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Lil’ Angel packs big league punch

by Rob Smaal

The knock on Japanese players used to be that they were too small and underpowered to make it in North America’s big leagues. But with the recent success of the Seattle Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki, that argument has been laid to rest.

Want further proof? Look no further than shortstop David Eckstein of the World Series champion Anaheim Angels.

Listed at just 173 cm — although Eckstein says even he’s not sure of his exact height, as sometimes he’s listed at 5’6″ and sometimes its 5’7″ — the pesky infielder has been driving pitchers crazy with his ability to get on base and then keep them off balance with his quickness.

“I think the game is changing,” Eckstein said Thursday afternoon at the Tokyo Dome at a practice ahead of the MLB-Japan All-Star Series, which starts Saturday evening with a warmup game against the Yomiuri Giants.

“There is definitely a lot of power in the U.S., but they still need the guys that set it up for those power guys. You look on every team and they’ve got the little guy too. It’s nice because it opens up (the game) for anybody.”

Eckstein, a 27-year-old native of Florida, had a solid year for the World Series champion Angels, hitting .293 with 63 RBIs and 21 stolen bases while batting in the leadoff spot. In the World Series, he batted .310 with three RBIs to help the Angels beat the San Francisco Giants in seven games.

But it’s not just his numbers that tell his story. Eckstein prides himself on being baseball’s premier “super-pest,” a guy that can really make things happen once he gets on the basepaths.

Eckstein feels the success of guys like himself, Ichiro (175 cm), Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Paul Lo Duca (178 cm) and Phillies infielder Jimmy Rollins (173 cm) bodes well for Japanese players who might want to take a stab at playing Major League Baseball.

“Oh for sure, with what Ichiro has done and a lot of the players that have come (to the majors) and been so successful, I think it definitely opens up the door (for more Japanese). In America, they’re always looking for the best players and if they’re in Japan, they’re going to come and get them.”

While Eckstein holds Japanese ballplayers in high regard, he’s not quite as fond of some of the local cuisine.

“I’m not a sushi man,” Eckstein says. “In fact, I don’t eat fish at all. But I do love beef so I’ve been told that I’ve got to try some of that Kobe beef, maybe tonight.”