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.