The two talked this winter, and Sasaki, a former Japan League player and manager, was confident Fukudome could return to his old form. They met in February and began to work together. Some days, Fukudome would take 300 swings in the cage.
"The first year he had, I thought he could hit more than .300," Sasaki said. "But around May [last year], when he had problems with the [right] elbow, he started using different mechanics with his swing. That [problem] kept going throughout the season."
Fukudome had undergone surgery on his right elbow in August 2007, which limited him to 81 games that season. He never used it as an excuse, but the elbow may have been one of the reasons he struggled last season. Sasaki could see that Fukudome had altered his mechanics.
"I think this year, he's ready to swing," Sasaki said. "That's why people may think he's aggressive. Without [the elbow problems], he's ready to swing. Last year, because of it, he wasn't doing well."
Sasaki was in Chicago on the Cubs' just completed homestand, a 4-1 stretch against San Diego and Houston, to work again with Fukudome. Early Sunday, before many of the players had their first cup of coffee, the two were in the batting cage at Wrigley Field.
"I don't believe that Japanese players, we can go with just power," Sasaki said through Fukudome's interpreter, Hiro Aoyama. "We need to use something else and how we can do that is an important thing. That's the mechanics of the swing -- you use momentum."
Cubs manager Lou Piniella has complimented Fukudome on his approach this year, and has been using the Japanese outfielder in the No. 3 spot in the lineup. The Cubs want Fukudome to get on base and set up Derrek Lee, Milton Bradley and Geovany Soto. The extra hitting, plus a healthier Fukudome, seem to have helped. Fukudome batted .338 in April with four home runs and 15 RBIs. In his first month last season, he hit .327 with one home run and 10 RBIs.
This month, he's hitting .326; he hit .293 in May 2008. What's more encouraging is Fukudome's on-base percentage of .454, which leads the team and ranks third in the National League.
Sasaki felt Fukudome needed to change his mechanics. It wasn't a major adjustment, but a little thing that the coach said was important.
"Because of the elbow, he couldn't extend his arm fully," Sasaki said. "What he needed to do was sway a little bit so his upper body would come together. He was going open all the time. He didn't have the power translate from the legs into the back [and upper body]."
Because Fukudome was using more of his upper body, he lost some power. Sasaki used the example of a boxer. If a fighter only uses his upper body to punch someone, and the lower body isn't involved, obviously, there isn't much power in the punch.
On Sunday, Sasaki was behind the batting cage while the Cubs were hitting, explaining the same concept to Houston's Kaz Matsui. The soon-to-be 60-year-old coach, who is trim and in fighting shape himself, was punching in the air, then swinging a bat to show Matsui what he meant.
However, Sasaki, once a teammate of Phillies manager Charlie Manuel in Japan, is only working with Fukudome, not other Japanese players. Sasaki left Chicago with a stack of disks that show Fukudome's swing. He will get more DVDs from time to time so he can follow the outfielder's progress during the season, and will return in July for another session. Sasaki has some homework to do.
"Everybody in Japan asks," Sasaki said about Fukudome's first season in the U.S.
Fukudome was a career .305 hitter in nine seasons in Japan, winning MVP honors in 2006. Could he win a batting title with the Cubs?
"I believe he has a shot at that," Sasaki said, "but he probably needs to spend a little more time in Major League Baseball to understand the pitchers well. I think he's smart enough to do that. The accumulation of knowledge of Major League Baseball pitchers will give him a chance."