So Koji Uehara is going to sink his forkball in the major leagues and his fork into a plate of crab cakes from Chesapeake Bay, having agreed, according to all reports, to a two-year contract with the Baltimore Orioles.
Good for him, and the Orioles executive who scouted the now-former Yomiuri Giants ace right-hander says his team is excited about the prospect of acquiring a Japanese player.
Baltimore’s international scouting director, John Stockstill, traveled to Japan three times in 2008, spending a total of about 50 days in the country, and another scout came for 10 days with the idea of plugging their team into the Japanese market, watching not only Uehara but also other Japanese players who may become free agents or candidates for posting in the near or distant future.
They liked what they saw of Uehara’s pitching, and Stockstill, speaking by phone from Perth, Australia, where he is covering an amateur baseball tournament, has no doubt about Uehara’s ability to succeed in the major leagues.
Stockstill said what impressed him the most about the 33-year-old, 10-year veteran hurler is his control.
“He has a great command of the strike zone, and he said early he wanted to go to America and pitch. We liked that and got some video of him which several of our scouts watched, and all agreed,” Stockstill said.
Uehara would be the first Japanese to play for Baltimore, and perhaps the Orioles were inspired to look to East Asia after the success of American League East Division rivals in acquiring Japanese players who helped them win pennants in recent years.
Hideki Matsui with the New York Yankees, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima with the Boston Red Sox and Akinori Iwamura with the Tampa Bay Rays all contributed to their respective teams’ league championships.
“That may be true to some extent but did not have a lot to do with it,” said Stockstill about Baltimore’s quest to be competitive with its AL East counterparts.
“We have to build up our pitching staff, and we knew Japan has a lot of good pitchers who can help us. That was our main focus in looking to Asia.”
What about Uehara’s mediocre performance in 2008 and early season inconsistencies that limited the one-time 20-game winner to a 6-5 record while posting a 3.81 ERA in 26 games?
“We took that into consideration, but it is not a concern,” Stockstill said.
He knows what Uehara has done in the past and thinks he can do it again in the future, assuming the guy can get comfortable with the major league strike zone and the feel of the big league baseball. But that is not expected to be a problem.
“Even an American pitcher coming up from Triple-A has to make the adjustment to the strike zone,” Stockstill pointed out.
He also said the Orioles would do everything necessary to prepare for welcoming a Japanese player and ensure a smooth transition from the yakyu of Nippon to Major League Baseball, including the hiring of an interpreter, supplying a trainer and tweaking the team’s infrastructure.
All the formalities of Uehara joining the Orioles, including a physical examination, news conference and actual contract signing are expected to be completed by the end of this month. Then it will be on to spring training in February at Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and you can expect sufficient Japanese media coverage of all the above.
The Nikkan Sports ran a busy front page on its edition of Jan. 8, the day after the story broke with the news of Uehara’s imminent signing with Baltimore. And I
do mean busy.
In addition to the usual gaudy colored kanji and katakana characters for “Uehara” and “Orioles” and a photo of the pitcher in a workout jacket, there was a picture of what he would look like in an Orioles uniform, an easy doctoring task for the paper’s photo editor, since the Giants and Orioles have the same team colors — orange and black.
The page also contained sub-headlines with reported terms of a two-year contract worth up to ¥14.4 oku (about $16 million) including incentive bonuses and the prediction Uehara would make his regular-season debut against none other than the New York Yankees on April 8 or 9. That’s not all, by a long shot.
There was a graphic displaying Uehara’s year-by-year career record in Japan with Yomiuri, the final standings in the 2008 American League East (showing the Orioles in fifth and last place, 28 1/2 games behind the division champion Rays), a photo of Oriole Park at Camden Yards and a map of the U.S. East Coast showing Japanese readers and fans where Baltimore is located with respect to Boston, New York and Tampa.
Other sidebars — still on Page 1 here — listed projected batting lineups for the Yankees and Orioles in the opening series and the dates throughout the season when Baltimore would play New York, Tampa, the Red Sox and Seattle Mariners, opposing AL clubs with high-profile Japanese players.
There more — a history of the Orioles mentioning the years they won the World Series with great players such as Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell and Cal Ripken Jr. and a brief description of the city of Baltimore, including references to it being the birthplace of Babe Ruth, the football Ravens in the NFL playoffs and the crab cakes which the paper describes as “crab hamburgers.”
The thoroughness of Japanese sports papers cannot be denied.
Assuming all goes well and Uehara does indeed pitch his first MLB game for the Orioles against the Yankees and his former Yomiuri teammate Matsui, I’ll bet you a plate of those Maryland crab cakes — or a New York pizza — NHK will telecast that sucker live and direct from Camden Yards.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com