- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 7, 2002

The PGA Tour event over the weekend was won by a South Korean, K.J. Choi. The first pick in the NBA Draft this year could well be a 7-foot-5 Chinese player, Yao Ming. The latest pitching sensation in the National League, meanwhile, is a left-hander from Japan, Kazuhisa Ishii.
Anybody detect a trend?
Yes, sports fans, the Asian Invasion has begun. Ichiro Suzuki bashing his way to a batting title and an MVP Award last year was just the tip of the tsunami, so to speak. Asian athletes are fanning out to make names for themselves in a bunch of games, from golf to hoops to hardball to who knows what. If Ishii can throw aspirin tablets in the major leagues, is there any reason why, at some point in the future, another strong-armed Japanese can't throw touchdown passes in the NFL?
Perhaps you've seen Wang Zhi Zhi, the Big Bopper from Beijing, drain a 3 for the Dallas Mavericks. Or Suzuki, formerly of the Orix Blue Wave, leg out a triple for the Seattle Mariners. The sports pages these days are packed with accounts of Asian derring-do. Especially in baseball. Three of the top closers, you may have noticed, are South Korea's Byung-Hyun Kim, Japan's Hideki Irabu and Seattle's Kazuhiro Sasaki. A third Japanese pitcher, Hideo Nomo, has a fine 2.56 ERA with the Dodgers, and a fourth, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, is 3-0 as a reliever with Seattle.
It all began on Feb.23, 1964, if you want to get historical about it. That was the day the San Francisco Giants signed pitcher Masanori Murakami, third baseman Tatsuhico Tanaka and catcher Hiroshi Takahashi, the first Japanese to play baseball for American teams. Only Murakami made it to the majors and homesickness limited his stay to just two seasons but the spigot had been opened.
At first, though, only a trickle of Asian talent reached these shores, mostly golfers. Japan's Isao Aoki won the '83 Hawaiian Open with a miraculous hole-out from the fairway on 18 a shot that's frequently replayed on highlight shows today. The year before, he finished second to Jack Nicklaus in the U.S. Open at Baltusrol (after being paired with the Golden Bear all four days). Aoki was A-OK.
Then there was T.C. Chen of Taiwan. Remember him? He nearly captured the '84 Kemper, losing in a five-way playoff to Fred Couples at Congressional. A year later, he led the Open for three days before an infamous double hit in the final round doomed him.
It was Aoki that K.J. Choi brought up while talking about his golf aspirations at the beginning of last season. "My dream," he told a Korean newspaper in Los Angeles, "is to be the second Asian to win on the PGA Tour." Alas, Japan's Shigeki Maruyama beat him to it, winning the 2001 Greater Milwaukee Open. But on Sunday, Choi became the third, nervelessly shooting a 67 to breeze to victory in the Compaq Classic of New Orleans. It was his third straight top-10 finish, coming on the heels of an eighth at Atlanta and a seventh at Greensboro.
And have you noticed what's been going on in women's golf? South Koreans Se Ri Pak, Mi Hyun Kim and Hee-Won Han have been tearing up the tour. Pak recently won the Office Depot Championship (with Kim taking 12th), Han was runner-up in the next event, the Longs Drugs Challenge (with Kim fifth and Pak eighth), and in the tournament after that, last weekend's Chick fil-A Charity Championship, the three Seoul sisters once again placed in the top 10. (Pak was fourth, Han sixth and Kim ninth.)
Oh, and did I mention Japan's Akiko Fukushima, South Korea's Jeong Jang and Taiwan's Yu Ping Lin? They're all in the top 50 on the money list, too.
The only problem, if you can call it that, is that Americans like to get to know their sports heroes and, with Asian athletes, the language barrier makes that difficult. I'm reminded of a classic moment in early television, Mets announcer Ralph Kiner's attempt to interview Murakami on "Kiner's Korner" after a game in the mid-'60s. Just a lot of smiling and nodding, as I recall, even with an interpreter in attendance.
These athletes, you see, rarely "say" anything. Almost all their public utterances are filtered through an interpreter. So when Choi remarks, "I don't want to be like a falling star after being born, rather like an old oak tree; I want to be around for some time," you're left to wonder: Did he come up with that, or was it the guy sitting next to him in the dark blue suit?
Oh, well, at least we can marvel at their exploits. Could Ishii be the major leagues' first 25-game winner since Bob Welch in '90? Will Yao redefine the center position with his deft shooting touch? Has there ever been a leadoff hitter quite like Ichiro?
Rest assured more Asians are on the way. As Choi put it after his conquest in the Compaq: "I believe my victory will motivate the next generation of [South Korean] golfers and challenge them to come to the United States and try out for the PGA Tour."
Or was it his interpreter who said that?



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