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Saving his high notes

Times Staff Writer

Every time Takashi Saito prepares to run out of the Dodgers’ bullpen, he taps himself twice on the chest and asks himself aloud, “Takashi Saito, what did you come here to do?”

Every time he asks himself that question, Saito says, he wants to feel the answer. Because when he no longer feels it, it will mean he no longer belongs here, an ocean away from his wife and two daughters in Japan.

Saito was seriously pondering retirement when his contract with the Yokohama BayStars expired in 2005. Only the frustration of playing hurt most of the previous three seasons had prevented him from quitting. He didn’t want his career to end like that, with baseball no longer being fun.

The day he learned he had been chosen for the All-Star team, Saito faintly smiled, sighed and shook his head.

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“I’m glad I didn’t quit,” he said.

Because baseball is fun again.

“For me, every day is like an All-Star game,” said Saito, 37. “Every day, I feel like I’m surrounded by All-Stars and facing All-Stars. I might’ve been called into the All-Star game, but I’ve felt like an All-Star every day.”

In Japan, he felt like a failure.

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He was paid nearly $7 million over his last three seasons to be the BayStars’ ace, but his body betrayed him. Slowed because of back problems and a hernia, he failed to win 10 games in any one of those seasons.

“I could barely throw 90 miles per hour,” he said. “It was pitch and get hit, pitch and get hit. I thought the end was near.”

He thought of being a television analyst or coaching kids.

But he wanted one more chance, one more season. He wanted a clean start and a shot at playing the game at its highest level.

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So he asked his wife. They had two daughters, and he would be taking a huge pay cut without a guarantee of employment.

She let him go.

Though Saito had agreed to the terms of a minor league deal with the Dodgers, he left Japan in January 2006 without a signed contract. When he flew out of Narita Airport, only his family and agent knew.

Saito said he was aware of how his move would be perceived in Japan: that he was headed to the U.S. to make one last memory and retire.

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The way he was perceived here -- in particular, how little was expected of him -- was made clear to him the day he was introduced to reporters at Dodger Stadium. He had faced a room full of reporters and cameras when he was a first-round draft pick from college in Japan, but here, there were maybe 10 Japanese reporters and a few television cameras.

And when Saito reported to spring training, he initially had trouble finding his place.

The shift from being a veteran to a rookie was difficult.

“What was common sense to me wasn’t common sense over here,” Saito said. “I knew that’d be the case, but it was hard when I was confronted with that reality.”

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One player went out of his way to tell him that his previous experience with a Japanese teammate was negative. Others refused to acknowledge his presence.

Saito started stretching alone. Then, one day, he was approached by pitcher Brad Penny.

When Saito revealed in small talk that he liked karaoke, Penny organized a trip to a karaoke bar.

Once there, Saito was thrust onto the stage. He chose the one song he knew how to sing in English, the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” Saito had been forced to learn the song as a junior in college, when his class sang it as part of a farewell for the graduating seniors.

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Saito’s teammates crowded the stage and applauded.

“We wanted to have a little laugh,” catcher Russell Martin said. “His English wasn’t very good yet. I didn’t think he was going to do it. But it was unbelievable. Everybody in there just stopped. It was crazy.”

Soon, a karaoke machine was brought into the clubhouse so he could perform in front of the entire team.

“He can definitely sing,” third baseman Nomar Garciaparra said.

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That improved his relationship with his teammates. For the remainder of the spring, he was frequently summoned into the trainer’s room to sing.

“I never imagined that something like that could help me,” Saito said. “Karaoke is completely Japanese. That karaoke is even here is strange.”

But Saito didn’t make the major league roster after spring training.

When he reported to triple-A Las Vegas, practice on that day already had ended and the clubhouse was empty. He went into the dining room to eat, finding only crackers. They tasted bad.

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He wondered whether he had made a mistake. A friend, former Angels and Mariners pitcher Shigetoshi Hasegawa, had warned him of this possibility.

Saito’s toughest time was when his wife and two daughters visited him for the Freeway Series against the Angels before opening day. When he took them to the airport, they were crying.

“Dad, try your best,” his daughters told him through their tears.

“It was sad seeing my children’s tears and my wife’s tears,” Saito said. “It’s sad seeing the tears of your family. Those tears were caused by my selfishness. I had a family, but I came here to chase a dream.”

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That dream, to step on a mound in the major leagues once, was realized April 9, 2006, in Philadelphia, four days after he was called up to replace an injured Eric Gagne. Upon making his major league debut, a tearful Saito rang his wife and blurted out the only words on his mind: “Thank you.”

“That’s all I could say,” Saito said. “If my wife had wanted me to stay in Japan, I probably would have. But she understood.”

By the end of the season, Saito had lived his dream 72 times and was the Dodgers’ closer.

But he wanted more. He didn’t want to say goodbye to his teammates, who had warmly accepted him. He wanted to go further in the playoffs.

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“When we lost in the playoffs, I felt there was something higher to aim for,” Saito said. “As long as I could play baseball, I felt I had to continue to reach for that point. Not many people get this opportunity.”

So he asked his wife for another season and, again, she said he could go.

He and his wife discussed moving the family to California this season, and he went as far as looking into Japanese schools in the area.

But he realized that wherever his family lived, he wouldn’t see them much during the season. And if he visited Japan in October or November, his daughters would still be in school and couldn’t travel with him.

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“In the end,” he said, “we’d spend the same amount of time together.”

Saito was briefly reunited with his wife and children last week, when he allowed his daughters to skip their tests in school so they could watch him pitch in the All-Star game at San Francisco. They will visit him again next month when they are on summer vacation.

Saito, who lives alone in a two-bedroom apartment and eats most meals by himself, said that being apart from his family is tougher on them than it is on him.

“I’m playing baseball, which I love,” he said. “Tough times in baseball aren’t tough times.”

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The tough times have been rare this season. He has converted 23 of his 26 save opportunities, making him 47 of 52 over the last two years.

His English is improving, but he said of his relationship with his teammates, “No matter how much time you spend together, there are some ideas you can’t get across. But I’ve learned how to put myself at a proper distance from others. I can’t get too close, and I can’t be too far. That’s not something that anyone can teach me. That’s something I had to learn by myself, little by little.”

Garciaparra appreciates the effort Saito has made to be part of the team.

“It’s easier and understandable to be in a new culture and a new environment and be in your own corner,” Garciaparra said. “But the fact that he’s not is a tribute to him. He’s right there, he’s with everybody. If there are team functions or guys are going out, he’ll be there.”

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Because of the language barrier, making dinner plans over the phone remains difficult for Saito. He also has trouble telling jokes, though some of his teammates say they can understand his humor.

“His jokes aren’t in words but in body language,” second baseman Jeff Kent said.

Sometimes the humor is inadvertent.

He dressed up as a samurai last month, intending to show his teammates how seriously he took a team meeting the previous day. They took it as a joke.

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However much fun and success he has enjoyed this season, Saito said he is undecided whether he’ll return next season.

“I don’t know how long my body will let me do this,” he said, adding that he has other obligations to weigh. “There’s Takashi Saito the father, there’s Takashi Saito the player. To my wife, I’m a husband. To my parents, I’m a son.”

Even if the Dodgers make him a financial offer he can’t refuse, he said, the decision whether to come back will be a collective one.

Whatever he decides, Saito said he would look back at this time with a sense of awe.

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That he could be 37 and still pitching seems like a miracle to him. He says that might have not been possible if he didn’t start pitching until he was relatively old -- he was an infielder until college -- and hadn’t been hurt his last three years in Japan. What he once perceived to be mistakes or curses, he said, preserved his arm.

“Many things happened in my life and if any of those things didn’t happen, I might not be here,” he said. “That’s something I’ve come to think recently. I took a roundabout road here. I always wondered what those last three years in Japan meant. But now that I look at it, I see that it’s because of that time, I’m able to be here.”

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dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

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Begin text of infobox

Bringing closure

Players born in Japan to save a game in Major League Baseball:

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*--* Player Year(s) SV Steve Chitren 1990-91 4 Shigetoshi Hasegawa 1997-2005 33 Hideki Irabu 1997-2002 16 Masao Kida 1999-2005 1 Jeff McCurry 1995-99 1 Masanori Murakami 1964-65 9 Mike Nakamura 2003-04 1 Hideki Okajima 2007- 4 Akinori Otsuka 2004- 39 Takashi Saito 2006- 47 Kazuhiro Sasaki 2000-03 129 Shingo Takatsu 2004-05 27 Keiichi Yabu 2005 1

*--*

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Source: baseball-reference.com

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Los Angeles Times


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