Japanese slugger Sasaki blazing his own baseball path in U.S. via Stanford, MLB Draft League


BLAZING HIS OWN TRAIL — Japanese teenage slugger Rintaro Sasaki poses for a photo in front of journalists at Hanamaki Higashi High School — which Los Angeles Dodgers two-way star Shohei Ohtani also attended — in Hanamaki, Iwate Prefecture, on Feb. 20. Kyodo News photo

AP Baseball Writer

STANFORD, Calif. — When balls start landing on the Stanford football team’s practice grass way beyond the wall in right-center field, everybody knows Japanese slugger Rintaro Sasaki must be taking batting practice at nearby Sunken Diamond.

Even the swim coaches have trained themselves to be on high alert on the pool deck more than 450 feet away just in case the left-handed hitting Sasaki somehow sends one that far — and they believe he will soon enough.

His coach is counting on it.

“He might splash a few,” Stanford coach David Esquer said. “He’s pulling toward the pool for sure.”

Sasaki, who hit 140 high school home runs and then made waves by opting out of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league draft, has been immersing himself in classes and a new culture on Stanford’s Bay Area campus for two-plus months. He’s learning English and getting settled in a baseball routine that has included road trips with the team before he begins his collegiate career in earnest this fall.

The 19-year-old prospect hit a two-run homer and an RBI single in his U.S. debut June 11 in the MLB Draft League, playing for the Trenton Thunder of New Jersey alongside more players who hope to one day develop into major leaguers. The Thunder won 11-1 at Frederick, Maryland.

Before leaving town, the savvy Sasaki reminded Esquer his games will be streamed so the coach can watch. He also has requested help in finding another team once the Draft League season ends.

“He’s fired up for it,” said Esquer, the seventh-year Stanford coach who previously spent 18 seasons at rival California. “He wants to play.”

And Sasaki hardly seems fazed by the expectations that come with being a trendsetter of sorts given he is taking his own unique path. He comes across as mature beyond his years when discussing the importance of finding something to fall back on after his baseball career is through. Most Japanese players — including Dodgers two-way star Shohei Ohtani — first become professionals at home, often with goals of coming to the United States already having years of experience.

Sasaki is determined to build a foundation for his life well into the future, long after his baseball days are done. His dad, Hiroshi, who coached Ohtani and Toronto pitcher Yusei Kikuchi in high school, instilled in him starting at a young age the need to “make a plan.” Sasaki notes he heard it so much, there’s no way it wouldn’t become ingrained in him.

Another key message from his father: “I have to earn it. Nothing comes free,” Sasaki shared during a recent interview at Sunken Diamond, Stanford’s ballpark.

There’s no precedent for an elite Japanese prospect such as Sasaki foregoing his country’s draft system. International players with nine years of professional service time can come to Major League Baseball as free agents, while pros with fewer than nine years can ask to be posted by their Japanese club — a system in which that team receives a fee depending on the size of the player’s contract.

Yet major league teams have agreed to strict spending limits on international players under 25 years old. That’s why Ohtani, who left Japan at 23, signed with the Los Angeles Angels for just over $2.3 million in 2017.

By attending college in the U.S., Sasaki will be eligible for the draft in three years, expediting his potential path to the big leagues. Last year’s No. 1 overall pick, pitcher Paul Skenes of Pittsburgh, received a $9.2 million signing bonus.

While Sasaki is striving to play at the highest level one day, he insists for now the focus is on taking each necessary step to get there while enjoying his college career first.

Longtime family friend Junpei Tomonaga offers assistance as an interpreter when Sasaki needs it, but he is determined to do this on his own sooner rather than later.

Sasaki acknowledges that Ohtani’s stardom and success here along with that of Kikuchi greatly impacted him.

“They’re the ones who influenced my decision,” he said.

Away from home for the first time, Sasaki insists he is adjusting just fine thanks to all the support surrounding him.

“I never miss Japan,” he said. “I enjoy the challenge.”

And no question Sasaki is thrilled to be somewhere like Stanford.

Esquer considers this a perfect fit. He applauds Sasaki for his courage. “It’s very brave to do what he’s doing, going to another country right after high school,” he said.

When Sasaki made his official recruiting visit, members of the Stanford Japanese department and community made a point to come see him, make him feel welcome. Not that you will hear Sasaki say anything negative about the other two schools who were at the top of his list, California and Vanderbilt.

“Stanford is a leading school in America,” he said. “I still have big respect for the other schools I visited.”

He has embraced using Uber Eats to order food, like his favorite, Chipotle. Sasaki is studying English and physics — and making sure he can speak English well is his biggest anxiety at the moment.

He recently completed his first quarter of classes.

“He’s quietly charismatic despite speaking little English, very impressive,” Esquer said. “Everybody is impressed by him, his teammates. He brought energy to the field as if he was active and ready to play — and he can play.”

Despite that unease with the language barrier, Sasaki can speak near-perfect English for much of what he needs to say. He thanks everybody who has welcomed him here and made the adjustment so smooth and comfortable as he begins his new life.

“My teammates are so good, they are so kind,” he said in English, sporting a big smile. “I appreciate the teammates, they’re just so helpful all the time, also coach Esquer and the other baseball coaches are good (people). I love Stanford baseball.”

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