Pitching diversity to the Japanese

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am


It's a chilling experience up here on the 43rd parallel. About 800 kilometres directly west of Sapporo, Japan, lies the Siberian port of Vladivostok. A few hours outside of Sapporo in mountainous Niseko, the February temperature averages minus 12. Snow? Half the houses in the village are merely a rumour. They won't be seen again until about May. The powder is deep and bounteous in this remote winter resort area and what few English newspapers they carry are gone early.

'Eh-go shimbun,' I ask the clerk at a convenience store and he merely shakes his head in an apologetic way. But there are about 10 different Japanese papers on the stand and all of them uniformly have the same image on their front page. It's Arizona, it's hot and it's oh so sunny. I pick one up and start browsing before instinctively turning towards the clerk and pointing at the picture. He beams broadly before sticking his thumb up in the air and declaring: 'Darubisshu Yu!'

From Hideo Nomo to Ichiro Suzuki, Japanese baseball players have been migrating to the US in a steady drove for the past 17 years. But while Ichiro is the greatest player his country has ever produced and arguably one of the top 10 outfielders in the history of Major League Baseball, there has never been a Japanese export like 25-year-old Yu Darvish.

In fact, there has never been an Iranian export like Darvish either. The son of an Iranian father and Japanese mother, Darvish arrived at the Texas Rangers spring training camp in Surprise, Arizona, this week with about 30 members of the Japanese media in tow. It was business as usual for the most scrutinised baseball player in the universe. In January, Yu left the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, who play their home games in Sapporo, to sign a US$60 million contract. The Rangers also paid US$51 million to the Ham Fighters, making the total Darvish package US$111 million before he had even thrown a pitch in the major leagues.

After signing the deal, Darvish held a press conference at the Sapporo Dome to explain his reasons for going and more than 10,000 fans showed up. As a 20-year-old, Darvish led the Ham Fighters to their first championship since the team transferred north from Tokyo in 2002. Over the next five years he established himself as the best pitcher in the game and attendances would often double on days he was pitching. He was tall, strikingly handsome and a marketer's dream. His image was everywhere in the country, including a naked photo-shoot he did for a women's magazine two years ago. Idolised and venerated, he was the epitome of cool to the youngsters of Japan. But to many, there was one thing Darvish was not: pure Japanese. There are few places in the world as protective of their homogeneity as Japan. It's not exactly a secret. Sadaharu Oh may have been the Babe Ruth of Japan in the 60s and 70s, but because his father was Taiwanese, it was his less accomplished Yomiuri Giants teammate, Shigeo Nagashima, who was the most popular player in the country.

Farsad Darvishsefad came to the US from Iran in 1977 to attend high school. He met a Japanese woman a few years later in college and moved back to her home country not long after. When his son was born just outside of Osaka in 1986, Darvishsefad knew the challenges his boy would face growing up. 'You can be a pure Japanese and look at someone who isn't just the same,' he said. 'You can't control people. You can only control yourself.'

While Yu's fame as a baseball player grew, so too did the gradual acceptance of him, particularly when he played a pivotal role in Japan winning the World Baseball Classic in 2009. But there are still limits.

'Sometimes, you're just not a member of the club,' said Boston Red Sox and former long-time Japan league manager Bobby Valentine. 'Darvish can never be a full-fledged, card-carrying member. If Sadaharu Oh has never been completely accepted, who could be?'

For Yu, there is no such ambiguity. 'I was born and raised in Japan, so I believe myself 100 per cent Japanese,' he said. Judging by his actions both on and off the field though, Darvish is far from the Japanese prototype. He is a towering, power pitcher in a league full of diminutive, finesse-oriented hurlers. His animated fist pumps and unconcealed shows of emotion on the mound are also atypically Japanese and while he is respectful off the field, he also remains openly confident in his ability.

Texas is not exactly a bastion of liberalism. Still, the only thing fans will want from Darvish is to get batters out. For the first time in his career, his ancestry will hardly be an issue. Hopefully, that may some day be true in Japan. But if the kid behind the counter in the convenience store in Niseko is any kind of indication, the Darvish family roots never really were that a big deal to the youth of the country.