ICHIBAN : Number One . . . That's What Masaaki Yamashita, an Exchange Student From Japan, Has Become in His Third Year on the Baseball Team at Verdugo Hills High

Times Staff Writer

Curt Yarrington remembers having his eyes locked on uniform No. 1 for some time. That particular jersey, he reasoned, might signify many things, especially the fact that he was numero uno as baseball coach at Verdugo Hills High. And, what the heck, it was also his first year.

A few days before the 1987 season, players began to place their requests for jerseys. All the popular numbers went fast, those commonly tied to major league stars or ones that older brothers might have worn. Yarrington held fast to No. 1, until an earnest foreign-exchange student named Masaaki (Mo) Yamashita walked through his door.

Yamashita, a sophomore infielder from Japan who spoke English in carefully measured sentences, had prepared a tersely worded statement.

"I asked Mo what number he wanted and he says, 'Num-ber one,' " Yarrington recalls, enunciating each syllable of Yamashita's request in the same cadence used by the player.

This exchange followed, more or less:

Yarrington: "No. 1? Oh, yeah?"

Yamashita: "Exactly."

"I ask him why he wanted it and all he says is, 'Sadaharu Oh,' " Yarrington said.

Oh, of course, was Japan's big-league answer to Hank Aaron, a national hero who clubbed a world-record 868 home runs in a 21-year career.

Once Yarrington realized Yamashita's reverential reasons, he quickly agreed to surrender the jersey. Besides, in the back of Yarrington's mind, he knew that in a few short months Yamashita would be back in his homeland. Then Yarrington would reclaim the jersey faster than he could say trade deficit.

"I had really started to get pumped up about wearing it, but then I got to thinking, 'Why not let him?' " Yarrington said. "I thought, 'He can have it this year and I'll still get it back next year.' "

Soon thereafter, teammates started kiddingly calling Yamashita " Ichiban ," which in Japanese means "Number One."

Three years later--yes, he is still here and wearing the same numeral--the nickname has proven prophetic: Yamashita is now the team's best player.

The most established youth baseball program in Japan is called Little League, too, and it's not a wisecrack about height. Yamashita played before coming to the United States, where at 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds he is one of the biggest players on the Verdugo Hills team.

Seconds into his first Verdugo Hills practice, he found that the differences in regimen alone are pronounced (and here, it's pronounced laid back ). Yamashita spent a few weeks trying out for his high school team before he was shipped off to the United States and was startled by the lack of intensity here.

"They practice much harder there. There is no talking. Some coaches come up to you with a bat and slam you in the back," he says, pointing to his rear end to indicate that a shot to the hindquarter is indeed an effective way to get one's attention. "We run more and work harder (in Japan)."

The time-honored, All-American rite of umpire baiting is a no-no in Japan, where batters customarily bow to the plate umpire before taking their cuts.

"We can't say anything to the umpire," he says. "We aren't allowed to."

Yet, in the United States, Yamashita has found that the umpires often wish to speak to him, especially about the bat he uses, a huge-barreled, golden aluminum Rawlings model he brought from home.

The bat, which unlike those manufactured here has no plastic cap at the barrel end, makes a piercing ring when it strikes the ball. On the barrel, there are Japanese characters. When the bat is inspected, umpires act as though they have just looked under the hood of a foreign car--everything is metric and in a foreign language.

"All the umps have looked at it," Yamashita says. "They all have a strange look, like, 'What kind of bat is this?' I say, 'I brought it from Japan. Everyone uses these there.' "

Yamashita, who is second on the team with a .368 batting average, carries the bat in its own padded case and does likewise with his spikes. This punctilious practice still draws curious looks from Yarrington, who admittedly is used to the tobacco-spewing, unkempt Don Zimmer-types.

"One of the first things I noticed about him was that he was very meticulous, very neat and orderly," Yarrington says. "Must be a cultural thing."

Yamashita has assimilated nicely in dozens of other ways, though. He has developed a taste for American food, preferring meat loaf, pasta and hamburgers, as well as American pop music. Yamashita sometimes goes to L. A. dance clubs and has collected more than 100 cassette tapes.

"Everything from metal to KROQ dance music," says senior Ryan Paskwietz, whose family is boarding Yamashita this year and consequently is subjected to the auditory assault. "He's gone nuts since we got him that tape player for Christmas."

Yamashita's Western ways extend to the moussed hair that juts from under the bill of his baseball cap. He has attended numerous Dodger and Laker games, traveled to Nevada and Arizona, and through the school, helped produce a videotape that was broadcast on local public-access cable TV.

"Oh, yeah, we've Americanized him," Yarrington says. "If his name were, say, Mike Yamashita, people would think he was a Japanese-American who happened to be on this team."

Mo, as it turns out, is short for Masaaki, which was difficult for some teammates to pronounce. Masaaki (pronounced, MOS-uh-kee) also answers to 'Saaki, the latter half of his first name.

Baseball, Yamashita says, has helped him tie all of his experiences together.

"I actually came over here to learn English, but I felt that playing a sport, any sport, that's the best way to make friends," he says. "And I'd been playing baseball for a long time, so that seemed like the best way to go."

Yamashita's objective upon graduating from a Japanese college is to use his language skills to travel internationally as a businessman. Playing baseball at a racially mixed school like Verdugo Hills has helped him expand his vocabulary well beyond English.

"I even learned the dirty words from Spanish, too," he says, grinning.

And what education would be complete without a lineup of choice baseball cliches? When asked what his baseball goals were for the season, he included: "To do whatever it takes to help the team."

Yamashita was in junior high when he realized that he could turn his knack for languages into a trip to the United States. After faring well on a nationally standardized English test in his hometown of Kyoto--English is part of the standard curriculum in grade school--he signed up for the school's foreign-exchange program. After taking yet another English exam and batting about .333 ("I got about 20 out of 60 questions right, but I guess that was good enough," he says), Yamashita was sent to Verdugo Hills for his sophomore year.

However, administrators at Verdugo Hills, he says, misinterpreted his class standing and placed him in an 11th-grade curriculum. After concluding the 1986-87 school year, Yamashita said he was led to believe he could graduate the following year if he returned.

As it turned out, he was still several units short of graduating at the end of 1987-88 and was forced to return for his senior year. By then, Japanese universities he contacted had made it clear that if he had designs on a college education back home, he had to finish what he started abroad.

But at least Yamashita was ahead of most Verdugo Hills students. Despite the language barrier, he is a solid B student.

"School is harder there," he says of Japan. "I was ahead in math and stuff, but in government and English, I was behind. I was just trying to show up every day and pick up what I could."

On the baseball field, he has picked up the team in a multitude of ways. Yamashita has been the team stopgap, the player Yarrington goes to when there is a hole to plug or a fire to extinguish.

This year alone, Yamashita has played third base, shortstop, second base, right field and pitcher. Once Yarrington finally rid Mo of his Oh-style batting stance--the left-handed slugger habitually raised his right leg as the pitch approached, similar to the style used by Hall of Famer Mel Ott--Yamashita's offense improved, too.

Besides being second on the team in batting average, Yamashita is second in runs scored (18) and leads the team in runs batted in (20).

"I usually put my best hitter in the No. 3 position," Yarrington said. "He's earned that spot."

He has been the team's most consistent pitcher, compiling a 7-4 record. Yamashita pitched a four-hit shutout over Eagle Rock on Tuesday and threw a three-hitter and struck out a career-high 13 in a 3-1 win over Belmont on April 25.

He is hardly overpowering--in fact, Slow Mo has allowed 72 hits in 52 2/3 innings--but has nonetheless fanned 57 batters, mainly through guile alone.

"He has good baseball sense," Yarrington says. "He does the things that the good players have to do to be successful. On the mound, his mechanics are better than anyone on the staff."

It should be noted that, in terms of fundamentals, some of Yamashita's teammates are as raw as sushi. Verdugo Hills is having a so-so season, and is 12-10 overall and third in the Northern League at 9-6.

Yarrington insists that without Yamashita, well, he'd rather not even think about it. The coach is just happy Yamashita came back for more. Twice.

"You never know what can happen in the off-season, but when school started, there he was," Yarrington said. "At the time, I didn't think it was a real big deal if he made it or not. But looking back now and seeing what he's contributed, whew, I don't know where we'd be without him."

Shy or not, Yamashita knows he is having the best year of any of the Dons' players, although he admits he thought it would be tougher here.

"I figured they'd be a little better than this, but I found out that I could do as well as these guys," he said.

And while this has been his breakthrough season offensively, he has previously won acclaim for other reasons. As a sophomore, Yamashita was given the Coach's Award.

"It goes to the exemplary player," Yarrington said. "The kid who gives 100%, never talks back, plays any position, all that stuff.

"There was another kid who was a senior who I could have just as easily given it to, but I thought Mo wasn't going to be back. But then he shows up again the next year, and I give it to him again.

"But, heck, he deserves it. And this year, he'll probably get it again."

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