Fukudome turns into ambassador
It’s a helpless feeling, being so far from home and thinking about the daily nightmares his countrymen are experiencing.
Playing baseball seems like a trivial pursuit in the larger scheme of things, but Fukudome hopes he can succeed on the field and bring some joy back to Japan.
“There are only a few things I can do from here,” he said Monday through his interpreter “There’s not much. The only thing I can do is to just try to play the best I can to give them some good news from the United States—that I’m doing well.”
Fukudome said his family is OK and that he can concentrate on his job. But whether he can really put the ongoing crisis completely out of his mind, as the news gets worse, is something no one really knows.
He’s well-liked in the Cubs’ clubhouse, but Fukudome remains one of the most reserved players on the team.
“It’s hard to relate to, (when) something happens in your hometown that’s that dramatic,” center fielder Marlon Byrd said. “I’m glad his family is safe, but you never know what friends of his have been affected. Fookie is a very quiet guy. He doesn’t say much, so you just hope everything is OK with him and it’s not affecting him mentally.
“Until you’re in that position, you really don’t know what a guy is going through.”
Fukudome’s fourth year in the majors could be a fork in the road in his pro career.
The $48 million contract he signed after the 2007 season ends in October, and he’ll probably have to find a new team at a lower salary, or perhaps return to Japan. The large Japanese media contingent that followed him around in 2008 is almost gone, with the exception of a couple of reporters.
What was once a huge story back home is now just a postscript in the Japanese media coverage of native players in the majors.
“I don’t really mind who is following me,” he said. “It’s their job. My job is to play baseball. That’s what I do.”
Fukudome never became the star the Cubs believed he would be, and he heads into this season sharing playing time in right field with Tyler Colvin.
But manager Mike Quade is giving Fukudome the chance to become the leadoff hitter against right-handed pitching, pointing to his penchant for hot starts in April. The spot is not guaranteed, but Quade has kept him there despite a subpar spring.
“I just need to put my effort into it and do the best I can,” Fukudome said. “That’s all I can do.”
Having Quade as manager instead of Lou Piniella has made Fukudome seem more relaxed. The two are kindred spirits, and Quade has made an effort to get through the language barrier.
“It’s better for me to have somebody who actually knows me for a long time, compared to (hiring a) new manager,” Fukudome said. “I think he understands me better.”
Fukudome bought a downtown condo in the offseason but said it has nothing to do with the possibility of returning to the Cubs after this season.
He doesn’t know where he’ll be and said he’s not thinking about anything but the present. Fukudome has no regrets over his decision to sign with the Cubs, turning down offers from the Padres, Giants and White Sox. He and his family like Chicago, at least from April through October.
“I’m not in Chicago during the winter, so I can’t really say it’s great then,” he said with a grin. “But for me, as far as during the baseball season, it’s a great city to live in.”