Power-hitting phenom Nakata thrust into spotlight


As if professional baseball isn’t hard enough on rookies, try tackling what Hokkaido Nippon Ham newcomer Sho Nakata is probably about to go through.

Nakata has been labeled a “kaibutsu” (which translates into monster), a term fans and media have come to use to identify a “monster” talent making the jump from high school to professional baseball, and there is an enormous amount of hype building around an 18-year-old that has yet to play a regular-season game.

Less than a month into spring training, the media frenzy is already reaching a fevered pitch with Nakata doing TV appearances, seemingly daily gracing the front, back and inside pages of sports dailies and having details of his life off the diamond, such as a recent shopping trip and his mother advising him to steer clear of the Susukino nightlife district in Sapporo, finding their way into the news.

And that was before he threw offensively starved Nippon Ham fans into even more of a frenzy earlier this month with a towering 130-meter home run off Kazuya Tsutsui during an exhibition game against the Hanshin Tigers on Feb. 10

As a belated encore, he hit a triple off Tsutsui on Saturday that promptly sent the masses into further hysterics.

While the aforementioned term has become a popular way to describe players with “can’t-miss talent” expected to make a smooth transition from high school to the pros, the real monster may be thrusting such lofty expectations upon teenagers.

Many players, especially young players, wilt under such pressure and ultimately fail to live up to their potential. The sports world is littered with cautionary tales of would-be saviors who needed to be saved themselves in the end.

Although, to be fair, many of them do just fine.

Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka was a so-called kaibutsu coming out of Yokohama High School and Dice-K has more than lived up to the moniker as have many players before him.

Nakata bursts onto the scene after putting up jaw-dropping power numbers at the high-school level, including a record 87 home runs, while at Osaka Toin, and has a 105-kg frame that can bench press 125 kg.

Mouth-watering numbers for Nippon Ham fans who watched the Fighters struggle offensively in ’07 (although it’s worth mentioning that they struggled offensively all the way to the Pacific League title) and are hungry for a little firepower to support one of Japanese baseball’s better pitching staffs.

If that’s not enough, Nakata will try to live up to the expectations swirling around him while wearing number No. 6, the number that belonged to “Mr. Fighters” Yukio Tanaka, who played 23 seasons for Nippon Ham before retiring this past offseason.

While there will likely be intense pressure, that doesn’t mean that Nakata won’t pan out in the end. Matsuzaka and many others, such as Hideki Matsui and Kazuhiro Kiyohara, dealt with the pressure just fine.

Fair or not, there will be an intense amount of pressure on Nakata. Superstar pitcher Yu Darvish and television camera-magnet Hichori Morimoto will take some of the heat off him, but the media coverage promises to be immense.

At 18 years of age, Nakata will grow and experience his growing pains in the public eye. A lot to ask of anyone that age — let alone someone playing professional baseball.

How Nakata deals with that will go a long way in deciding if he is another tale of being given too much too soon or the phenom everybody thinks he is.