An enterprising bookie could probably make a killing taking wagers on what will be bigger this year: the number of reporters covering Yu Darvish or the number assigned to his former team, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
During his years in Japan, Darvish was seen on billboards, nude in magazines, and his life was popular fodder for tabloids. He was a veritable rock star and the more guarded he became, the more insatiable the appetite for tidbits about his life grew.
When Darvish signed with the Texas Rangers, the fervor swelled to new heights, this time with a new partner in crime in the form of the U.S. media, evidenced by the mini-firestorm kicked up simply by the logo on the shirt Darvish wore when he landed at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in February.
The Fighters, meanwhile, are moving on in the relative anonymity of Hokkaido. There is no avalanche of media requests nor a line of television trucks lining the streets outside Sapporo Dome. Just a team eager to prove it’s more than a one-man show.
“I think we’ve relied on Darvish too much,” said Fighters left-hander Masaru Takeda. “So it’s a big year for all of our pitchers. I think we have a strong desire to establish a new Fighters era. Hopefully we can showcase that on the field this year.”
Darvish was easily the Fighters’ best pitcher for the past few seasons. Darvish’s numbers are well-documented, but his contributions went far beyond the measurable aspects of the game.
“The biggest impact was the feeling that when he was pitching, you were going to win,” said outfielder Terrmel Sledge. “That if you’re on a losing streak, when he comes out there he’s going to break it up.”
It’s a void any team would struggle to fill.
“You can honestly say you lose an ace,” said Seibu Lions reliever Micheal Nakamura, who spent four seasons with the Fighters. “You’re losing a guaranteed 12-plus game winner. It’s a big blow.”
In the past, Takeda was the go-to guy whenever Darvish was missing, such as in Game 1 of the 2009 Japan Series. Now the role is his for the immediate future.
“I know that I’m asked to both lead the pitching staff and win for the team,” Takeda said. “So I think it’s important to maintain my motivation and play through the year. We’ve been playing preseason games, though, for me, every single day is a learning process.”
Takeda is 57-41 with a 2.68 ERA in six professional seasons, all with Nippon Ham. The Nagoya native is coming off consecutive campaigns with double-digit wins — recording an ERA of 2.46, or lower, both times.
He’s the team’s best pitcher, but Opening Day starter Yuki Saito is the Fighters’ most popular player. The problem is Saito’s game (6-6, 2.69 ERA in 2011) didn’t live up to his fame in his rookie year. While the team hopes Saito takes a step forward, the rotation will also depend on Bryan Wolfe and Bobby Keppel putting up good numbers.
“I think it evens it out,” Nakamura said. “Obviously Masaru Takeda is a good performer, and the foreign guys are doing well and the young guys are coming up, but there was a big gap between Darvish and the No. 2 spot. Now it’s like Nos. 1, 2, 3, they run into each other a lot more.”
The Fighters understand things will be different without Darvish. They just aren’t ready to write that off as a bad thing. Not with the talent they feel is still on the roster.
“This is something this team has had even when Darvish was with us,” Takeda said. “Our pitching staff is really united, and each one of us knows his own role. We are really friendly with each other and are pointed in the same direction. I’ve been on this team for seven years, and I think that’s one of the good things about us.”