Sox set standard for Japanese players
Support staff eased transition for Boston's four imports
When Daisuke Matsuzaka was activated on Sept. 15 following his near three-month stint on the disabled list, the Red Sox -- unknowingly to a lot of people -- instantly made history.
Just like that, Matsuzaka became the fourth Japanese player on Boston's active roster, setting a Major League record. Matsuzaka joined fellow pitchers Takashi Saito, Hideki Okajima and Junichi Tazawa.
That bit of history ended on Monday, when the 23-year-old Tazawa -- close to his innings limit for the season and dealing with a tender left groin -- was shut down for the season and placed on the 60-day disabled list. But he will remain with the team, and in the clubhouse for the rest of the season, keeping the Red Sox's increased Japanese influence intact on a daily basis.
"No, I never imagined it," said Matsuzaka. "Okajima-san was here already and I thought maybe a player or a couple of players each year would be about the norm. I never imagined that there would be four Japanese players on any one team. I think that the number of Japanese players in the big leagues would always increase in general, but I never thought there would be so many on one team at one time."
On Aug. 7 in a 15-inning loss at Yankee Stadium, the Red Sox set another record, becoming the first team to deploy three Japanese pitchers in the same game.
The Japanese market, which was hardly utilized by Major League teams until Hideo Nomo's wildly successful entrance with the Dodgers in 1995, has become an increasingly invaluable one for teams to tap into. Over the past couple of years, nobody has been more aggressive in the scouting of Japanese players than the Red Sox.
Craig Shipley, Boston's vice president of international scouting, and his assistant, Jon Deeble, have worked countless hours scouting in Japan to find players who could help the Red Sox. And once the players arrived in Boston, they found a system built for them to thrive in.
"I'm proud of our organization," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "Ship and Deebs, they've done a great job. We have four Major Leaguers from Japan, that's pretty good. This kid Tazawa, that's quite a story. But I think it's good. I think it will probably open up for more potential players down the road."
The Red Sox have two full-time interpreters (Masa Hoshino and Jeff Yamaguchi) for the Japanese players, which not only facilitates communication with the coaching staff and non-Japanese players, but also the media. The club has a Japanese assistant trainer (Masai Takahashi) and a Japanese massage therapist (Takanori Maeda), as well as a Japanese chef in the clubhouse for all home games.
"I think it's easier now for even them as a group, because there's so many people around that speak their language now," said Francona. "Whether it's media, or Maeda the massage therapist, or whether it's the translators, or even four guys on your team, they have people to talk to. You see Oki sit upstairs and talk to the chef, so he can talk. I think that's great. That was always a concern, that they would feel isolated, and I certainly understand it. Everything they do is not easy."
Tazawa is probably the most unique find by the Red Sox from the Far East because he had never even pitched professional baseball in Japan when Boston signed him to a Major League contract last December. Through some thorough scouting in the Japanese industrial leagues, the Red Sox felt Tazawa could make the transition in relatively short order.
After a brilliant Spring Training in Major League camp, Tazawa pitched most of the year at Double-A Portland. Following a couple of starts for Triple-A Pawtucket, the Red Sox -- their pitching beat up -- summoned him in the heat of a pennant race. Tazawa contributed important wins against the Tigers and Yankees during his brief stint in the rotation in August, successfully bouncing back from a rough Major League debut which had ended with a walk-off homer by Alex Rodriguez in the 15th inning.
While Tazawa has won rave reviews throughout the organization for his poise and adaptability, the pitcher credits the Red Sox for making his transition easier than expected.
"I think having other Japanese players prior to me going to the Red Sox helped a lot and I believe the Red Sox prepared a lot for me to have things go smoothly," Tazawa said. "I think the Red Sox created a supportive system for me to adapt to the team quickly. I really appreciate that."
When the Red Sox had their annual fantasy football draft earlier this month, they had a surprise guest who showed a compelling display of team unity at such a young age.
"We had the football draft. [Tazawa] came and sat through the whole thing," Francona said. "He had no idea what was going on and he sat through that whole thing and everybody there knew it. That means a lot."
It meant so much to Francona that he made a point of telling Tazawa exactly that in the middle of the clubhouse the next afternoon.
Saito, signed as a free agent over the winter following three solid seasons with the Dodgers, is the one Japanese player on the Sox who played for another Major League team before arriving in Boston.
Almost instantly, Saito became a presence on the team, seemingly as comfortable speaking with closer Jonathan Papelbon as he is with Matsuzaka.
"From when I was playing in Japan, I had always heard Saito-san had a great personality and was a great guy," said Matsuzaka. "But I never had a chance to meet him or to speak with him in Japan. Now that we've played on the same team, I see first-hand that he is indeed a great person of outstanding character."
Saito became close with several of his American teammates during his time with the Dodgers, which made it easier for him to form relationships when he came to Boston.
"Playing in the U.S. normally means having to communicate in a different language with your teammates and everybody around here and around you," Saito said. "But on this team, you almost have to remind yourself to make an effort to speak a foreign language because there are so many [Japanese] players, and I think that's what makes it really unique, having so many guys around that speak the same language."
|"Playing in the U.S. normally means having to communicate in a different language with your teammates and everybody around here and around you. But on this team, you almost have to remind yourself to make an effort to speak a foreign language ..."|
|-- Takashi Saito|
While he is a fierce competitor on the mound, Saito is light-hearted in the clubhouse and in the early innings in the bullpen. His smile is infectious, and transcends cultural barriers.
"I don't know if I'm allowed to use the expression fun, but I do have a lot of fun back there in the bullpen," said Saito. "Papelbon tries really hard to understand my broken English and sometimes turns around and tries to teach me an English phrase or two. Above all, I know that he takes me very seriously and he cares about what I say. He's an important part of the team and the bullpen and I appreciate how respectful he is of me.
"Other guys like Manny Delcarmen, there's no need for me to talk about his baseball skills, but I also know that he's a very caring human being," Saito said. "I feel that all of us, we get to be teammates even off of the field, which is very nice. Daniel Bard is young, but he also understands what I'm trying to say and he's never condescending. So for all these guys that I get to work with, they're all very different from the stereotypical image I might have had of big league pitchers and they all treat me with a great deal of respect."
The players in the Boston bullpen have made it a point to make sure everyone feels part of the group.
"I think anybody who comes to a new team or comes from somewhere else, they want to feel comfortable," said Delcarmen. "We see each other every day in the bullpen and we hang out a lot. The type of person I am, I talk to everybody and try to get along with everybody. They are cool guys. At the beginning, it's hard to understand, but we definitely get along and understand each other a lot throughout the season. It makes the bullpen close and you have to be close."
What if Delcarmen has a point to get across but Okajima or Tazawa can't quite understand him? They call on Saito, the man that teammates affectionately refer to as "Sammy."
"Sammy, he probably by far knows English better than Tazawa and Oki, and if we need something translated without their interpreters there, Sammy is their interpreter," Delcarmen said. "For the most part, Oki and Taz have been good at learning English. It's an awesome bullpen."
Pitching coach John Farrell has worked hard to make sure his communication with the four Japanese pitchers is every bit as thorough as with all the other members of his staff.
"While there are four Japanese pitchers here, they still have their individual needs, much like the eight other pitchers on the 12-man staff that are here," Farrell said. "Just because it's a group of pitchers from one country doesn't change your approach. It's still very much an individual approach. But the fact that you get some time and some experience and some relationships built allows you to more readily address some of the challenges or needs that they have."
No Japanese player came to Boston with more hype or expectations than Matsuzaka. After being stealth in their scouting of Matsuzaka for several years, the Red Sox won his services with a blind bid of $51.1 million in November 2006, and after a month of dramatic negotiations, secured his services with a six-year, $52 million contract.
Matsuzaka won 15 games in his rookie year of 2007, and also came up with two vital wins (Game 7 of the American League Championship Series and Game 3 of the World Series) that October. Last year, he went 18-3 and finished fourth in the Cy Young Award voting. Then came a sharp dropoff earlier this season, which forced the Red Sox to shut down the right-hander on June 20 and get him on a rigorous program designed not only to improve his shoulder strength, but also his overall physique.
Communication was never put more to the test than in those couple of months, particularly in late July when Matsuzaka was quoted by a Japanese publication criticizing the Red Sox's training methods. Because Matsuzaka was in Fort Myers, Fla., at the time, the situation had to be straightened out on the phone, as several conversations ensued between Francona, Farrell and the pitcher, which had to be moderated by an interpreter.
It was telling that when Matsuzaka gave his public apology through the media for the incident, he made it a point to do so in English.
"He's done great," Francona said. "I always feel the more people command the language, the easier the game is, whether it's Spanish, because you don't feel intimidated. So I think that will really help."
An icon who had Michael Jordan-like status in Japan, the jury is still out on what type of pitcher Matsuzaka will be in the Majors. He's had some moments, but is still trying to live up to his advance billing. There are still three years left on his contract.
"We bit the bullet this year and tried not to put a band-aid on something that needed to be addressed," said Francona. "I think in the next couple of years, you will see the pitcher closer to what we want."
Matsuzaka clearly sounds comfortable in his surroundings, which no longer feel foreign.
"I think what I've noticed after three years is that things are gradually just getting easier all the time," Matsuzaka said. "I can't really name any one thing that is a source of stress for me now, including my life away from the ballpark or getting used to the American lifestyle. I can't think of any one big difficulty I have. Everything is becoming more and more stress-free. Even right now, I feel that I can focus on baseball as if I was in Japan."
Matsuzaka appreciates what the Red Sox have done to make him feel more at home.
"To get through this long season, diet is such an important part of it and eating proper meals," Matsuzaka said. "When we're at home and having Japanese food available in the clubhouse, I think it's a big help for all the Japanese players and I think we all appreciate that very much."
Around that exact same time Matsuzaka's services were secured by the Red Sox, they signed a far less heralded pitcher in Okajima, a lefty reliever who wasn't even that well known in Japan. Now in his third season in the Majors, Okajima continues to get huge outs for the Red Sox, having already been a major force in their run to the 2007 World Series championship.
While Okajima has been tremendous on the mound, almost from the day he got to Boston, he seems to have had the hardest time getting used to the cultural difference between Japan and the United States, both from a baseball and quality of life standpoint.
Matsuzaka and Tazawa chat frequently in the clubhouse. The same goes for Tazawa and Saito, or Tazawa and Matsuzaka, or often times, those three players at once can be seen conversing. But Okajima is more of a loner.
What has been the hardest about the adjustment?
"Food," Okajima said. "That's No. 1. Also, the team structure. In Japan, the older players have to be respected. In Japan, everything goes by seniority. It's something I missed because there's no such thing in Major League Baseball."
And the travel?
"You never get used to it," Okajima said. "It's still hard for me. There's no such thing in Japan, no such schedule like this. The longest traveling time you can think of in Japan is two and a half hours and there is no time difference."
As far as having three Japanese teammates, Okajima, in a good-natured way, said he would like to see it get taken even a step further.
"It's good to have Japanese teammates on the team, but unfortunately they are all pitchers," Okajima said. "It would be nice to have a few infielders on the team because that way we could show the Japanese style of baseball more to the American fans."
Though it has all been on the mound so far, the Red Sox are symbolizing how important the Japanese influence can be to the success of a team.
"I think many teams are now taking steps to prepare an environment that makes life easier for Japanese baseball players," said Saito. "I think, specifically, the teams that I've played for, the Dodgers and the Red Sox, are teams that are really representative of that trend and have put in a very strong effort.
"If there's anything that needs to be remembered through all of this for all the Japanese players who come over here, I think it's important that they remember their Japanese identity and at the same time, I think they need to really maintain the respect for Major League Baseball and all the players who play here and for the players in the world."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.