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Monday, May 13, 2002
Saluting Japan's rising sons

By Brian Murphy
Special to Page 2

O-ri-ga-to, Cooler Dweller-san.

Shigeki Maruyama
Shigeki Maruyama had reason to smile all weekend.
And that, my friends, is the extent of my Japanese.

Except to say that it was an Ichiban kind of weekend for Japanese athletes on the mainland. And to say that I'm drinking a Kirin as I write this.

(I'm not kidding. What do you think accounts for the misspellings, run-on sentences and unfinished thoughts?)

I'd make some origami out of my paper Dixie Cup in honor of our Japanese friends, but I'm not dexterous enough to pull it off.

Not like, say, Tsuyoshi Shinjo on Saturday night in Montreal. The Giants center fielder motored to field a ball off the right-field wall, turned and blindly fired your garden variety 300-foot one-hopper to the plate, causing the expiration of Expos baserunner Troy O'Leary, who probably thought he could score from first base via Toronto when the ball left Fernando Tatis' bat.

Or not like, say, Shigeki Maruyama all weekend in Dallas. The little golfer who smiles like he has 24-hour gas handled the prestigious Byron Nelson Classic like it was a 10-yen Nassau at his muni back home. He never let Tiger Woods' Sunday 65 get in his head, and won so many fans with his genial style, even Lord Byron himself said no player has ever smiled as much and played professional golf at the same time.

Or not like, say, Kaz Sasaki. This guy gets the Cooler Sushi Platter for half-off after his weekend. He flew back to Japan for some personal business, flew back to Seattle the next day, and then nailed down a save against the best team in baseball, the Boston Red Sox, on Saturday night. Are you kidding me? Have you ever flown to Asia?

I have. It's easily the longest 15 hours of your life. Nobody's ever done it without looking at their watch at one point and thinking: Hmmm. We're at the 10-hour mark. Hey! Only five more hours to go!

When I disembark from a trans-Pacific flight, I'm not looking to save a big-league ballgame. I'm looking to hurt somebody. And then I'm looking for a 30-minute hot shower, followed by the Mother of All Naps.

So we who are about to eat California Rolls, salute you Japanese stars.

(Side note to my Dodger-fan friend, D: That's right, baby. No shout-out for Ishii down in L.A. Don't give me the Fernandomania comparisons. Ishii couldn't carry Fernando's acne cream.)

I think it's great that we've turned America's sporting fields into an international mosaic. Really. Fireballers from the Dominican; NFL kickers from Australia; NBA pituitary cases from China -- it's all good. Anything to raise the U.S. level of world awareness somewhere higher than the guy who says, "Dude, I can respect international life. Just last night I ate Mexican food at Taco Bell, saw a Jackie Chan movie and then came home and downloaded some Swedish porn."

And the topper to it all? The biggest star of the weekend is so good, there's even a top-shelf brand of Japanese beef named after him! Which leads us, naturally, to the Weekend List of Five and the man of the hour:

1. Kobe
Kobe Bryant
Wake up, because Kobe Bryant's got "It."
A few months ago, a friend who followed the NBA regular season said something about Kobe Bryant and his potential as one of the greats in NBA history. I gave a Danny Thomas spit-take of my beer and, as he wiped lager from his mug, said: ""I'll tell you what, dude. Kobe is unreal. I think you're sleeping on this one."

After watching Games 3 and 4, I realize I haven't just been sleeping on Kobe -- I've been pulling a full REM, hit-the-snooze-button-six-or-seven-times, Rip Van Winkle job on him.

Kobe is the ultimate "No, no, yes!" player, in that half the time his turnaround, fallaway 22-footers at critical junctures inspire at least two plaintive cries of "No, no!" from Lakers fans. It's only when they hit the bottom of the net that the "Yes!" part comes.

The kid's got it, and when I say it, I mean "It."

Poor San Antonio. They've got a 2-2 series all but locked, when Kobe buries two 3-point bombs, then reaches into the black hat for that left-hand-only, crash-the-lane offensive board and finger-roll putback for the win. So pretty, I had tears in my eyes.

Then again, that could have been sleep gunk -- you know, the yellow, crusty stuff that forms in the corners and ... ah, never mind.

Say! Speaking of ugly ...

2. 66-64
Kenny Anderson
You know something's wrong when Kenny Anderson's 17 points account for 25 percent of Boston's scoring.
There is no other way to say this.

Boston-Detroit, 66 to 64 in Game 3.

I don't care how long someone tries to sing a song of justification to me, pleading of defensive glory.

Sixty-six to Sixty-four.

For my buddy Steiny, who always falls back on that "We all know where the world's finest athletes reside" line, I present to him:

Sixty-six to Sixty-four.

For every Kobe knife through the lane, our playoff viewing is cursed with an Eastern Conference alley brawl.

Sixty-six to Sixty-four.

For every Sacramento-Dallas ballet, our playoff viewing is cursed with the clunky machinations of a too-thin talent pool.

Sixty-six to Sixty-four.

I think if Edgar Allen Poe still lived, he'd have done a quick rewrite on his epic gothic poem, "The Raven." For sheer horror, for sheer fright, for sheer darkness, he would most certainly use a little Liquid Paper for the edit:

Quothe the Raven: "Sixty-six to Sixty-four."

3. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Holy Mother of God
Randy Winn
Randy Winn snaps the Devil Rays' downward spiral ... but only temporarily.
That the D-Rays broke a 15-game losing streak on Saturday night with Randy Winn's dramatic three-run home run in the ninth isn't the point. The point is this: Since the day the Devil Rays were conceived, they've been the franchise equivalent of a 15-game losing streak.

That it happened on the field finally adds symmetry to it all.

It starts with Tropicana Field, which is the stadium equivalent of a 15-game losing streak. In a sport where each city and franchise can make its own aesthetic flourish -- Chicago and Wrigley, Boston and Fenway, Pittsburgh and PNC, San Francisco and Pac Bell -- the D-Rays produce Tropicana Field, a lifeless clod of concrete. Is it not more than a little ironic that one of the Sunshine State's first baseball teams plays in a place where sunshine is rebuked?

It moves on to the uniforms, which look like oil slicks. That's not good. Anything that puts you in mind of the Exxon Valdez when you're at a ballgame is not good.

It moves on to the town. You stumble outside Wrigley, you find yourself with a cold Old Style in your hand at Murphy's. You stumble outside Comerica Park, you find yourself with a cold Labatt's in your hand at Hockeytown Bar. You stumble outside Tropicana Field ... and you find yourself in a remake of that "Twilight Zone" where Burgess Meredith is the last guy on Earth after a nuclear wipeout. Except at least Meredith had some books to read.

I don't mean to pick on the poor kids. It's just that sometimes, you need to vent. And when Tampa Bay loses 15 in a row, you have to say: Of course they lost 15 in a row.

They lost 15 in a row because if their uniforms were a stadium, they'd be Tropicana Field. And if their stadium was a town, it'd be St. Petersburg. And if their town was a uniform ... aw, you get the picture.

4. A quick side note on Don Nelson
Donn Nelson, Don Nelson
Little buddy Donn Nelson tries to restrain Mavs coach Don Nelson, right.
Caught Nellie's postgame interview. Holy Gilligan -- when did he turn into Alan Hale, Jr.? Am I the only guy who thinks Nellie's got some Skipper in him?

And come on, Nels. You look tired. Get some shuteye. You've got a home in Maui, for crying out loud! You have no reason to ever feel stressed. If your team wins, you move on. If your team loses, you go to Maui.

Explain the stress part to me, again?

5. A final thought on the Japanese stars in America
Like I said, I think it's dynamite that Japanese athletes are getting it done over here. My one beef: The media.

Now, now. I'm a media fan. I'm a huge fan. Dammit, I am the freaking media.

But Ichiro's got, what, 20 guys on his case? And Shinjo's got, what, around a dozen? I'm thinking this is a lit-tle much. The entire New York Yankees traveling beat crew, I believe, is around 10. But Japan's got need of twice that for Ichiro.

A word of pan-Pacific friendly advice to our Japanese friends: Ease up, my friends. Ease up.

You hear these stories that when, like, Hideo Nomo pitched for the Dodgers, they fired up live broadcasts at 4 a.m. in Japan. I have no problem believing that some Japanese TV station, desperate for programming and tired of airing dubbed versions of "Bonanza," took the feed. I do, however, have a problem believing that anybody besides insomniacs and Nomo's parents watched the telecasts.

So let's ease off the overhyped broadcast. Let's ease off the 20-scribes-for-one-ballplayer ratio. And let's all just smoke the peace pipe, NorCal style, over a big, fat platter of teriyaki beef.

Kobe, of course.

Brian Murphy of the San Francisco Chronicle writes the "Weekend Water Cooler" every Monday for Page 2.