Since he has agreed to the four-year, $48-million contract they offered and shown up at training camp, he has picked up on a few things. Such as, the Cubs play a lot of day games, and haven't won a World Series in a century. He also has heard about — in his words, through interpreter Ryuji Araki — the ‘real exciting’ Cubs fans.
But Fukudome still isn't certain about how Wrigley Field will play compared to parks in Japan, mainly because the only time he was in the Friendly Confines, it was snowing. And as for curses, billy goats and Bartman? They must have gotten lost in translation.
No, this is a brand new experience for both the Cubs and their new right fielder. And if the Cubs are correct, they have a new skill set in their lineup that will help push them deeper into October — one that includes batting average, on-base percentage and power from the left side, and defense that was Gold Glove-caliber in Japan. A hybrid Ichiro/Hideki Matsui, if you will.
Count manager Lou Piniella among the believers. It took just one batting practice session in the cage on a cool, windy day last week for Piniella to rave about what he saw in his Rookie of the Year candidate who will turn 31 in April.
“He's got a nice, short, quick swing,'' Piniella said. “He uses his hands well. He has really good balance at home plate. Very impressive. The ball jumped off his bat. He has a nice approach to hitting. You can see why he's been such a good hitter. A lot of good things were happening in a short time in that batting cage.''
The numbers say Fukudome was a .305 lifetime hitter for the Chunichi Dragons, and five times had a .400-plus on-base percentage, to go with four Gold Gloves. But he is coming off elbow surgery that limited his 2007 season to 81 games.
That left-handed production is vital to the Cubs, who finished eighth in the National League in runs last season, with most of the damage being done by right-handed hitters — namely Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez.
To help ease Fukudome's transition, the Cubs invited reliever Shingo Takatsu to camp. His last big-league appearance was in 2005, but Takatsu will be given a chance to make the team or go to Triple-A, and just as importantly, try to ease the cultural clash Fukudome is encountering.
Until now, Fukudome's experience here was limited to the World Baseball Classic in 2006, during which he showed a flair for the dramatic, and hit a key home run in Petco Park.
The Cubs are counting on more of the same, as Fukudome is their only significant off-season addition to a team that won the Central Division with only 85 victories. Expectations are sky high, made even more so by Ryan Dempster's prediction of a World Series championship. And now the traveling press corps that will follow the Cubs around all season has increased by about four-fold.
“I think it would be better to do this without all the media attention, but this young man is an accomplished baseball player,'' Piniella said of Fukudome. “He's had a lot of success. He's very confident. He'll get through this. He's a really good addition to our team. He's very athletic. He's a hard worker.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
It can only help that Piniella has been through all this before — managing Ichiro, as well as Shigetoshi Hasegawa and Kaz Sasaki, in Seattle. And to take some of the pressure off Fukudome, the Cubs soon could be adding another impact player in Baltimore second baseman Brian Roberts. He would bring an All-Star presence, speed and defense up the middle — a valuable commodity considering the Cubs are breaking in first-year players behind the plate (Geovany Soto) and in center field (Felix Pie and/or Sam Fuld).
But first, the two sides have to come to an agreement over prospects going to the Orioles, and the Cubs would prefer to hang onto 21-year-old power right-hander Jose Ceda, who was at A-ball last year.
“For our ballclub, I think either the second or fifth are really good spots for (Fukudome) to hit in,'' Piniella said. “We'll see what spring training brings. We're very right-handed. We need to break up our right-handed hitting. That's why I see (Fukudome hitting) fifth. I mean, the way we're constituted right now.''
HBT: Robinson Cano homered twice while David Phelps had the longest outing of his career as the Yankees topped the Blue Jays 7-2 this afternoon at Yankee Stadium.
Signs of spring
The defending champs limber up, Johan Santana greets his new fans and kids get in on the fun as baseball teams reported for spring training.
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