Japanese veteran upstages American youth

Click to follow
The Independent Online

At 32 he's not exactly in the first flush of sporting youth, and he barely speaks a word of English. Yet Kazuhiro Sasaki was too hot for American League hitters to handle - so much so that the Seattle Mariners' Japanese closer has become the second oldest man ever to win the AL's Rookie of the Year award.

At 32 he's not exactly in the first flush of sporting youth, and he barely speaks a word of English. Yet Kazuhiro Sasaki was too hot for American League hitters to handle - so much so that the Seattle Mariners' Japanese closer has become the second oldest man ever to win the AL's Rookie of the Year award.

Only the legendary Sam Jethroe was older, by 33 days, when he left the Negro Leagues and was adjudged the best AL newcomer with the Boston Braves back in 1950. And the only other Japanese Rookie of the Year was the pitcher Hideo Nomo (he of the extraordinary corkscrew wind-up), who won the prize with the National League's Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995.

Not that Sasaki is inexperienced. The closer has perhaps the highest-pressure job in baseball, entering the game when his team is ahead and attempting to nail down the victory. If he does his job, he merely preserves the status quo. One mistake, however, and his team loses a game it should have won.

Over the past 10 years he kept his head to notch 229 saves with Yokohama in Japan's Central League but, as he admitted through an interpreter yesterday, the gap in quality between US and Japanese baseball remains wide. "Japan is coming along, but the standard in America is still definitely higher," he said.

The Mariners, however, might be tempted to argue otherwise. In the 2000 regular season, Sasaki succeeded with 37 of 40 save opportunities, unprecedented for a rookie and giving his team a wild card berth in the play-offs. There his 98mph fastball held at bay Frank Thomas and the high-scoring Chicago White Sox, the team with the best regular season AL record, earning two saves. He notched another in the Mariners' 2-0 opening game victory in game one of AL Championship series against the New York Yankees, subsequent winners of the World Series.

Comments