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.