Friday, Feb. 18, 2011Posted: 8:00 PM
By Patrick Mooney
MESA, Ariz. Kosuke Fukudome is the still figure on the Sports Illustrated cover. With the bat raised high above his head, his chin touches his right shoulder and his eyes stare into the distance.
Japanese characters run across the page in big print, with an asterisk: Its Gonna Happen: Kosuke Fukudome Can End the Cubs 100-Year Wait.
This is the picture of calm before a helicopter swing. By the time the May 5, 2008 issue hit the newsstands, everyone had bought into the hype of an outfielder imported for 48 million.
But perceptions change and the Cubs and their fans are no longer imagining the possibilities. It happens everywhere. Five months earlier, the same magazine had put Brett Favre on the cover in a Green Bay Packers uniform, as its Sportsman of the Year.
The huge pack of international media wasnt following Fukudome on Friday when he reported to Fitch Park. There were just two Japanese reporters waiting in the clubhouse. These are lowered expectations for a player who will rotate with Alfonso Soriano, Marlon Byrd and Tyler Colvin in the outfield.
I dont think about the other guys, he said through an interpreter. I just need to take care of myself.
The Cubs didnt think they would be getting a platoon player and a situational leadoff hitter when they lavished that contract on Fukudome, who turns 34 in April. He hasnt yet produced more than 13 homers or 58 RBI in a season.
Fukudome is said to enjoy living in Chicago and having access to its strong Japanese community. Last fall, he bought a condo overlooking Lake Shore Drive. His four-year deal expires at the end of this season.
I would like to stay, he said, but you never know whats going to happen.
Fukudome has no-trade protection and a 13.5 million salary in 2011 that will make him difficult to move. He does not seem to be thinking about returning to Japan, saying that he will stay in the United States as long as he can play in the majors.
Cubs manager Mike Quade praises Fukudomes work ethic and the outfielder does do things to differentiate himself. Fukudome was an All-Star in 2008, has a .368 career on-base percentage and continues to be a plus defender.
Disappointment or not, I dont know, Quade said. I was thrilled with the way he finished. His first year, with the start he had, I think everybody had illusions of grandeur. Its not that easy over here. I just want to see him build on what he did last year.
Thats more difficult for a streaky hitter like Fukudome, who especially seems to need regular at-bats to get his timing down. Last years .263 average broke down like this month-to-month: .344; .253; .189; .162; .365; .210.
Lou Piniella struggled with dividing time between his outfielders last year and that issue isnt going away. Soriano has an even bigger contract than Fukudome. Byrd is coming off his own All-Star season. Colvin is being sold as one of the new faces of the franchise.
Performance will dictate a lot of that, Quade said. You think you know what you have with your three veterans and an emerging Colvin, but youre never sure. You have to stay flexible. And I think part of what I do is talking to guys and being honest with (them to give) them an idea of what Im thinking daily.
Fukudome appears to know a lot more than he lets on, and has a sneaky sense of humor. He saw a few American reporters hanging around his locker on Friday, next to his translator. Once he was finished getting dressed blue jeans and a black hooded sweatshirt he pretended to duck out the door without a word.
It was a quiet first day at work. They will all come back if he has a strong 2011.
Im definitely not satisfied with where I am, Fukudome said. But the bottom line is Im getting better little by little. I just need to put everything together.
PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.