racked up huge ratings by broadcasting every game he played back to Japan live—in the middle of the night.

In such circumstances, Nomo's success was astounding —not just what he accomplished but how he did it. With a whirlwind wind-up, a flaming fastball and a baffling forkball that dropped like a rock when it reached home plate, Nomo overpowered and bewildered National League batters. In his first year, he won 13 games, with a stingy earned-run average of 2.54. He threw a no-hitter. He was the starting pitcher in the All-Star Game. He was voted Rookie of the Year. Along the way, he roused Dodgers fans into a state of enthusiasm unknown since the arrival of Fernando Valenzuela in the early 1980s. The phenomenon was called Nomo-mania.

But by the first day of 1999, as the people watching along the Rose Parade route mistakenly shouted his name, Nomo was already long gone from Southern California. Nearly seven months earlier, the Dodgers had traded him away. His arm was sore. His fastball had slowed, making his forkball more hittable. His earned-run average had ballooned to 5.05. He had won only two games while losing seven. Meanwhile, because of his stoic personality, his embarrassed reluctance to speak English and the insulating techniques he cultivated to perform under the intense scrutiny of superstardom, Nomo had developed few warm relationships with teammates and fans. His farewell was not particularly fond—it was just another business transaction.

Hasegawa has not forgotten Nomo's impact upon his own life, however, which is why he was not insulted by the case of mistaken identity that intruded upon his moment in the New Year's sun.

"I was thinking about coming to America to play baseball long before Hideo came here," Hasegawa emphasizes. "I was thinking of it on my own. But it can also be truly said that I came here because of Hideo. Because Hideo was the best pitcher in Japan. So if Hideo could not get success here, I would know I had no chance."

Baseball is a team game, but at the professional level, each team is a collection of career paths—very personal means to very practical ends.

"The difference between me and maybe other players from Japan, like maybe Hideo Nomo, is the difference in our dreams," says Hasegawa. "Hideo, he had the dream of playing baseball right here, testing himself against the best. And I wanted that challenge, too. But it was not really my dream. My dream was to live here."

Hasegawa laid out that plan for his life in 1988 as a skinny kid from Ritsumeikan University, a couple of days after the plane carrying him from Kyoto, Japan, touched down in Southern California for a college baseball tournament. "I decided right then," he recalls, "that for the future, I'm gonna stay here. Because the weather is so nice; in Japan, the winters are so cold. And also, I love golf—and it's much cheaper to play here, you know? In Japan, we've got to spend $200 or $300 for one game. And not only that, but life is good. I went to Universal Studios, Disneyland and the beach. It's fun, and the people are friendly."

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.

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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