PEORIA, Ariz. – Shame on Yu? Or was something lost in translation?
Yu Darvish made his first spring training start for the Texas Rangers and tossed two scoreless innings, but it was a booming double off him that created a rumpus afterward and provided a fascinating measure of the Japanese phenom's competitive fire and cocky persona.
More than 150 reporters were at the Cactus League game to get an initial look at the pitcher the Rangers are counting on to become a major-league ace. He was effective, striking out three, touching 95 mph with his fastball and showing off a repertoire of six pitches.
In a packed postgame news conference, Darvish was asked about the double hit by San Diego Padres outfielder Will Venable. The question was posed in Japanese. Translated into English, it went like this: "In Japan that would have been a home run. Do you think he got you?"
Venable's second-inning shot had hit off a wall above the center-field fence, more than 410 feet from home plate.
Darvish's response was in Japanese, and was translated into English by Rangers official Joe Furukawa as follows: "The air is dry in Arizona and the wind was blowing out, so no, I don't think he hit it squarely."
But did Darvish really say that? Two Japanese-speaking reporters later insisted Darvish indeed had said the air was dry and the wind was blowing out, but that the end of the quote was, "so no, I don't think he got me."
The Furukawa version was repeated to Venable, who was dumbfounded: "Maybe his perception of reality isn't as right on as …" Venable paused before continuing, "… no comment. It was a well-struck ball."
Japanese reporters were in abundance, and several said Darvish's reference to "got me" in no way suggested Venable didn't hit the ball squarely. Rather, the term has a distinctly Japanese meaning, and Darvish's competitive nature wouldn't allow him to admit that Venable "got him," even in a meaningless exhibition.
"He is bold, he is arrogant," said Kiyoshi Suzuki, a reporter for Jiji Press, a Japanese news agency.
A fascinating cultural and linguistic subtlety had been unearthed, and it likely won't be the last considering the media crush chronicling Darvish's every pitch and recording his every word. When the scores begin to count and reporters in Texas and New York and Boston inspect and dissect him, Darvish might even clam up. Already he doesn't make eye contact with anyone asking him a question – something common in Japan – and most of his answers are clipped. Furukawa's position is not one to be envied.
Intense interest in Darvish, 25, was inevitable. The Rangers paid $51 million to his Japanese team for exclusive negotiating rights and will pay him $60 million for six years of service.
Whether he proves worth the expense was hardly going to be determined in a Cactus League game. For the record, he threw 36 pitches, 26 for strikes, gave up two hits and no runs. His four-seam fastball sat at 93 mph and his slider was impressive.
"That's a big Asian dude," said Padres second baseman Orlando Hudson, who had the other hit against Darvish. "He has good stuff and great poise. He definitely knows what he's doing.
"I know some guys on the Rangers and they say he's a great teammate. He likes to have fun. I think he'll do a helluva job."
Interviews might be his toughest challenge. Darvish was evasive about why he pitched only from the stretch. He said he's looking forward to pitching in the regular season, adding that this game lacked intensity because it's spring training.
"My teammates teased me before the game, saying I must be nervous," Darvish recounted, cameras clicking away. "I said, 'No, I'm not,' and they said, 'Yeah, you are.' "
The game was televised live in Japan even though it began at 4:30 a.m. there. Margaret Narumi, a producer for the Japanese Broadcasting Corp., said the audience would be huge. "Then highlights will go straight to morning news programs, everybody will see that and it's what everybody will talk about at work," she said.
In Japan, Darvish's status as a pop idol is as intriguing as his pitching. His ex-wife Saeko – he's recently divorced – is an actress and TV celebrity. The half-Japanese, half-Iranian Darvish is rather exotic looking, his countenance regal, his sideburns long, his hair the same red as Amy Madigan's in "Field of Dreams."
Darvish's rock-star status explained the 50 or so reporters stationed at the Rangers' spring facility in Surprise, Ariz., early in the morning, a good five hours before the game. It explained the cluster of reporters around the team bus when it arrived in Peoria, a scene vaguely reminiscent of the movie "Almost Famous."
Oddly, the stands were half full. Yu-mania hasn't struck the masses just yet. And in Texas, when the shooting match is for real, Darvish's pitching is all that will matter to Rangers fans. Is he the addition that gets them a World Series title after coming so excruciatingly close the last two years?
Eventually few will care whether or not Darvish is a chatterbox with reporters. Every phrase translated by Furukawa will no longer be open to interpretation. Roy Halladay, among other top MLB pitchers, is every bit as bold and arrogant. He's a tough interview and he might be reluctant to give credit to a hitter. Halladay might not say Venable "got him," either.
It's going to take us all a while to get Darvish, and until we do, maybe it's too early to say shame on Yu.
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