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Irabu All Over Again?

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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.”


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