Baseball key to adjusting to life in America

BY GENE SAPAKOFF

gsapakoff@postandcourier.com

Gosuke Katoh had trouble making friends when he moved back to California from Japan as a 6-year-old. A major adjustment was necessary when his father's job at Sony required a transfer after three years in Tokyo.

Katoh's mom made him play T-ball.

"I spoke little or no English," the Charleston RiverDogs' second baseman said. "She thought that was the only way I could communicate with American friends. That's how I kind of assimilated into the American culture."

Katoh also drew strength from knowing that he wasn't alone. Another baseball player from Japan was adjusting to life in the U.S., and outfielder Ichiro Suzuki in 2001 was on his way to a sensational 242-hit rookie season with the Seattle Mariners.

Almost as fast as Ichiro dashes to first base on an infield chopper, young Gosuke Katoh (GOES-kay, kuh-TOE) settled in. When he speaks, the only accent detected is a trace of suburban California casualness. He embraced the comforts of Rancho Bernardo, just north of San Diego. Katoh patterned his sweet left-handed swing after Ichiro's, and came to love baseball.

Diamond dreams came almost full circle last June when the New York Yankees picked Katoh, a second baseman, in the second round of the major league draft. They convinced him to turn down a scholarship offer from UCLA and sign for the MLB-assigned draft slot value of $845,700.

As an extra bonus, Katoh was invited to take batting practice with the Yankees before a game against the Angels in Anaheim, just 90 miles from his house. That meant taking cuts with Ichiro.

"I couldn't believe I was standing there talking to Ichiro because I grew up idolizing him," said Katoh, 19. "To me, he was like the God of baseball. To be able to talk to him face-to-face, it was awesome."

Lessons in Japan

The two struck up a friendship. Ichiro, 40, eventually invited Katoh to Japan for a week of workouts and mentoring this off-season.

"I wanted to pick his brain a little bit," Katoh said, "kind of like the mental side of baseball. We also talked a lot about hitting and base-stealing. He gave me a lot of good tips. I asked him about his swing, because it's so unique. I asked him how he came about that. He told me to find the best swing for your body type. My job is to find out what works best for me."

Katoh has had his ups and downs this season, his first full year of professional baseball. He is hitting .200 with the RiverDogs (no home runs, seven runs batted in, .330 on-base percentage) in 80 at-bats. It is possible Katoh will be sent down to short-season Class A Staten Island before returning to the RiverDogs next season.

But the Yankees love the potential of a 6-2, 185-pound player ranked No. 10 on Baseball America's latest list of New York's top minor league prospects. Katoh showed off his compact swing last summer when he hit .310 with six homers and 25 RBIs over 184 at-bats in the Gulf Coast (Rookie) League.

"Last year was like an extension of high school," Katoh said. "This year, it's like a whole different level of play. The talent is so much better. And night games - I'd never really played in night games and that was a tough thing to adjust to. The stats haven't been there but I'm having a lot of fun."

Love for Jackie Robinson

A skilled defender, Katoh was the first second baseman picked in the 2013 draft and one of only 10 high school second basemen in the entire draft. The next second baseman drafted was UConn's L.J. Mazilli by the Mets in the fourth round. He will appear in Charleston this weekend with the Savannah Sand Gnats.

So why, when almost all high schools have their best infielder at shortstop, did Katoh play second base?

"When I was a freshman in high school, we had a pretty good shortstop already so our coach just converted me to a second baseman and I just stayed with it from that point on," Katoh said. "I never really thought about playing shortstop, but I always practiced there just in case and to be more versatile."

Katoh keeps up friends - in California and Japan and elsewhere - via Twitter. He posts thoughts in English and Japanese.

"You know it's cold to play a baseball game when they replace the Gatorade cooler with hot chocolate #32degrees" he tweeted after a chilly Charleston night in April.

On Jackie Robinson Day, April 15, Katoh paid tribute to a fellow second baseman: "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives - Jackie Robinson #42"

Both of Katoh's parents - Daizo, an executive at Sony, and Hiroko, a Japanese language teacher - have been to Charleston to watch their son play.

"Actually, Charleston is very similar to San Diego with the climate," Katoh said. "I've met a lot of nice people. I love it. And the crowds are awesome at The Joe."

Which makes mom's T-ball order look pretty good.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff