Saito- A Solitary Japanese Pitcher

VERO BEACH, Fla.- The first thing you notice about this year's Japanese player with the Dodgers, righthanded pitcher Takashi Saito, is that he's all alone. There's no entourage of media types from Japan hovering over him with cameras and tape recorders to chart his every move and utterance. Oh, there's a couple that could seem to qualify but they're in the middle of the clubhouse paying no attention to him. It turns out that they're from Korea here to cover Jae Seo and Hee Seop Choi.

It wasn't that way with Hideo Nomo who had more correspondents around him that a presidential candidate. When he jogged from field to field they plodded behind making a trail longer that Halley's Comet has. It was much the same with Kaz Ishii and, last year, with Nori Nakamura. Even Masao Kida had a few around. But this time there seems to be no interest in Saito as far as his homeland is concerned.

Maybe it's become that so many of his countrymen make the journey here to play ball that they're getting blase back there. Or maybe it's because he wasn't a star of the magnitude that the others were. Probably a combination of both.

But Saito was certainly a productive player there. He spent 14 years in the Japanese leagues, 10 as a starting pitcher, three in relief and with one year off after surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow.

Speaking through an interpreter for his English is quite limited, he says that he's one of many who ply this trade in that country who long to play here so the tide, he feels, will continue to roll our way. And, make no mistake, it's the challenge of going up against the very best that brought him to the Dodgers. He had no particular team in mind to sign with before he sent his agent out on the quest. He just wants to be in the major leagues.

He'd played more than long enough in Japan so that posting business that was necessary with Ishii and Nakamura wasn't the case here. L.A. was interested so the connection was made, albeit on a minor league contract with this invitation to spring training and no promises beyond that.

He has acceptable size- 6-1, 190- but he's carrying a lot of age for he turned 36 on Valentine's Day. That, of course, puts him among the geriatric set of rookies. It does mean, though, that he knows his way around on the mound if he's in shape to go and he avows that's the case. No lingering pain from that operation at all.

If you think he's a junk baller, think again. His two-seam fast ball gets up to 95 and he complements that with two variations of sliders plus a splitter. He knows how to get ground balls in crucial situations. In fact, there hasn't been many situations he hasn't conquered in his time over there.

Which is why he feels he has a chance here. And that's all he's asking for - an opportunity to show that he's a pitcher who can come in and get outs. Or start and do the same; he doesn't mind. Nor will he blanch if sent to Las Vegas to prove it for there's an abundance of arms here seeking the few openings.

"No," he asserts. "I'll just do my best - day by day. Big leagues, Las Vegas, it's no big deal. I just want the chance."

The Dodgers have done their best to make him happy, he feels and, if his life seems to be a solitary one for even the interpreter is a trainer with this chore only a small part of his duties for the club, he isn't fazed but gets his work in as he readies himself.

And maybe that lack of media glare is a good thing. Nakamura eventually admitted that he felt disgraced because so much was expected of him which he never delivered. Besides, the pitching coaches pay attention and that's what matters.

Because 36 or no, he plans to stick around awhile and believes he has the right stuff to do it.