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Friday, July 23, 2010

One member of the Japanese team playing at this week's Freeport International Baseball Invitational stands as proof that it is, indeed, a small world.

Twenty-year-old outfielder Wataru Smiley was born on the Japanese island of Okinawa but has Pennsylvania blood coursing through his veins as the son of Kimberton-native Wallace Smiley -- and the local connections don't end there.

If the surname Smiley sounds familiar to baseball fans, that's because Wataru's second cousin is none other than former Pirates starter and two-time All-Star John Smiley.

Drafted by the Pirates in 1983, John spent the first six seasons of his 12-year major league career in Pittsburgh and was the team's ace in 1991, when he led the National League in wins (20) and finished third in voting for the Cy Young Award.

Though he was still in diapers in '91 and has never met his famous cousin, Wataru is fully aware of the major league legacy in his family.

"I always looked up to him," Wataru said before his International Christian University team from Tokyo took on the Jeff Potter Tour team Thursday afternoon in Freeport. "I had a family member who threw heat (in the majors) and was really famous. I was proud of it, but I could never really follow it because I was too young."

Not to mention, he grew up an ocean away from that side of his family.

Wataru's father moved to Okinawa 25 years ago for work reasons, joining a large American presence -- chiefly filled with military personnel -- on the island. Shortly thereafter, Wallace met his future wife and Wataru's mother, Taeko.

A child of two cultures, with the dual citizenship to prove it, Wataru has a mutual respect the varying aspects of his heritage. However, he has a soft spot for his American roots.

"I didn't feel like a foreigner in Okinawa, but in Tokyo, I guess I look like a foreigner," Wataru said. "So even though I was born and raised (in Japan), I feel like a foreigner in Tokyo. But when I come here, I really don't feel that way, so it feels pretty nice."

This isn't Wataru's first trip to the U.S. -- he makes the trip to see family every two years or so -- but it is his first time playing in the Invitational and his first visit to the Pittsburgh area. His arrival stateside has triggered an exodus of Smileys from the eastern side the state.

"He only let us know (he was coming) like a month ago, so we had nothing planned," Wataru's aunt, Martha, said. "I was afraid that nobody was coming to see him, so I wanted to be here the whole week. The rest of the family is coming (today)."

Wataru believes the trek across the state will be as worthwhile for his family as his journey across the world has been for him.

"It's definitely a high level," Wataru said of the competition at the Invitational, just before evoking images of his hard-throwing cousin.

"It feels like I'm playing against major leaguers or something. Everybody's throwing heat over here."

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