Yu Darvish threw a fine bullpen session Thursday. No surprise there. The Texas Rangers paid over $110 million to acquire him. He’s supposed to look good in practice.
Article continues below ...
Actually, the most revealing moment on Darvish’s first official day as a Ranger came long after he faced minor leaguers Ryan Strausborger and Jurickson Profar from behind a pitching screen on Field No. 3.
It was this: At noon local time, Darvish walked into the teeth of America’s celebrity fascination — and didn’t blink.
As Darvish took his first steps away from the practice field, he was set upon by a noisy amalgam of reporters, Rangers fans and for-profit autograph seekers — a cross-section of the several hundred people who had followed him around all morning. Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux called it "postseason pandemonium in spring training." And he was right.
The group was five deep … then seven … then nine … then more. Darvish is 6-foot-5, but his field of vision was limited to a thicket of arms, camera lenses and memorabilia awaiting his golden signature.
John Blake, the Rangers Executive Vice President of Communications, was standing nearby as the crowd descended. Blake has worked in baseball for more than 30 years. He was with the Boston Red Sox when Daisuke Matsuzaka arrived there in 2007. He isn’t surprised by much, but his reaction to the scene consisted of one word: "Wow."
Before long, the mob began ignoring the small fence that’s supposed to separate players and fans. They forgot about civility, too. The security presence at Rangers camp — twice as large as last year — grew alarmed as the crush pressed closer. Team personnel, city officials and local police started raising their voices. Back up! Give him space! Get off the field!
Darvish was unfazed. He signed a number of autographs before indicating he was done for the day. Then he coolly exited by way of the next field so as to avoid the chaos.
"In Japan, these things happen," Darvish said later, through interpreter Joe Furukawa. "I’m used to it. I’m not surprised in any way."
Many baseball observers believe Darvish, 25, will surpass Hideo Nomo’s 123 wins and become the greatest Japanese-born pitcher in big-league history. But if Darvish falls short, it won’t be because he cracked under the pressure. Thursday’s press conference — attended by more than 130 media members — was an early test of his mettle. He passed it brilliantly.
In his native country, Darvish is equal parts pop-culture icon and sports star — Justin Timberlake with a 95-mph heater. If anything, he’s better prepared to handle fame than a 25-year-old American who played before crowds of 1,400 while coming up through the minor leagues.
Darvish has been living his version of "Linsanity" for several years. Even with the language and cultural barriers, he may find his new life to be more tame than the one he left behind. In response to a question, Darvish said he likes "everything" about the US, but made special mention of the fact that he enjoys dining in restaurants without being bothered.
"As a professional athlete, with some type of status, there are some people (in Japan) who try to get into my private life," Darvish said. "But I don’t let those things worry me."
The numbers suggest he’s telling the truth. After Matsuzaka left for Boston, Darvish became the highest-profile pitcher in Japanese professional baseball. His ERAs for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in the five seasons since Dice-K’s departure: 1.82, 1.88, 1.73, 1.78 and 1.44.
Farsad Darvish, who was in attendance at Thursday’s workout, said leaving Japan was "the right decision at the right time" for his son. Farsad listed the reasons: Yu desired a bigger stage, he needed a higher level of competition in order to maintain his motivation, he had little left to accomplish in Japan.
In short, he was ready.
"Believe me, I don’t think he’s the type of guy who would be nervous," Farsad said. "He’s had big stages (since) high school — with 45,000 people watching."
Farsad was born in Iran, but attended high school and college in the US, so his son’s knowledge of American culture — and English — is more advanced than most Japanese players who come to the big leagues. (Farsad, who still lives in Japan, blended into the crowd Thursday with a standard spring training look: Lacoste shirt; khaki shorts; Nike swooshes on his cap, athletic socks and shoes.)
In Texas, Darvish has two Japanese teammates (Koji Uehara and Yoshinori Tateyama) to ease his transition, along with fellow starter Colby Lewis, who spent two seasons playing in Japan. He appears to be making fast friends, playing catch every day with Derek Holland and learning, as he put it, "a lot of different words" in English and Spanish.
It’s entirely possible that Thursday’s media frenzy had a greater impact on Darvish’s teammates than Darvish himself. The arrival of No. 11 overshadowed what would have been a dominant storyline under normal circumstances: Oh, right. This team came within one strike of the world title — twice.
"It seems like people forget about the rest of the team," Holland said. "We’ve got a lot of other guys talented enough to be (talked) about. Yu is a good pitcher. Don’t take that away from him. But don’t forget about the rest of the guys."
Duly noted. But it took us this long to mention the World Series. What does that tell you?
Darvish was self-aware enough to recognize that impact he might have on the egos of others. At one point during his news conference, he mused, "Am I the type of player who should get all this attention? I don’t know."
In America, in 2012, that’s an impossible question to answer. Hype is now a form of achievement. And while Darvish has yet to become a superstar in the US, the poise he showed Thursday reaffirmed that he will.
"A lot of guys are well known," Maddux said. "Sometimes you run across a guy who’s famous. That’s kind of what we’re dealing with — somebody who’s famous."
They’re also dealing with someone who can handle it.