Late into the evening yesterday, the sun was sinking over Arlington, but it was still warm out -- 77 degrees, far more spring than winter, perfect first-pitch weather. And the Ballpark in Arlington was open too, of course, to introduce the score of the off-season: Yu Darvish, the 6-foot-5 would-be ace just in from Japan, now a Ranger for six years at a lump sum of more than $110 million. A legion of news vans lined the curb, the locals and out-of-towners, some who'd come a little further than most.
There were scores of Japanese-speaking journalists here. They awaited Darvish's debut by smoking outside, snapping pictures of the Nolan Ryan-Johnny Oates Rangers Hall of Fame case on cell phones we've never seen before.
There weren't any fans or Rangers employees around, so reporters from local outlets began interviewing their Japanese counterparts; they returned the favor. Even after I explained to a reporter from TV Asahi America's New York bureau that I'm new to town and not the paper's go-to Rangers guy, that didn't matter: They kept me on camera for two minutes while they asked about Darvish's impact on the Rangers roster as well as the overall MLB playoff landscape. Writers were passing out business cards like speed daters. Off-camera, a FOX Sports anchorwoman asked a Japanese journalist how realistic it was to expect sake at the ballpark now.
There was a hush in the room as the newest Ranger walked into the room flanked by GM John Daniels and interpreter Joe Furukawa on one side, manager Ron Washington and pitching coach Mike Maddux on the other. Yu looked tall and capable and every bit the magazine cover boy in a charcoal suit. Daniels first addressed the media, saying there are "not too many bigger off-the-field moments then we have here today."
The 25-year-old dyed-blonde bomber put up video-game numbers as starting pitcher of Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball league for seven years. Yu's had an ERA under two for five straight seasons, the first and only player to do that in the league's history. Last season, he went 46 straight innings without allowing a run. He won NPB MVP twice (2007 and '09) and won the World Baseball Classic once (in 2009 also, pitching against and beating the United States in the semifinals). He's allowed one home run in 85 postseason innings pitched. He finished high school with a 1.10 ERA. It was high school, but it was a 1.10 ERA.
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Even Joe Flay, the guy who's at the refreshment table serendipitously handing out new Dr Pepper made with pure cane sugar, expects big things. "If he does 80 percent as well here as he did in Japan, he'll be a star. We'll forget all about C.J."
Darvish's dad speaks English, but he doesn't, so the pitcher speaks during the press conference in tandem with his interpreter as a hatless Ron Washington sits stoically next to him. When asked questions, Yu shows a sense of humor; half the room roars with laughter when he speaks into the microphone, and the other half chuckles when Joe repeats. Even Washington smiles, almost.
After a couple of boilerplate inquiries about whether he can compete against the inestimable mastery of MLB batters, the questions mostly devolve into inquiries about whether he plans on learning English, what was on his T-shirt this morning (answer: a marijuana leaf accompanied by the words "I Will Survive"), if he's tried any Texas barbecue (not yet). He 's even asked to address the country for the first time in English, but he declines.
And really, there's nothing much else that needs to be said. The time for talking has come and gone. Pitchers and catchers report in one month.