Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Brave Afternoon

The international business news wheel slowed its churning today and gave me a rare break from common subject matter like company relocations, trade statistics and foreign office openings. Today, I got to time travel and work at the same time.

I attended a press conference at Turner Field where the Braves announced the signing of the franchise's first Japanese-born player, a pitcher named Kenshin Kawakami who played for the Chunichi Dragons in Nagoya, Japan, before signing with the Braves in the past few days.

The time travel began when Braves skipper Bobby Cox walked in. He's portrayed as a fiery character in the media. He has a strong propensity to argue with umps and end up getting thrown out of games (I think he holds the record). But well after the press conference, he stood around chatting with reporters and other folks, talking about mundane stuff like the weather and the differences between Japanese and American baseball.

I ambled over. He looked me in the eye, nodded and said hello. Here I was, standing next to a guy I've watched on TV for nearly 20 years. I still remember the days of old. I can still see the iconic highlight reel: Francisco Cabrera's pinch-hit single in the NLCS and Sid Bream's slow slide across home plate, Skip Caray shouting "Braves win! Braves win!" as they beat the Pirates to go from "worst to first" in 1991. They played the Twins in the World Series, and Bobby was calling the shots for one of the first of many seasons throughout the 90s when title hopes were dashed for Braves fans.

Now Bobby was two feet from me, and I could ask him anything. I stayed on the previous subject - how the styles baseball styles of the two countries differ.

"I think they play for the one-run a little more," he told me, highlighting how the Japanese gravitate toward team play, presumably insinuating that American teams tend to have more individualistic players. Chicks dig the home run, and it puts people in the seats. I guess the baseball field is a microcosm of our two cultures: subtle and group-oriented vs. unapologetically individualistic.

There were other highlights to the event. Kawakami was fun and charismatic. His opening remarks included a "y'all" before switching to Japanese.

But he was serious about contributing to his new team. He just arrived Sunday, so he hasn't met any of them yet, but he said he's foregoing the World Baseball Classic in March to get ready for the season. When asked whether he was feeling pressure as a de facto ambassador for Japan, the answer was no. When asked what made him think we was ready for this level of play, he said he puts his "soul" into every pitch. He even brought along a square sheet of paper where he'd written in calligraphy the character for "soul."

For his first lunch in country, Kawakami ate a cheeseburger and hot dog at the Varsity. Talk about welcoming the guy to America. The next day, he coincidentally sat next to former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young at a dinner. I hope my new friend Bobby likes the way he pitches. Apparently Bobby has only seen Kawakami pitch on film, not in person. I thought it astounding that the scouts had so much clout that they could recommend a guy and the team could sign him before the manager has even seen him throw in the pen.

The baseball angle is good, but GlobalAtlanta needs something more focused, yet simple: The Georgia-Japan relationship has progressed to the point that there is enough cultural influence to help Mr. Kawakami feel right at home. At least that's what Braves General Manager Frank Wren and Japanese Consul General Takuji Hanatani told me.

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