Without his familiar jet-black hair, Munenori Kawasaki looked more like a high schooler than a major leaguer as he sat between Seattle Mariners manager Eric Wedge and catcher Miguel Olivo.
With just a buzz cut adorning his shaved head, he would’ve fit right in with the hundreds of players currently darting across Koshien Staduim’s dirt infield at the National High School Invitational Tournament. He even answered a question in the fashion of a high-schooler at Koshien, beginning in a normal tone and ending with his voice nearly at a yell.
But any pretense of seriousness was soon broken up by Wedge slapping the table and Kawasaki spontaneously beginning to clap.
If there’s anyone having more fun right now than the Mariners’ new Japanese spark plug, you’d be hard pressed to find them.
“I’m enjoy(ing) myself now,” he said later, testing out his English while responding to a Japanese reporter’s question with something of an understatement.
“He’s been fantastic all spring,” Wedge said. “He had to compete to make this ballclub, and he did what he needed to do to be on this ballclub. He earned it, he earned every bit of it. He brings a lot of energy, he gives us a lot more than just his performance on the field. He’s a good teammate, and I appreciate the way he respects the game. Proud to have him as a Seattle Mariner.”
Japanese fans know all about Kawasaki’s motor.
Beloved in Fukuoka, Kawasaki was an eight-time All-Star and a regular on two Japan Series-winning teams (2003 and 2010) during his 10 seasons with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks.
For a decade, he bounded around Yahoo Dome like an unrestrained ball of energy during practice and treated Hawks fans to specialized dances before home games. His voice sliced easily through stadium noise as he went through infield drills and he ran with almost reckless abandon during games.
Kawasaki’s energy was on full display on Sunday as he played for Seattle. He was among the first to congratulate his teammates during the early stages of the game. When he got his chance to play late in the game, he doubled in his only at-bat and helped turn a double-play while playing second base.
If nothing else, if Kawasaki, who joined Seattle as a non-roster invitee, is officially still with the team on Opening Day, it seems as likely that the sheer force of his personality — not that hitting .387 during the spring hurts — will go down as a huge reason.
Kawasaki seems to relish his new environment and his new team seems to love having him around just as much as the Hawks did.
“Whenever I say something crazy in Japanese, they don’t even care,” Kawasaki said. “They’ve always welcomed me wholeheartedly. They’ve given me such a welcoming atmosphere. So the great manager, great staff and great teammates make me so proud to be a member of the Seattle Mariners.”
“He’s great,” said Yomiuri Giants pitcher D.J. Houlton, who played with Kawasaki in Fukuoka for the past four seasons. “I don’t know any of the Mariners players, but they’re going to love him. He’s always trying to speak English and Spanish and he’s kidding around. He’s just a fun guy.”
Houlton, for one, is pulling for “Munerin.”
“Just how fun he is in the clubhouse,” Houlton said of what he remembers most about his former teammate. “Even when I was out there on the mound, if I struck somebody out, I could hear him in the background just saying something in English. Something like ‘Oh, wonderful.’ Something funny like that. So he’s always having a good time, having fun. I just really like that. He’s just real relaxed and confident. I like it, it’s cool. I know the guys on Seattle are definitely going to like him.”