From Japan To The Turks

06/21/2008 – Daily News Record

Well, With Stops In Texas And Florida, Along The Way Written By Marcus Helton Daily News Record HARRISONBURG – "Where are you from?" It’s a straightforward question, and one that Harrisonburg Turks shortstop Mark Brooks – a man with a plain-sounding name but an exotic look – gets asked fairly regularly. For the most part, though, people go to other sources first. "Oh yeah, I hear it all the time," said Turks pitcher Eric Thomas, who also is Brooks’ teammate at Bethune-Cookman University. "People ask me what’s his nationality or whatever, what’s his race, and I tell them, ‘Japanese and black; he was born in Japan.”’ The 22-year-old Brooks was born in Yokusaka, where his black father Frederick – then in the Navy – met his Japanese mother, Hiroko. The family moved to San Antonio when he was 5, and less than a year later relocated to Pensacola, Fla., where Brooks went to high school. Depending on what roster you look at, Brooks’ hometown varies. On Bethune-Cookman’s Web site and the Turks’ printed game roster, it’s listed as Yokusaka, while the Turks’ home page says Pensacola. Brooks, a senior next season, said he does have some memories of living in Japan and hopes to return for the first time when he graduates. He said he put Yokusaka as his hometown on his college bio at the behest of Bethune-Cookman coach Mervyl Melendez, whose own bio promotes the program’s diversity. Bethune-Cookman is a historically black university in Daytona Beach, Fla. The baseball team’s roster also includes 14 Puerto Ricans. "It’s not too much of an issue playing up at Bethune-Cookman," Brooks said of his background, "but the coach, he actually wanted me to put ‘hometown: Japan’ so that whenever we played on TV, that’s what it would show. I guess to show their recruitment style, or whatever." While Brooks’ cross-cultural heritage is evident on his college bio – which lists his favorite players as Ichiro Suzuki and Mickey Mantle, and his favorite foods as sushi and pizza – he downplayed its impact on his game. On his stomach? That’s another story. "My mother, she still cooks Japanese food," he said. "I guess that’s the biggest influence. I love – absolutely love – Japanese food. When I come home from school, I try to get my mom to cook for me as much as possible." Brooks said he stumbled upon Bethune-Cookman almost by accident following a stint at Alabama Southern Community College. He was watching an ESPN segment in which Melendez -the Wildcats’ coach since 1999 – talked about the declining number of African-American players in major league and college baseball. "At the time I was hurt – I had fractured my foot — and I was kind of worried about where I wanted to go play at a four-year university," Brooks said. "I saw him on ESPN, and for some reason I just kind of had this hunch that I should do some research on that school and maybe contact him on what I could do to play at that school." A quick glance at Bethune-Cookman’s roster, Brooks said, revealed that every one of its middle infielders was graduating. "I called them immediately, and they set up a tryout," he said, "and on that day they offered me a full ride." The 5-foot-10, 175-pound Brooks played second base this spring for the Wildcats, hitting .293 with five triples and 19 steals while starting all 55 games he played in. Thomas, the Turks’ pitcher, was the catalyst behind Brooks coming to Harrisonburg, recommending him when team owner/manager Bob Wease asked about a shortstop. Brooks got to town June 12, and a third Wildcat – pitcher Chris Chapman – is scheduled to arrive on Monday. Heading into Friday’s game at Haymarket, Brooks had started three of the four games he’d played in, hitting .222 (2-for-9) with one RBI and three runs scored while drawing five walks. In addition, he was 2-for-3 in stolen base attempts, and sported a .875 fielding percentage while working at short and second base. "I like him," Wease said. "I think he’s a very, very talented person – a very talented ballplayer. He can run, switch-hit, and he’s a heck of a fielder and got a nice arm. He’s got nice movement, good feet and good hands." Brooks said that besides playing everyday, the biggest adjustment he has had to make is using a wooden bat, a common refrain among Valley Leaguers who have grown up using aluminum. "Whenever you hit it on the sweet spot, I really can’t tell that there’s much of a difference," he said. "But whenever you hit it off the end of the bat, or you get jammed, it’s almost like you’re hitting with paper. The ball really just does not go anywhere, as opposed to aluminum bats if you get jammed you can still maybe get it out to the outfield. You definitely can’t do that with a wooden bat." When he’s not working on his two online summer classes – Race and Ethnicity and Intro to Bible Studies – Brooks said he’s either watching the College World Series on TV or hanging out with his fellow Turks. "It’s been awesome," Brooks said of his Valley experience. "Coach Bob has been just very generous, and [the Turks have] made it feel like home. My teammates are very interesting and all very friendly and easy to get along with. The town’s very nice; I’m kind of used to it living in Florida – a lot of cows and stuff like that, so it’s kind of comforting to see that."