Japanese Third Baseman in Better Health

VERO BEACH, Florida- There are considerable differences as Norihiro Nakamura makes his encore spring appearance with the Dodgers -- in looks, contract status and, he avows, in his condition.

Last spring, Nakamura, one of Japan's all-time home run leaders, made a cameo appearance as part of the working agreement Los Angeles has with his home team, the Kintetsu Buffalos, clean-shaven but with his hair dyed blonde. However, suffering from an aching right knee which had bothered him for the past two seasons, his showing was unimpressive.

Now, he's back, his hair restored to its natural dark color but sporting a beard. This time, he's a full member of the Dodger organization, having sacrificed millions to sign a minor league contract. What's more, he says the knee is fine, he's healthy and ready to bid for a spot on the team.

Speaking through an interpreter, Acey Kohrogi, the Dodgers ' director of Asian Operations, Nakamura admitted, "I was only 50 percent when I was here last time." That knee had made him change some things in the way he approached hitting. "Not big things, just little -- the way I had to stand and the way I swung the bat. Now, I am 100 percent and have been working hard."

At his peak, Nakamura was ranked with Hideki Matsui and Ichiro as premier batsmen in the Japanese Leagues. He ripped 39 homers in 2000, 46 in 2001 and 42 in 2002. Then came the knee injury that caused an alarming fall-off in his production to 23 in 2003 and just 19 out of the park this past year.

Now, in an almost whirlwind deal, he's turned his back on a contract that would have paid him around eight million dollars to stay at home to sign with L. A. for a mere $500, 000 and no guarantee that he'll even make the team. In heaven's name, why?

"Japanese baseball is fine but I want to play in the U.S. where the game started." So, he asked to be posted, a process by which major league teams are allowed to bid for the rights to his services. It's the second time he has done this for in 2002, the Mets won such rights with the two sides agreeing on terms, only to have Nakamura then back out and sign once more with Kintetsu, which plays out of his hometown of Osaka.

New York may have turned him off but not Los Angeles, which he avows is the only team he had in mind when he made the decision to cross the Pacific once more. The Dodgers won the bidding rights for an undisclosed sum and, "I only want to play for them." If another team had secured his services -- "I would stay in Japan. "

The contract certainly backs up his claim. There is no escape clause allowing him to return to Japan for the coming season if he doesn't make the club and he asserts his willingness to go to Las Vegas to work his way up, if that's what it takes.

Part of the firm relationship is the strong interest Japanese have had in the Dodgers since they pioneered the current exodus across the ocean by signing Hideo Nomo. Part is because of the strong Asian culture in L.A. and part may be explained by the relationship he has with Tommy Lasorda, who has acted as an advisor to Kintetsu .

"I owe thanks to him for all the help he has given me. I'm not sure how much he worked behind the scenes to get me but he is a man I admire very much."

As for making the team, Nakamura is a third baseman, a spot that the Dodgers have signed Jose Valentiun to play but they're intigued by the thought that he could provide a right-handed bat there or even at first, a position he has played (but not since 1999.) Nakamura himself says, "I'll play anywhere they want me. I just want to make the team."

He's 31 now, turning 32 in July ,5-10, 205. He pronounces himself, "very happy to be here." Culture shock?, "None," he answers with a laugh. "The Dodgers have made sure of that. Perhaps if I were with another team, there would be."

He then bows and speaking in clear English, says to the reporter, "Thank you very much." A player thanking a reporter for an interview? Clearly, all U.S. customs have not reached the other side of the Pacific. And if Nakamura can bring back some of the thunder he used to display on a regular basis back home, it will be a transplant of even more pleasant note.