LAKELAND, Fla. — Hey, we’ve been going about this all wrong. All these college kids who hike through Europe? All these art students who starve for some cheap flat in Paris? Hey. Forget that stuff. Grab a baseball bat and head for Japan. Big money. Big thrills. All the sushi you can eat.

At least that’s the way Cecil Fielder makes it sound. “They treated us like kings over there,” he recalls, sitting now outside the Tigers’ clubhouse. Of course, the man has a few advantages over the average university student, beginning with 1) size, 2) strength, 3) ability to hit a baseball from Kyoto to Tokyo, on the fly.

That helps. Still, Fielder, who will likely be Detroit’s new first baseman this season — last week, he hit three home runs in one exhibition game to help make his case — was, two years ago, just a name on the Toronto Blue Jays’ roster, a part-time player fighting for recognition. Then along came an offer from the Hanshin Tigers. Japan. He took it. And a few months later, he was being chauffeured through Kobe, mobbed by fans, and pulling down a seven-figure salary.

Chauffeured?

“Yeah, they gave us a full-time interpreter who took us wherever we wanted to go. If my wife wanted to shop somewhere, he’d set it up. If my son wanted to see something, he’d take us there. We never got lost the entire year. . . .

He laughs.

“And I can’t read a word of Japanese.” Of course, Fielder, 26, is not the first American baseball player to star in Japan. Mike Easler, Ben Oglivie, Doug DeCinces and former Tiger Bill Madlock were just some of his red, white and blue competitors last season. Each team is allowed two Americans — called “Gaijin” — on the active roster. Japanese scouts come to America, looking for talent, usually power hitters who love the

shorter fences of Japanese stadiums. They get healthy offers. Fielder was earning $125,000 with the Blue Jays. His contract with Hanshin was for
$1,050,000.

Next thing he knew, he was on the plane. He was apprehensive about the change of culture. A native of Los Angeles, Fielder had been out of North America only once, to play baseball in Venezuela. Japan? All he knew of Japan was the cars they made and the food he didn’t like. But when he saw his new home, he began to relax.

“It was a beautiful three-bedroom place with a view of the ocean,” he said. “They had a big kitchen, a game room for my son. Just like home. I thought we might get some place with the funny roof and pillows on the floor, you know?”

Actually, the Fielders managed to live a fairly western life-style, considering they were 6,000 miles from the nearest K mart. They shopped at
“American” shopping centers, they were given a satellite dish that picked up American baseball games. On road trips, Fielder and Matt Keough — a former Oakland pitcher who was the other American on the Hanshin team — stayed at western-style hotels, while their Japanese teammates stayed in more traditional lodging.

“The beds were too small for us in those places,” Fielder explains.
“They sleep on these mats on the floor. We’re too big.” When Fielder first walked into the Hanshin locker room, few players stopped and stared. Although he stood out physically (at 6-feet-3, 230 pounds, he was easily the biggest guy in the room) the Japanese players, he says, are accustomed to American imports, and respect them to do their jobs, which is to help the team win ballgames.

First he had to get used to the system. Although the facilities with Hanshin would make Tiger Stadium personnel blush with embarrassment (“We had a separate dining room, separate weight room, hot tub room, stretching room, video room”), the work day was a lot more strenuous. For example, while American players enjoy six weeks of warm and languid spring training, the Japanese train hard for two months, eight hours a day, often in cold weather. If it rains, you are expected to remain by the phone until it stops, even if it’s late at night. The emphasis in the Japanese system is skill- through-repetition, and that means as many as 1,000 swings a day, with men standing behind the batting cage, counting. Hits are measured for distance. Films are studied.

When the season starts, the training grows even more important. Players are judged on their warm-up drills. Thus, if a team has two first basemen, and one hits three balls over the fence during batting practice, he will likely get to start. “They don’t even announce the starting pitchers until the game begins,” Fielder says. “They keep the other team guessing.”

Still, once the ump yells “Play ball” — however you yell that in Japanese — the game becomes increasingly familiar. And while the natives concentrate on bunting and defense, Fielder, like most American imports, went swinging for the fences. He hit 38 home runs in 384 plate appearances — or around one every 10 trips to the plate. Suddenly, he was Gulliver in the land of Lilliputians. He hit more homers in one season there than he had in four years with Toronto. He led the Japanese league in slugging percentage (.628), was third in RBIs (81) and became a local hero. People mobbed him for autographs. Stories appeared in newspapers. Of course, he couldn’t read them.

“One time, I mentioned that I liked to cook breakfast for my son, Prince. They couldn’t believe it. They said, ‘Cecil, this not Japanese way.’ In Japan, the man goes to work, comes home and gets pampered by his wife. I said, well, I still like to cook breakfast for my son.

“Next thing I know, there’s a photographer at my house, and they have me wearing an apron and flipping pancakes. The story comes out in a magazine, with a caption: ‘Cecil, Make Prince Some Breakfast.’ My teammates were tripping, man. They could not believe it.”

But then, that’s what travel is all about, isn’t it? Sharing culture? There was the time Fielder invited his teammates to his place, and they ate his wife’s Mexican food and meatball soup and laughed until it got late. There was the time when they took Cecil to a sushi bar, even though he doesn’t like sushi, and he had to keep eating because it is an insult to refuse. There was the first time he walked into a Japanese home, and was asked to take off his shoes and put on slippers (“I don’t think they like to shampoo the carpet over there,” he says).

There were the pleasure trips to Kyoto and Sapporo and Tokyo, paid for by the team. There were the road trips on the Bullet Train, Japan’s high-speed transport — it reaches 140 m.p.h. — which Fielder says was like “riding in the best first-class airplane, only on the ground.”

He became close with his interpreter and several of his teammates. He admired the way older players were treated with respect; when the radio and TV announcers, most of whom were former baseball stars, would arrive, the current players would bow in reverence. Fielder was living a hero’s life, everything was paid for, down to the silverware. So when his agent suggested he return to the United States and take the Detroit offer, he balked. “Why?” he asked.
“Things are going so good here.”

Yes, his agent warned, but the Japanese teams can be fickle. One American player, Larry Parrish, was the league leader in home runs. Yet he was suddenly released when the team decided to emphasize speed and defense. Fielder thought about security. He thought about growing up in the U.S., and the indelible dream of the major leagues. And of course the Tigers’ offer — made after several free agents had turned them down — was, shall we say, generous? Despite Fielder’s unspectacular American statistics, Detroit, desperate for right-handed power, offered him a $1.5 million signing bonus,
$500,000 this season and $1 million next season.

Sayonara, baby.

“Do I miss it?” he says, stretching in the Florida sunshine. “Yeah, sometimes. I mean, they treated us beautifully. If any player asked me should he go, I’d say most definitely. The Japanese people work on respect. They’re honest. They love the game. And the fans never boo.”

Fielder says he’d like to return someday, at least to visit. For now, he has an American dream to finish. His souvenirs are packed away. The food is back

to hamburgers. But you never know. The other day, his son entered the house, took off his shoes, and put on slippers. On his own.

Nice.

Good for the carpet, too.

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