tampabay.com

(New) home, sweet home

In Tampa Bay for just 21/2 weeks after a lifetime in Japan, new Ray Shinji Mori already has the basics of American culture under his belt.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published February 26, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - At the round table under the big-screen TV in the back of the Hooters restaurant near the Devil Rays training complex, any concerns about Shinji Mori's assimilation into the American culture seem far away.

Sure, he still needs the help of interpreter Yoshi Ono for anything beyond basic English conversations. Yes, there's a lot he has to do such as leasing an apartment, opening a bank account and getting a Florida driver's license. And inevitably there will be some deep philosophical things he'll just have to figure out on his own, such as the appeal of Dancing with the Stars.

But in the 21/2 weeks since arriving in the Tampa Bay area, Mori (more-EE) has shown signs of quickly adapting to the life and the lifestyle.

He likes the music, the shopping and the food, especially the variety and portion size.

But nothing says American male more than his initial choice of restaurants.

He has been out to eat a dozen times already, trying everything from hamburgers and steak to Italian and French foods. But which place has he liked best? He gazes past the remnants of his Hooters' chicken wing and crab leg lunch, slowly surveys the scene and the, um, scenery, and, in clear English, says, "Here."

For some players who come from Japan, the adjustment to the American way of life can be a more difficult transition than to the level of play in the major leagues.

But for Mori - who is 31, single and excited by the opportunity - it doesn't seem that will be the case.

"So far, it's been no problem," Mori said through Ono. "I just may have to try a little harder to learn the language."

A major difference is his personality.

In that Mori shows one.

Many Japanese players who came to the states before him have been stereotypically conservative, quiet and deferential.

But Mori is different. He was considered one of the more flamboyant players in Japan, and he doesn't figure to be any less colorful here.

"His character is a good fit for the American lifestyle," Daisuke Araki, pitching coach for Mori's former Seibu team, told Japan's Sankei Sports.

Mori was one of the few Japanese players to wear an earring. He drove a black Hummer H2. He used a red glove because he liked how it looked with his Seibu team's blue uniform.

But what truly made Mori stylish was his frequent change in hairstyle. Sometimes it was a matter of dying his black hair blond, brown or with a tinge of red. Other times, it was an extreme makeover - braids, dreadlocks, even a mohawk. "I did everything," he said.

Mori already is thinking of options for this season, including a long ponytail. "I'm looking forward to seeing his hairstyle on opening day," Araki said.

Tattoos were also somewhat taboo in Japan since they were occasionally linked to organized crime, but Mori said he'd be open to considering one now. He has other parts of the American pro athlete lifestyle down, shopping for designer jeans and T-shirts, listening to hip-hop style music from the Black Eyed Peas, watching the hit TV show 24 on Japanese-subtitled DVDs. Plus, he's an excellent golfer.

While Latin players often come to the states as teenagers and get to grow up learning the customs, Mori is in a more difficult position of having to do so as an adult competing at the major-league level.

"His mentality is very strong," Mets infielder Kaz Matsui, a former Seibu teammate, told Sankei. "That will help him adjust to MLB and the American life."

The Rays are doing what they can to help. Having bid $750,000 for Mori's rights and committed another $1.4-million over two years, with a two-year option, they will spend more than $60,000 to have a full-time cultural assimilation liaison, Yoshikatsu Ushijima, travel with the team to serve as Mori's interpreter and trainer. (Ono has been on temporary duty during spring training; Mori brought his own trainer, Kenichi Yokota, with him.)

"We are very committed to helping his assimilation to the American society," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "We feel that the less of that stuff he can worry about the more he can concentrate on his pitching. We're trying to put him in the best position to succeed at the major-league level."

Mori is confident it won't be a problem. He is picking up more English every day (often from TV) and is getting used to other changes, such as the shorter and less structured spring workout routine, the softer feel of the major-league ball, and the different training exercises.

Because Japan is somewhat Americanized, he said he feels more at home than one might expect. But he knows there is a lot to learn (such as who Bruce Springsteen is), and that's before he steps on the field.

Near the end of a 90-minute lunch, he told Ono he had a question.

"What," he wanted to know, "do people here think of Britney Spears?"

First impressions

Five things about American culture Shinji Mori already likes:

Music: Black Eyed Peas

TV show: 24

Food: Hamburgers

Restaurant: Hooters

Shopping: Jeans