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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Embarking on rare mission, phenom wallops moonshots



Rintaro Sasaki (gostanford.com)

By Andrew Baggarly / The Athletic


Rintaro Sasaki is not the typical Stanford University baseball recruit. At home in Japan, he is a national celebrity. Last year, he was the top-rated high school player in a country where high school baseball is an obsession.


A left-handed slugger, he was projected to be the most coveted player in October’s Nippon Professional Baseball draft. He mashed 140 home runs, a national record, with twice as many walks as strikeouts, for Hanamaki Higashi High School in Iwate prefecture, the school that produced Shohei Ohtani and Yusei Kikuchi. Sasaki’s father, Hiroshi, coached all of them and is a respected figure in his own right.


When Rintaro Sasaki graduated in March, television stations sent more than 30 camera crews to cover the event. It would be a last glimpse. Sasaki subsequently announced that he would play college baseball in the United States, an uncommon career path that could fast-track him to Major League Baseball as a draft-eligible sophomore in 2026.


In February, Sasaki stunned Stanford coach David Esquer and the program’s recruiting coordinator, Thomas Eager, when he requested a video call with them, asked a few logistical questions, then told them that he was selecting the Cardinal over University of California, Berkeley; UCLA; and Vanderbilt University.


Sasaki arrived on campus in April, moved into a dorm room and enrolled in three classes. He can participate in all team activities except playing in games. He has gone on road trips to Utah and Oregon State. He has surprised everyone with how much English he understands, and he has left them slack-jawed with his batting practice shots over the light standards. When he turned 19 in mid-April, his teammates took him out to a dinner that included ice cream, candles and tables of strangers joining in to sing “Happy Birthday.”


He is absolutely loving all of it.


“I made the right choice,” Sasaki said through Tomoo Yamada, an interpreter and team trainer. “People are nice to me. Everyone is my friend. I haven’t missed Japan yet. I feel completely settled. I can’t believe it’s been only four weeks. I’m enjoying life.”


Sasaki, broad and powerful, is 6 feet and 250 pounds, and his full-tilt swing puts every ounce behind the baseball.


“He looks like Barry Bonds,” infielder Jimmy Nati said. “That’s how good he’s going to be. When he runs into balls, he hits them over the light tower. It’s crazy.”


If Sasaki had been drafted by a Japanese team, he would have been under club control for nine years. Although Japanese teams often gain a windfall in posting fees by making their players available to MLB before their nine years are up, there are no guarantees. Sasaki might have been pushing 30 by the time he had an opportunity to play in the United States.


He made it clear: His goal is to play in the major leagues.


“Ohtani and Kikuchi are already overseas,” Sasaki said. “I always thought one day, hopefully, I can get there. They were big influences for me. Ohtani said: ‘Follow your instinct. That is what you decided. That is a path you need to keep walking.’”


Sasaki’s path — to become MLB draft-eligible by attending an American university — has almost no precedent. Rikuu Nishida, an infielder from Sendai, Japan, was an 11th-round pick of the Chicago White Sox last year after a standout season at Oregon. But Nishida, who played two seasons at an American junior college, was not a pro prospect in Japan.


Although there are no written rules that would prohibit an MLB team from signing a Japanese high school player out of its international signing pool, there has been an understanding among teams against the practice. (Until 2020, when it rescinded its rule, Japanese baseball enforced a ban of two to three years on Japanese players who opted out of the draft and signed with a foreign league.)


Ohtani came close to setting a groundbreaking precedent as a high school phenom in 2012, when he advised Japanese teams against drafting him, saying he intended to sign with an MLB franchise. The Nippon-Ham Fighters took him anyway, then persuaded him to sign by promising to let him develop as a two-way player.


Japanese teams had no such hope of signing Sasaki, who ensured that he would be taken off the draft board by attending an American university. Now, he will have two seasons to improve before turning pro.


The chance to develop in less of a fishbowl environment was appealing to Sasaki and his father.


“In Japan, people tend to focus more on shortcomings, but in the U.S., they develop individuality,” Hiroshi Sasaki told CNN in March. “I think this is a very good choice for him.”


It involves financial risk and delayed gratification. As a first-round pick in Japanese baseball, Sasaki would probably have received a signing bonus and incentives worth more than $1 million, plus personal services contracts that could have earned him hundreds of thousands more. At Stanford, of course, he is merely a scholarship athlete. He also cannot participate in name, image and likeness opportunities because he is an international player on a student visa.


He will earn a multimillion bonus if he is a first-round pick in 2026, but that is far from assured. Because he is limited to first base and his defensive skills are unpolished, his bat must be compelling. And although he faced top high school competition in Japan, he mostly hit against pitchers who threw in the upper 80s.


He is betting on himself and on Stanford to help him develop his gifts.


“I had the confidence to come to the States,” Sasaki said. “Right now, I want to settle in here, take classes and do well. Take one step at a time. And two years from today, we’ll see where I am at. Getting to the major leagues is not everything for my life. Of course I want to get drafted and get to the major leagues. But I want to keep studying and also be a good person.”


Sasaki’s goal is to be a hitter like Bonds, he said. For now, he just wants to be a good teammate and fit in. He is taking a language skills class with other international students, but his other two courses are in English. He understands more than he can speak.


Sasaki declined Esquer’s offer of a full-time interpreter, saying he would chip away at the language barrier faster with the help of his teammates.


“It fired us up to hear that,” catcher Luke Lavin said. “Because it seems he’s really bought into the team’s culture and being around us. He’s a normal teammate here. You can’t tell from talking to him that he’s superfamous. He has not brought it up once, how many people know his name.”


Still, Sasaki is soon likely to draw crowds. Word is beginning to trickle out that he is on campus. For now, his competition is limited to the team’s spirited intrasquad games, in which a couple of his teammates already feel comfortable enough to engage in some sarcastic banter. They have learned Sasaki is comfortable enough to dish it back.


“We were at Oregon State and I’m watching him flick home runs the other way,” Lavin said. “So I said to him, ‘Ah, it’s just the wind.’ Then the wind died down and he started hitting pull-side homers over the stands.


“And he looked at me and said, ‘It’s not the wind.’”

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