There was something new at Wrigley Field as this season started. Kosuke Fukudome had taken over in right field and the fans in the bleachers were welcoming the Cubs first player from Japan by wearing head scarves and other accoutrements with Japanese characters.
It was a hopeful sign. Were the Bleacher Bums, who for years have celebrated selfish, homer-hitting stat hounds like Sammy Sosa—as well as their own laughing flesh—showing a little respect for less self-indulgent, more dignified conduct? But when I went out there for a game, I came away disappointed. The hachimaki and Fukudome jerseys were nice touches, but otherwise it was the same old bleachers, same boorish behavior, same idiot chants. Nothing had changed but the player and the merch.
It's not as if I'd expected some sort of Zen garden, not even with the lovely new field Wrigley installed over the winter. But I was hoping for something a bit more sophisticated than I found, especially in view of the elegant way Fukudome responded to hearing his name chanted as he took the field in the first inning. There was no "look at me" sprint to the bleachers, a la Sosa, just a comfortable trot that curiously circumvented the dirt of the infield. Was it to honor some superstition, akin to the care some managers take never to step on the foul line when they walk to the mound?
Once out in right field, he faced the bleachers, drew his feet together, removed his hat, and lowered his head. What was there for him to see? The whimsical: a Latino father and son making their way to open seats, both wearing hachimaki. The cretinous: the usual shirtless young men braving the cold in the front row, only with Japanese characters scrawled across their chests. And the crass: the fans who would soon be booing Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker on his return to Chicago and chanting "Corey sucks!" at the prodigal center fielder Corey Patterson as well as the ever reliable "Left field sucks!" A beefy guy to my left, his brushy crew cut spiked with product, was soon heard explaining that his Fukudome jersey could as easily be read, "Fuck you, do me."
But Fukudome has had an instant impact on the team if not the fans. The front of the scorecard bore a picture of Alfonso Soriano, the epitome of the stats-obsessed marquee star the Cubs always seem to have, who that night would go down with a fluke injury suffered in one of those peculiar hops he makes catching routine fly balls. On the inside, however, on the scorecard proper, was an image of Fukudome. The placement suggested the way he already seems to have become not the poster boy but the more private self-image of this year's Cubs, leading by example with a selfless style of team-first play. Fukudome does things that don't show up in the box score, advancing runners and making one-hop laser-beam throws to the plate to freeze runners at third base. He provided some serious opening day heroics—hitting the first pitch thrown to him over the center fielder's head for a double, and tying the game in the ninth inning with a three-run homer—and since then he's taken what the pitchers give him, lashing outside offerings to left field. Emulating Fukudome, the Cubs have been playing more as a team, and some of the more tangible changes—such as Aramis Ramirez taking pitches and working the count—should pay dividends as the season progresses.
No one player makes a baseball team, and Derrek Lee remains the Cubs' soft-spoken leader (unless it's Carlos Zambrano, pitcher and wannabe Ace Boon Coon). But Fukudome has altered the team for the better, and he's a major reason the Cubs got off to a more-than-decent start this season.
Fukudome has also altered the press box. There are now a dozen or more Japanese reporters regularly covering the Cubs, and some sportswriters have griped about being moved from their customary spots. The daily Cubs notes are printed in Japanese, and there's an expanded sushi bar in the media dining room. I find myself wavering contentedly between the brats smothered in grilled onions and peppers available in the stands and the spicy salmon rolls laid out for the scribes. So much for the middle path. v