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Saito poised to provide boost on, off field for Fighters

by Jason Coskrey

Has there ever been a meaningless pitch that could end up being so meaningful?

Thousands of fans filed into Sapporo Dome on Thursday as the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters unveiled their top draft pick Yuki Saito.

They hung on his every word at an introductory press conference and squealed with delight as Saito, dressed in a still unfamiliar Fighters uniform, took the mound and threw a pitch to manager Masataka Nashida, who crouched behind the plate.

In the grand scheme of things the event meant very little. In Hokkaido, however, it was a promise of things to come.

Because while there is no denying Saito’s considerable talents as a pitcher, drafting him was a great business decision as well.

There were more talented pitchers in the 2010 draft, namely Saito’s Waseda University teammate Tatsuya Oishi and Chuo University’s Hirokazu Sawamura, who went to the Seibu Lions and Yomiuri Giants respectively, but none came with Saito’s value off the field.

Saito hasn’t thrown a single pitch in a professional game, yet his unveiling was televised around the nation. In Sapporo alone, television coverage drew a 13.4 rating on Sapporo TV. Reports say over 7,000 fans attended his press conference and he was front and center in many sports dailies.

The region is hoping to reap the benefits of Saito’s arrival, seeing yen signs from the potential sale of merchandise, tickets, lodging, etc. as curious fans flock to Hokkaido.

Sankei Sports, in a recent article, reported he could have an impact of over ¥5 billion a year in Hokkaido.

There is also talk of the economic effect on the Fighters’ spring training home in southern Japan and opposing teams may get a boost at the gates when Saito pitches on the road.

The rookie pitcher is already among the most popular players in Japanese baseball, a status fueled by his performance at the National High School Baseball Championship.

For better or worse, Saito will never outrun his legacy as one of the most celebrated amateur players in history. Even if he goes on to a Hall of Fame career, in Japan, his career biography will early on harken back to the summer of 2006.

It was then, in the middle of Koshien Stadium’s revered dirt infield and the enduring heat of an Osakan summer, that Saito became a media darling, the “Handkerchief Prince.”

He earned the moniker because of his habit of combating beads of sweat on his forehead with a blue handkerchief while leading Waseda Jitsugyo High School to the title.

His popularity carried over to Waseda University, where he was the face of amateur baseball, on the strength of both his high school exploits and a stellar collegiate career on the mound.

His unveiling in Sapporo shows that popularity has not waned. He looked a little strange in Fighters garb after so many summers spent in Waseda’s nostalgic all-white uniforms, but to thousands of fans, he’s still the prince.

Saito has succeeded at every level and has the talent to do well professionally. Nashida and the Fighters will hope to ride that talent all the way to many successful years. Which will help them ride his rock star popularity all the way to the bank.