Irabu All Over Again?

Illustration by Roberto Parada

Of all the assignments in the short, loony career of Kenji Nimura, the official translator for Yankees starting pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, none might have been more difficult than having to explain who, or what, Biff Henderson is. Inside the locker room of the Yankees’ spring-training home in Tampa, Kuroda, more than a little confused, is looking at Nimura. One of the more successful Japanese pitchers of the past decade, Kuroda has a stoic, low-key vibe to him, a sort of absence even when he’s present, more quiet Hideki Matsui than wild-haired Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish, who has reportedly been romantically linked to a porn star. And it’s clear that Biff Henderson, David Letterman’s famous stage manager and comedic prop, makes about as much sense to Kuroda as a bicycle riding a fish.

Henderson is in Yankees camp for another of his recurring Late Show segments—the most epic of which was in 2007, when he famously gave a shirtless A-Rod a rubdown in Tampa—and one of the Letterman producers wanted to do a bit with Kuroda. This led to all sorts of bewilderment. Here’s the best I could do to transcribe the farce:

Yankees public-relations chief Jason Zillo: So basically, you’d stand there and pretend he’s an idiot. It’s a fun thing; we do it every year.

NIMURA: [Speaks Japanese fora long time; the only recognizable En­glish words are Biff and Letterman.]

KURODA: Who? [Nimura translates again. Kuroda shrugs.]

NIMURA:: Sure, that’s fine, we’ll do it. [Leans over to Zillo.] He has no idea what I’m talking about.

Hiroki Kuroda is the latest in a long line of Japanese pitchers to come overseas to face the highest level of competition, and while some of his predecessors have had success in the major leagues, none seems to have figured out a way to do it in New York. From Masato Yoshii to Kei Igawa (price tag: $46 million) to, most notoriously, Hideki Irabu, the legacy of Japanese pitchers in this town is one of failure and tragedy. Is Kuroda going to be different? Does he know what he’s in for here? And, most important, will someone please explain Biff Henderson to him?

The Yankees have had considerable good fortune with Japanese hitters, or at least one Japanese hitter: Hideki Matsui, the power-hitting outfielder/designated hitter, the famed “Godzilla.” (Which was his nickname even back in Japan. When you play in Japan and they nickname you Godzilla, you’re a powerful person.) Matsui spent seven years in the Bronx, hit 140 homers, made two All-Star games, and was named World Series MVP. He also made millions upon millions of dollars for the Yankees in Japan, where he was the most popular player since Ichiro Suzuki, maybe even more so; before Matsui went to the Angels, after the 2009 season, the Japanese news outlet Sanspo estimated that his departure would cost the Yankees as much as $15 million a season (skeptics doubted the figure was that high, but still). Matsui is still in baseball, reportedly negotiating with the Tampa Bay Rays last week, but before signing Kuroda, the Yankees hadn’t brought in a Japanese player since.

And they hadn’t brought in a high-­profile Japanese pitcher since Irabu, one of the team’s more unsettling stories of the past couple of decades, perhaps the last true casualty of the Steinbrenner era. Irabu came to the Yankees in 1997, signed to a then-insane four-year, $12.8 million deal, pitched well in one game, and proceeded to fall apart. He ended his first season with a 7.09 ERA, was the one down spot on the storied 1998 championship team, and was infamously labeled “a fat, pus-sy toad” by George Steinbrenner when he failed to cover first base during a 1999 spring-training game. Fairly or not, Irabu became a running Yankees joke, a symbol of overpaid, lazy, physically unfit busts. Three years after the Yankees traded him to Montreal, he returned to Japan, his name synonymous with failure. Last year, Irabu, who had long battled personal problems, committed suicide.

Irabu may have been the first big-market Japanese pitcher to go bust in the U.S., but his failure was not the most epic. That would be Daisuke Matsuzaka, the much-hyped pitcher who was supposed to revolutionize the game when he signed with the Red Sox in 2006. Matsuzaka made the cover of Sports Illustrated before ever throwing a pitch here, and his famed “gyroball” was thought by many to be some sort of mysterious ­super-pitch, a Far East innovation the likes of which baseball had never seen. As it turned out, Matsuzaka had trouble consistently topping 90 miles per hour on the radar gun, had a tendency to require 100 pitches just to crawl through five innings, has been injured for much of his career here, and, oh, yeah, doesn’t even throw a gyroball. For that, the Red Sox were out $103 million over six years.

So the signing of Kuroda this year—part of the Yankees’ January pitching blitz that brought in Kuroda and Seattle Mariners phenom Michael Pineda in the span of a few hours—was greeted by many with skepticism. This is a fan base that hasn’t shaken the memory of Irabu or the Schadenfreude brought on by Matsuzaka. But Yankees fans shouldn’t worry. Kuroda, despite his so-so start, isn’t Irabu, and he isn’t Matsuzaka. He also isn’t Jeff Weaver or Jaret Wright. Not all Japanese pitchers are the same, you know.

First off, Kuroda doesn’t need to be here (with Pineda now out for the year, in fact, the Yankees now need him more than he needs them). For the first four years of his career, he pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers, in large part because of his comfort with the franchise’s ­Japanese-friendly culture. The 37-year-old right-hander had established himself firmly in Japan, where he was a low-key, solid member of the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, one of the smaller, less-heralded teams in the Japan league. But in 2007, after the Carp (with whom he had taken less money to stay) had yet another poor season, he decided to take his game West.

For four seasons, Kuroda was a mainstay of the Dodgers’ rotation and their most consistent starter, notching a 41-46 record with a 3.45 ERA and winning two postseason games. In his last two seasons in L.A., he was remarkably reliable, throwing 196 innings in 2010 and 202 in 2011, big numbers that would be extremely valuable on the open market. But when his contract ran out this past offseason, the consensus was that Kuroda would either re-sign with the Dodgers or go back to Japan. So it came as no small surprise when he announced in January that he was headed to New York.

“I didn’t choose the Yankees because I like New York City, though I do,” Kuroda told me, through Nimura, in Tampa. He paused and looked at his interpreter, then back at me. “You can tell him it’s okay to say it was the money,” I said to Nimura, who translated my thought to Kuroda. Kuroda just looked at me, smiled, and shrugged. The Yankees offered Kuroda $10 million for just one season, which is less than he had made annually with the Dodgers but far more than he’d expected to get on the open market, particularly at that late date in January. I asked Kuroda if he understood what he was in for, coming to New York, with the pressure that comes with playing here and the history of Irabu hanging over the franchise. Was it already too much? Did he know what it was like here?

“The biggest difference is that the media cannot come to the clubhouse in Japan,” he said. “It’s just a private place for the players and staff only, so that’s probably the biggest difference. I prefer that part a lot more in Japan.” I clarified that I was asking about the difference between L.A. and New York. “There are more media here,” he said. “The Japanese food is good both places, though.”

One thing to keep in mind about Japanese players in the major leagues: Life here can be lonely. Japanese players are not like Latino players from the Dominican Republic or Venezuela, a culture assimilated into American baseball so thoroughly that most English-speaking managers have learned to speak Spanish just to hang on to their jobs. When you’re a Japanese player, your best friend is often your translator. You can spend a good part of the season hanging out with one or two people.

Nimura understands this. He first began working with Kuroda in Los Angeles, when he was the team translator for Kuroda and fellow pitcher Takashi Saito. He had never worked as a translator before, but he was a Dodgers fan and sent his résumé on a whim. A week later, he got a call, and he’s been with Kuroda ever since. Nimura’s not exactly thrilled to be in New York either—Kuroda raised his salary to persuade him to come—or, at the very least, he’s not thrilled not to be in Los Angeles. “My family and all my friends are in Los Angeles, and that’s where I’ve lived for years,” he said. “I miss it a lot, already.” Nimura says he and Kuroda spend most of their time on the road together—although Kuroda sometimes persuades his teammates to go for Japanese food, he mainly eats alone in the hotel or out with Nimura—and that even though Kuroda “understands En­glish better than people think,” he can’t speak it well enough to be on the road without Nimura’s assistance. Fortunately for Kuroda, his life is “dull,” according to Nimura. Kuroda agrees: “There is nothing really special about my life during the season. It is all just baseball.”

In Japan, “just baseball” is more than enough: Even as one of the more low-key pitchers in the Japanese league, pitching for one of the lower-profile teams, Kuroda couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized. (The local news would regularly issue breathless updates on how many warm-up pitches Kuroda had thrown during practice.) This can lead to a strange dichotomy when Japanese players come here: Even though the major leagues are several times more high-­profile (and more lucrative) than the Japanese league, the individual attention is so much less intense that it can be jarring: More people know about you, but they care less.

The loss of worship (or, worse, the appearance of boos, in Irabu’s case) can be devastating for a player attuned to such things. But Kuroda is relatively egoless; in fact, he’s plain-old boring. (“I just like my hotel,” he says.) Matsuzaka enjoyed the attention of the Boston media, at least until it turned on him. Irabu was famously confrontational with both Japanese and American media. But Kuroda is steady and bland in a way that fits the Yankees of today, the smoothly humming corporate machine, with streamlined narratives and nothing to distract from the Yankees Way. Kuroda will never make headlines off the field, by design, by his very nature. (“He was very good in Japan but never particularly heralded or even noticed,” says ­Patrick Newman, who runs npbtracker.com, the foremost Web resource for Japanese baseball. “Nobody loved him, and nobody hated him.”) Steinbrenner would have never had a bad word to say about him. He is not fat, pus-sy, or a toad.

Kuroda’s style of pitching seems more suited to New York as well. He’s a ground-ball specialist—finishing in the top 35 among NL starters in ground-ball percentage last year—which will serve him particularly well in homer-happy Yankee Stadium. He’s rarely injured, making him less likely to flame out. He has a terrific walk rate of 2.18 per nine innings and an outstanding mark of giving up roughly one home run per nine innings. That will surely go up a bit with his new home park and the high-­powered offense in the American League, so his stats won’t look as impressive as they did in L.A., but he should still be a vastly above-average starter for a reasonable price. He’s also not a major focus of the fan base, a non-target. If he keeps his head down and produces at a reasonable level, far from being another Irabu, he’ll barely be noticeable.

And the media? Well, the media is mostly bored with him: I was the only reporter interested in talking to him that day at spring training. (Other than Biff Henderson.) Even the Japanese reporters only chatted with Kuroda for a minute or so. It’s worth repeating, too, that any media attention these players receive here in New York pales in comparison to what they go through back home, though at least in Japan the players can take off their uniforms in the locker room in peace. Newman says Japanese media is “off the charts” about baseball. In spring training, there are typically as many Japanese reporters as there are American reporters—when Matsui was here, there were more—and that was on a day when Kuroda wasn’t even pitching. One night, when he was living in Japan, Newman says, former Yankees outfielder Kenny Lofton led the local news—not the sports part, the national news. “Why was Kenny Lofton leading the national news? Because he had been traded to the [San Francisco] Giants, which meant that Tsuyoshi Shinjo, who was already on the Giants, wouldn’t play as much. It’s a bit nuts.”

Compared with that, Kuroda’s not gonna be scared by Mike Lupica, that’s for sure. “Who’s that?” Nimura asks when I bring him up.

In his first game as a Yankee, Kuroda gave up four earned runs in five and two-thirds innings in an 8-6 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. Kuroda faced all the questions, saying, “All my pitches were a little bit off, and I didn’t have one pitch I could rely on today.” Then everyone moved on and stopped talking about him, except for when he faced another Japanese pitcher, Darvish, in a matchup against the Texas Rangers. Then it was back to normal, six or seven solid innings, three runs or so given up, putting the Yankees in position to win. Although Darvish outdueled him, Kuroda was slow, steady, normal, and reliable. The Yankees now have the opposite of A. J. Burnett.

You can write to Leitch at will.leitch@nymag.com.

Irabu All Over Again?