Johjima's little secret

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

PEORIA, Ariz. – Kenji Johjima reached inside his locker to grab his most prized possession. He doesn't like sharing it with people, because the information inside tends to be of the proprietary type.

"I've got some numbers in my little black book," Johjima said.

Lesser things have caused divorce, though Johjima is not worried that his wife, Maki, will leave him any time soon. She knows his black book is full of numbers that pertain to his job as Seattle Mariners catcher and the names attached to them are of the teammates whose games he calls.

Already this year's book is filling up. Johjima might have the most difficult task of any catcher this spring: He must learn the whims of the Mariners' three new starters, Jeff Weaver, Miguel Batista and Horacio Ramirez, coddle Felix Hernandez as he tries to mature from prospect to ace and help Jarrod Washburn justify the $37 million free-agent contract he signed two years ago.

"No catcher in the major leagues is more prepared," Mariners closer J.J. Putz said. "He knows the hitters inside and out. He knows his pitchers. And I think once guys establish communication and keep an open dialogue with him, the better they are."

For Johjima, that starts with his book, a small notepad housed inside a zippered black leather case. He has filled pages for 11 years now, ever since he joined the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks (now the SoftBank Hawks) as a 19-year-old.

Johjima's manager encouraged him to start the diary, and seeing that the manager was the greatest player in Japanese history, Sadaharu Oh, the advice stuck.

"What you write is what you gain," Johjima said through his interpreter, Antony Suzuki. "That is what he taught. To write how I felt they felt."

And to feel how they feel, Johjima must know more than they know. Johjima wasn't as concerned last season with the language barrier – he was the first Japanese catcher to play in the major leagues – as to whether his preparation would translate. Before spring training, he studied film of every pitcher with former Mariners catcher Dan Wilson and blew away Seattle's staff with his breadth of knowledge.

"The first time we met, he told me how I pitched," Putz said, "and he was right on."

After every game Putz pitched, Johjima met with him. Using Suzuki's help, they discussed Putz' tendencies. What he threw on certain counts. How he pitched to different types of hitters. Why he chose certain sequences for certain types of hitters.

"I heard about his reputation before I came here," Batista said. "And you'd think it's hard for you to explain a mental part of the game to a guy when he doesn't use the language. The big leagues are very different than Japan even if baseball has the same rules. We have guys here with good arms. In Japan, a lot of guys have great breaking stuff. The pitching styles are just different.

"So it's his job, as much as ours, to make sure we stay on the same plan."

Actually, it's probably more on Johjima. The pitchers are the divas. He's the tour manager who needs must draw the bath of Evian and cut the crust off the peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. Johjima must learn to read the ball coming out of Weaver's dozen arm angles, to keep Batista from imploding when he gets wild, to draw something out of Ramirez, because 248 strikeouts in 521 1/3 innings just doesn't cut it.

Not when the Mariners traded the proven Rafael Soriano for him and are spending more than $16 million on Weaver and Batista. Johjima, though only in his second year in Seattle, is one of the things on which the ever-changing Mariners can rely. His 147 hits last season set an American League record for rookie catchers, and his .291 batting average, 18 home runs, 76 RBIs and .783 on-base-plus-slugging were top seven among big-league catchers.

No surprise that Johjima has a second black book devoted to opposing pitchers.

"I've got a lot of writing still left to do," he said.

Johjima pulled out the original black book and unzipped the sides. Perhaps he might share a page or two, allow a view into the real life of a catcher.

The back of the leather case flipped open, and Johjima fished around in two small pockets. Maybe there were even more secrets than he let on.

Johjima finally found what he was looking for: two small pictures, of his son Yuta and daughter, Miu.

"That," Johjima said, "is all I can show you."

Of course it was. No reasonable man would ever share his black book.

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