BRADENTON, Fla. – Tucked in a small strip mall among miles of them, Taste of Tokyo is easy to miss. It looks like any other sushi joint, with a smiling Buddha and hard-working chef, except for the dry-erase board tacked to the back wall.
On it are the day's specials, and above the bluefin toro and sea urchin roe is a hand roll that exists nowhere else in the world.
It is called the Kuwata Roll. Hideo Horaguchi, the owner of Taste of Tokyo, dreamed it up a few weeks ago: masago, carrots, cucumber, avocado, surf clam and a sardine garnish, surrounding a chunk of king crab.
"Because Masumi Kuwata," Horaguchi said, "has been a king in Japan."
Oh, there's plenty more symbolism in the dish honoring Kuwata, one of Japan's greatest pitchers trying to squeeze his way onto the Pittsburgh Pirates' roster this spring – and gathering a dedicated following all the while.
Horaguchi is big into word play. Mezashi, the Japanese word for sardine, is similar to mezasu, which means "to aim for." Put together kai, which is Japanese for shellfish like a surf clam, and maki, which is the proper name for a sushi roll, and it's awfully close to kai maku, which means "Opening Day."
Kuwata, who swung by Taste of Tokyo to try his eponymous roll, certainly is aiming for Opening Day.
Making it is a longshot.
He's 38 years old now, long past his days as Japanese baseball's answer to Greg Maddux. At 5-foot-8 and 176 pounds, he never could get his fastball much above 90 mph.
Never mattered, either. Kuwata could throw to a spot the size of an atom. With the powerful Yomiuri Giants, he won Japan's equivalent of the Cy Young as a 20-year-old, finished his career with 173 victories and left regarded as one of the finest pitchers ever to play Nippon Professional Baseball.
Now, his fastball tops out at 85 mph and, as he admits, he's nothing more than a rookie going for a bullpen spot, his reputation in Japan worth pennies on the dollar. And yet something fascinating has happened here: People absolutely love Kuwata, lavishing him with cheers and leaving him to slightly lament his career path.
"Since I was 20 years old I wanted to play here, but my team wouldn't let me go," Kuwata said. "I had many problems. Private ones. Women. Money. I had to play my career with the Giants. And then last year they told me they don't want me anymore.
"The next day, I woke up, and it felt like my first day of freedom."
For years, Kuwata had listened to American teammates wax on about the major leagues. He attended World Series games in Atlanta, Cleveland, San Francisco and New York. He watched Jamie Moyer pitch – "Very educational," Kuwata said – and tuned his television to study the approaches of big-league hitters and pitchers.
Any opportunity to join them nearly ended 12 years ago, when Kuwata blew out his right elbow. He was coming off a season in which he struck out a career-high 185, won 14 games, threw 10 complete games and posted a 2.52 earned-run average. The injury caused him to miss most of 1995 and all of '96.
"Many times I didn't think I could pitch anymore," Kuwata said. "But I changed my mind. I told myself, 'I can pitch again. I can pitch again.' I did everything I could do."
Kuwata resolved to build an indestructible body. Part of that training included forms of Japanese and Chinese martial arts.
One minute Kuwata would wield a pair of short, wooden sticks like Bruce Lee. The next he'd look like Kikuchiyo in "Seven Samurai."
"My favorite," he said, "was the Japanese sword."
The only greatness he would see after the surgery was in 2002, when Kuwata led the league with a 2.22 earned-run average. He was aging, his stuff waning, and when the Giants sent him to the minor leagues last season, Kuwata knew his time there was up.
So it was off to the United States, a non-roster spot with the Pirates awaiting, the hope that he could become the next Takashi Saito – washed-up Japanese player who finds success in the major leagues – consuming his thoughts.
"I'm enjoying every moment every day," Kuwata said. "I've been doing this almost 25 years, and people have been following me the whole way. I hope they are having as much fun as me."
The Japanese media certainly seems intrigued. Rumors swirled Saturday about a small ankle injury. Thirty-five reporters gathered around Kuwata to ask about it. It should be fine, he said, in time for Wednesday.
That's his next scheduled outing. His first was flawless. His second didn't go so well, Kelly Johnson's broken-bat home run – "I've never seen one," Kuwata said – spoiling it. He hopes this next one is better. All of Japan will be watching, with Kuwata facing Daisuke Matsuzaka's Boston Red Sox.
Kuwata knows what Matsuzaka is feeling. He once was Matsuzaka, the main star of Koshien, the national high school baseball tournament that is Japan's answer to the NCAA tournament. He played for a high school powerhouse called PL Gakuen, the PL standing for Perfect Liberty, a religion that has been called a cult by some.
Not so, Kuwata said. It is a lifestyle with 21 precepts to follow, such as "one's self is lost by being emotional" and "world peace is everything."
The most important: "Life is art."
"It is," Kuwata said, "and everything in mine is changing for the better."
Kuwata needs plenty more outings like his first to change it permanently. He threw a perfect inning against Cincinnati, striking out two hitters and trotting off to a rousing ovation. Otherwise, he'll take his assignment to Triple-A Indianapolis and await a call-up.
If that happens, a return trip to Bradenton beckons, too.
"I have second Kuwata Roll planned," Horaguchi said. "It is for kai maku. It will be a flying dragon.
"Because he is going to take off, and he will go higher and higher and higher."
- Masumi Kuwata