A Japanese Pitcher Gets His Chance at Major Leagues

Washington Post

It is strange food and the English language, says Yutaka Enatsu, that will most threaten the goal he has set for himself, becoming the first Japanese to play on a U.S. major league baseball team in 20 years.

The American game's different rules, field size and playing style he thinks he can handle. "As long as the problem involves baseball," said Enatsu, 36, a left-handed pitcher, "I am ready to challenge it."

Those words might come from any pro in Japan, where fans expect almost mystical devotion to the game. But Enatsu, who now is being evaluated at the Milwaukee Brewers' spring training camp in Phoenix, is anything but a typical Japanese player.

Since entering the game 18 years ago, he has made strong words, fights with managers and steamy romances a trademark. Many people here think that despite his good arm, he has blackballed himself from playing again in Japan.

If he succeeds with the Brewers, he will be the first Japanese on a U.S. major league team since pitcher Masanori Murakami spent the 1964-65 seasons with the San Francisco Giants, mostly unused in the bullpen. Two other Japanese since have tried but reached only the minor leagues.

"The purpose of my life is strikeouts," Enatsu once told a Japanese interviewer. He holds the professional record for strikeouts in a season, 401 in 1968. In a 1971 all-star game, he struck out nine batters in three innings.

Like most baseball stars here, Enatsu first came to public attention through his high school team. Every summer, high school championships are televised nationally and generate almost as much excitement as the pro games.

In 1967, he joined the Osaka-based Hanshin Tigers. At training camp that year, he quickly showed that he would not be bound by the strict protocols of Japanese baseball.

One day, he entered the team bath before senior players. As punishment, his managers ordered him to kneel at attention for a time. Enatsu did them one better, the story goes, holding the position all night.

Managers put up with him because he could pitch like no one else. In a game in 1968, he equaled Japan's single-season strikeout record of 353 by turning back home run legend Sadaharu Oh. Then, with a flair for drama, he waited until Oh was up again before recording No. 354.

Off the field, too, Enatsu kept himself in the news. In 1969, newspapers gave heavy play to his romance with a film actress. In 1970, he was accused of improperly accepting an expensive watch in the so-called "black fog scandal," in which several other players were banned from baseball for fixing games. Enatsu denied any wrongdoing in the affair.

In 1972, he passed the 100-victory mark. In 1975, he surpassed 150. But his arm was peaking and, from the mid-1970s, he was used mainly as a relief pitcher. In 1978, he moved to the Hiroshima Carp. The following season, they won their first pennant.

In 1981, he moved again, to the Seibu Lions. But last year, he was suddenly dropped from the roster. Angry, he showed up at Tokyo's Haneda Airport as the team was leaving for a game to confront the managers as television cameras filmed the scene.

In an interview in Tokyo before his departure for Phoenix, Enatsu said he has no desire to play in Japan again. The United States now is his challenge for baseball, he said, and it will be tough. "I realize from the bottom of my heart that the world is not such an easy place that I can play right away in the U.S. majors."

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