Gosuke Kato

Gosuke Kato’s Japan reeducation

Although his being drafted in the second round of MLB’s 2013 June Draft made news in Japan, Nippon Ham Fighters second baseman Gosuke Kato said Saturday he didn’t picture himself playing pro ball here.

“But it was always in the back of my mind, because I’m Japanese, and all my heroes came from Japan, like Ichiro and all the guys in the big leagues that I watched came from here. It’s been amazing so far, and I’ve enjoyed the experience,” Kato said at Chiba Marine Stadium before the Fighters’ game with the Lotte Marines.

Because NPB rules stipulate that Japanese citizens can only sign their first contracts with Japanese teams after passing selected in either the new player draft or the developmental draft that follows it. The Fighters selected Kato in the third round last autumn, but his big league debut here was delayed after he fractured his right index finger two days before the start of spring training.

But when Kato did get to play, starting on May 25, he became the second rookie to hit safely in his first 10 games since the two-league system was introduced in 1950. That year, Kintetsu Pearls outfielder Toshio Ito accomplished the feat. Like Kato, Ito was 28 at the time.

“It was my first injury, ever, so it was tough mentally, but I had a good start,” Kato said. “But it’s just riding the wave. That’s how baseball is. Sometimes you’re on top of the wave, sometimes you’re 10 feet under.”

Now he’s navigating Japan as a Japanese with virtually know experience of Japan since he was six, having been born in the San Francisco Bay Area and lived most of his life in San Diego.

“It’s been tough. I’m Japanese, and I know the culture a little bit. But the team’s done a great job to make sure I’m comfortable on and off the field. I can’t imagine what most of these foreigners are feeling. I know Japanese. I can speak the language, but I still feel like an outlier. That’s just part of being in a different country. But the team has been so welcoming and my teammates have been so awesome to make me one of theirs,” Kato said.

“I was here from when I was three to six. That was preschool so I don’t really remember anything. But I spoke Japanese at the house with my parents, so that’s how I know Japanese.”

While his teammates have welcomed him with open arms, Kato said the clubhouse dynamic is different from the way it is in the States.

“I think there’s more of an individuality thing going on in baseball teams. I felt there was more of a bond with my teammates in the United States. It’s just cultural differences, but I think they’re very into themselves a lot, not a bad thing. It’s just the way it is,” Kato said.

Earlier Saturday, Lotte pitcher Hirokazu Sawamura made a similar comment, about how he’d been invigorated in the States by a clubhouse where individuals came from many different backgrounds with fewer assumptions about what was expected and had to actively listen more to teammates in order to communicate with each other.

When talking to Japanese baseball newcomers, the biggest surprises are often not on the field, where baseball takes place within the bounds of virtually identical distances and rules, but off the field. And Kato proved to be no different.

“I knew a little about everything culturally,” he said. “But the biggest shock was “melon pan.” It’s melon bread, and when I bought it, I’m like, ‘This has to taste like a melon.’ But it tastes nothing like a melon. It just looks like a melon. That was the most shocking thing so far. Ever since then I’ve been hooked on melon pan, because it’s so mysterious. There’s so many different flavors to it.”

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