Challenges of playing at Wrigley await confident Fukudome
CHICAGO -- Kosuke Fukudome caught the attention of the Chicago Cubs during the 2004 Olympics in Athens with a rare combination of skills and a confidence that accompanied his talent.
When it came time for Fukudome to decide on his future, the Cubs took the patient approach, giving him space. But once he was ready to leave Japan, they pounced.
"It pretty much wasn't a secret how much we wanted him," general manager Jim Hendry said Wednesday as the Cubs introduced their new right fielder, who agreed to a $48 million, four-year contract. "He was not only our No. 1 target in the free-agent situation in right field, he was our only target."
Fukudome, a left-handed hitter with power, speed and the ability to get on base, was aware the Cubs were in hot pursuit. That was one of the deciding factors in him choosing a team that hasn't won the World Series since 1908.
"After I declared my free agency, the Cubs were actually one of the only teams that were trying to get me from the beginning to the end of the whole process," Fukudome said through a translator. "I felt they really wanted me and they were also one of the teams that promised me I could play my position -- right field."
Besides his bat, Fukudome is considered a strong fielder. The Padres and White Sox were among the other teams interested in a player whose skills have been labeled a mix of Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui.
"I don't know how I compare myself," Fukudome said. "I guess if that's what everyone is saying, hopefully I can be a mixture of those two."
One of the best outfielders in Japan, the 30-year-old Fukudome was a key member of the team that won the inaugural World Baseball Classic in March 2006.
He had surgery on his right elbow in August and sat out the Japan Series, but has 192 homers with a .305 batting average and .397 on-base percentage over nine seasons with the Chunichi Dragons, who won their first championship in 53 years on Nov. 2. Fukudome declared for free agency last month.
He must learn the nuances of Wrigley Field, its narrow right-field corner, glaring sun and biting winds, and face pitchers with great stuff whom he's never seen before. He said he expects to play just as well as he did before the surgery.
"I haven't thought about those necessary adjustments too much. Every day I play I will find out little changes and the difference between American and Japanese ball and I think I will make my adjustments as I play the game," Fukudome said. "I think I can hold my own in right field. I don't know how my batting will translate into stats over here, but I'm pretty confident I will be able to get on base."
Fukudome was the 2006 Central League MVP, batting .351 with 31 homers and 104 RBIs. He won two batting titles and four Gold Gloves in Japan.
"The way our scouts always described him to be is that in the big international competition he played with an attitude that he belonged," Hendry said. "He sort of wanted to show the world he belonged at the highest levels."
Now, he really has that opportunity.
And how much does he know about one of the most well-known figures in the Cubs' dugout, manager Lou Piniella?
"I know Ichiro played under him and because of that I know he is a pretty famous manager. It will be interesting to see how his managing style is and how he uses me. I can't really say anything until I get in the lineup and perform," Fukudome said.
He's confident that won't be a problem. He has no personal statistical goals from the outset, but said he'd like to help the Cubs end their long championship drought. He will be the team's first Japanese-born player at the major league level.
"I always wanted a challenge and to come over here and see how I could do over here," Fukudome said. "Actually, honestly I'm not too concerned about how I play in the major leagues. I'm just going to do the best I can and play the same way I've played my whole career."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
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