Uehara right on the money

Japanese pitcher, making Orioles debut against Yankees, fitting in well with team

April 08, 2009|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,dan.connolly@baltsun.com

The first time his teammates invited Koji Uehara out for dinner this spring, the Orioles' new No. 2 starter attempted to show his gratitude.

"He tried to pay the tab for everybody," veteran catcher Gregg Zaun said. "It was a class move. We weren't going to let him, of course, but it was a class move."

When asked about the gesture, the affable Uehara shrugged.

"It's probably just Japanese style. You don't want to be rude," Ue- hara said through his interpreter, Jiwon Bang. "You want to be courteous."

But Uehara is a rookie in the U.S. - albeit a 34-year-old rookie who signed a two-year, $10 million contract in January and has twice won Japan's top pitching award - and rookies don't pick up tabs when they are out with veterans.

It's an unwritten rule of American baseball that Uehara is learning. That continuing education enters a new chapter Wednesday night when he takes the mound at Camden Yards against the New York Yankees and becomes the first Japanese native to play for the Orioles.

He's not nervous, just "really, really excited."

"Knowing where he has come from and who he has played for and the situations he has been involved in, I am not worried about Koji at all," Zaun said. "He is not going to get nervous."

Yet it would be understandable if he were. Not only is he making his debut against the famed Yankees, but he'll also face his former superstar teammate with the Yomiuri Giants, Hideki Matsui.

"That is big, big news for Japanese baseball fans," said Hideki Okuda, a reporter for the all-sports and entertainment newspaper Sports Nippon. "I am not going to say it will get the same rating as the World Baseball Classic, but it will still be a very entertaining event."

Approximately 50 Japanese broadcast and print reporters from 30 agencies are expected at Wednesday night's game, which will air live in Japan.

Okuda said Japanese fans have been looking forward to the matchup since Uehara signed and it was assumed his first start would be against New York.

"It will be a historic day for him, for the Orioles and for major league baseball," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "When he takes the mound, the focus will be on him. I think it's a step in the right direction for the Orioles and for the future of major league baseball."

Matsui, Uehara's teammate from 1999 to 2002, seems as curious as anyone to see how his old ace does in the American League East.

"To be honest, I don't know how he's going to adjust. I know he's a very good pitcher with a very good track record," Matsui said. "If he pitches to his ability, he'll do fine here."

In his last start of the spring, Uehara ratcheted up expectations by allowing just one hit - a two-run homer - in six dominant innings against the Washington Nationals.

Without throwing a regular-season pitch, though, he has made his mark. When he arrived in spring, he put a copy of the club's roster on his locker and made notations about his teammates so he would remember everyone's name.

He also began posting the "word of the day" on a clubhouse wall, translating simple words and phrases such as "hello" and "good job" into Japanese and English.

He has bonded with several of the more curious, extroverted Orioles such as Zaun, relievers Jamie Walker and Dennis Sarfate, and outfielder Luke Scott.

Scott said he now knows how to say, "What's up?" and "chillin' " in Japanese.

Smiling widely, Uehara acknowledges he's also rather versed in the international bawdy language of baseball, participating in locker-room talk with colorful terminology courtesy of American linguists Zaun and Walker.

"His timing on the comedy is perfect," Zaun said. "It's clubhouse humor, but he gets it."

Uehara also has a certain flair for fashion. His glove's webbing has a silhouette of his pitching motion. He wears orange shoelaces in his spikes, a carry-over from his days with the Giants. And his uniform belt, with a striking gold buckle, has been nicknamed "The Show Belt" by Walker.

One day, Walker, who has a deal with Japanese sporting goods company Mizuno, was kidding Uehara about his contract with U.S.-based Nike, when Uehara pointed to his midsection and said, "Show Belt."

Everyone broke up.

"It was great," Walker said. "I like hanging around him. I told him we'd drink some beers, sake, for sure. ... He's a good dude, a good teammate."

YANKEES (0-1) @ORIOLES (1-0)

Wednesday, 7:05 p.m. TV: MASN Radio: 105.7 FM

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.