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Yu Darvish under the magnifying glass

by Mark Schreiber

Barring a major natural catastrophe, war or government upheaval, the vernacular news headlines for the next several months are almost certain to be dominated by baseball. Specifically, former Nippon Ham Fighters hurler, Yu Darvish, who on April 8 is scheduled take the mound in his first start for the Texas Rangers of the American League.

In his last season in Japan, the 25-year-old Darvish won 18 games and had a remarkably low earned-run average of 1.44, so he begins his U.S. career with high, perhaps unreasonably high, expectations — $107.7 million worth.

Not only is Darvish expected to excel on the playing field: Win or lose, a large contingent of Japanese reporters will be poised to pounce on anything that smacks of a departure from upstanding decorum. His manager, coaches and teammates will be pumped for their observations about his performance and insights into him as a person. His behavior when out of uniform will be tracked almost as closely as his activities on the baseball diamond.

One comment has already landed him in hot water. When an opposing player connected solidly with his pitch for a double during his first exhibition game of spring training, Darvish afterward appeared to belittle the hit, telling reporters that “it didn’t seem like the ball was hit that squarely,” and setting off a storm of criticism.

“I don’t think he’s being contentious, he just expressed his feelings frankly,” Ranger manager Ron Washington is quoted as saying in Nikkan Gendai (Mar. 13), adding that it looked to him like the media was bent on “picking a quarrel.”

Sticking up for his new player, Washington added, “Yu’s approach to baseball is that of a real professional. That’s why he came to America to play, and as far as I’m concerned, there’s no need for him to change.”

At least Darvish can expect to enjoy a honeymoon with the media in his new hometown.

“The local newspapers in Texas are different from the ones in New York or Boston, and seldom bash players,” an unnamed sports journalist tells Shukan Asahi (Mar. 23). “I think he’s joined a good team.”

The top performer among Japanese starting pitchers in their first season in MLB (Major League Baseball) was Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka, with 15 wins, followed by Kazuhisa Ishii and Hideo Nomo, both with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who won 14 and 13 games, respectively.

Darvish may very well surpass them all, sports critic Yoshikazu Fukushima tells Shukan Asahi. “He’ll throw a splitter that he had not used in Japan, making opposing batters hit grounders. Since the Rangers have a powerful lineup, he may become the first Japanese to win 20 games.”

Veteran baseball writer Robert Whiting, author of “The Chrysanthemum and the Bat: Baseball Samurai Style” (1977) and other works, ventured to put the media coverage in perspective.

“It is important to keep in mind the damage the reputation of Japanese baseball has suffered,” Whiting explained to The Japan Times. “There have been too many high-priced Japanese failures in Major League Baseball in recent years (he names Kosuke Fukudome and Kenshin Kawakami among others) and the most successful players to date, Ichiro (Suzuki) and Hideki Matsui, are showing their age. It has gotten a little embarrassing.

“The Japanese sports fan needs a dose of good news to bolster his self-respect and restore some bragging rights.”

Darvish was once caught smoking while still a minor, and because of the rule violation Whiting recalls that Japan’s sportswriters assumed he wasn’t serious about baseball.

“But when Darvish turned pro, he really dedicated himself to his training and grew physically at the same time,” Whiting points out. “Trey Hillman, who managed Darvish at Nippon Ham, had a very high opinion of Darvish’s work ethic and found him to be a ‘really good kid.’ So summing up, you’ve got a world-class athlete who is a perfectionist and who Hillman thinks could become the best pitcher in the world.”

Whiting conceded that while perhaps Texas may not be quite as internationally minded as Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York, Darvish will be “coming into a good environment.”

“Everybody says he is star material,” he remarked. “It just depends on how he makes the adjustment. He’s got to adjust to 30 new teams, 30 new ballparks, new umpires, a new strike zone, a harder mound, a larger ball — which is more slippery — as well as the different food and the language barrier. The travel is harder and he will have to start once every five days as opposed to once a week as he did in Japan.”

On the other hand, notes Whiting, Darvish will benefit from the the Rangers’ top-class infield defense and the most powerful batting lineup in all of MLB after the New York Yankees.

Whiting’s prediction for Darvish’s rookie season is “double digits in wins for sure, but with a higher earned-run average than he had in Japan.”

For Japanese fans intent on seeing Darvish play, Dime (March 6) has already begun looking for bargain round-trip fares between Narita and Dallas-Ft. Worth, which can be obtained from low-cost carriers for as low as ¥98,700.