Different Cultural Mind-Set Keeping Yusei Kikuchi in Japan


Oct 25, 2009

Different Cultural Mind-Set Keeping Yusei Kikuchi in Japan In big-time college sports like football or basketball, highly touted underclassmen are often pressured to go pro. In the U.S., where self-assurance rules, confidence reigns and machismo and street cred are just as important as your 40 time, athletes are taught never to show their weaknesses and often make that leap to the next level whether they're truly prepared or not.

Boy, are things different in Japan.

Despite having conversations with eight interested major league teams, including the Red Sox, 18-year-old Japanese left-hander Yusei Kikuchi has decided to remain in Japan rather than coming to the U.S. to play in the majors.

The high schooler, whose fastball has been clocked at 96 mph, said Sunday that he will play in Japan for now and, as such, is expected to be the top pick in Japan's amateur draft on Oct. 29.

"I have decided to play in Japan, not for a MLB team, and I would like do my best here," Kikuchi said, according to Reuters, in a televised interview on Sunday. "I'll try to take on the world once I have become the No. 1 pitcher in Japan."

Whoa, what? You're not overconfidently claiming to be the best already? You're not already ready for whatever challenges lie ahead? You don't want to take the money and run in hopes of becoming the next … ahem … Junichi Tazawa? What's the matter with this guy?

"I don't think I have what it takes to compete at the world level yet," The Associated Press quoted Kikuchi as saying during the news conference.

Hang on, there's got to be something wrong with him. He must not have the clichéd killer instinct, the never-say-die attitude, the "I can do anything" mentality.

Can you picture former college hoops stars like Allen Iverson or Kevin Durant questioning their ability to play in the NBA after leaving school early? Have you ever heard either of them suggest that they might not be able to hack it with the big boys?

I don't think so.

Try to imagine an egomaniac like Ray Lewis or Terrell Owens saying, "I think I'm gonna sit out against the Patriots this weekend. I'm not confident enough in my abilities to get the job done anymore."

Can't do it, can you?

See if you can wrap your brain around Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O'Neal telling a reporter before a game, "Jeez, I'm a little nervous about playing the Celtics tonight. I hope KG doesn't dunk on me."

Never gonna happen.

In this day and age of cocky, headstrong, even arrogant sports personalities, we're more likely to get a ridiculous guarantee — yes, Richard Seymour, I'm talking to you — than an athlete admitting so much as an ounce of fear or apprehension. That would be downright un-American.

I'm not saying that Kikuchi is right or wrong for taking this tack. And it's probably not fear that's keeping him in Japan for now — it's being realistic. He probably isn't ready for the majors. Frankly, it's refreshing to hear an athlete willing to recognize his limitations. To be fair, it would be quite a transition for an 18-year-old to make.

Even last year, when Tazawa became the first amateur player to forgo the Japanese draft and sign with a major league team (the Red Sox), it was a highly questionable move on many levels. And though the 23-year-old Taz impressed in the minors, going 9-7 with a 2.55 ERA combined between Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket, he struggled with the parent club, going 2-3 in six appearances with a 7.46 ERA.

If Kikuchi hopes to eventually play in the States, he will likely go the Daisuke Matsuzaka route. See, once a player joins a Japanese club, the rules state that he must play nine seasons before becoming a free agent. But some players, like Matsuzaka, can leave earlier through a "posting system" that allows major league teams to bid for negotiating rights, effectively buying out their Japanese contracts.

This seems like the sensible route for Kikuchi. It's a shame the Red Sox can't make their push for him just yet, but in a few years, maybe both sides will be ready.

At the very least, it will give him time to work on his ego.

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