Benson: Laughing with Yu Darvish

From Eric Benson at on July 9, 2014, with mention of SABR members Rob Fitts and Jim Caple:

Yu Darvish was all alone. Sitting in front of his locker in the Texas Rangers’ spring training clubhouse, the pitcher arranged his belongings hastily, kept his eyes trained on the floor, and, with his unruly bedhead and a slight frown, wafted a kind of late-teenage surliness. He wanted to flee. Nearby, a phalanx of beat reporters — some American, some Japanese — huddled together, staring at him, unsure whether to approach. Darvish, the Rangers’ biggest star, is a mercurial presence and an object of fascination. A 6-foot-5, 27-year-old Japanese ace of Iranian patrimony, he has a rock star’s extracurricular interests and a wildly entertaining game. (His eephus-like 60 mph curveball, offset by a high-90s heater, is the stuff of viral GIFs.) And his continued excellence isn’t so much a key to the Rangers’ success as a prerequisite for even discussing it. So when Darvish has some aches and pains, people around the team grow uneasy, and on that late March morning, word had leaked that all was not well. Darvish was feeling lousy, and he had asked to be scratched from his scheduled start. Yu Darvish had a stiff neck.

A stiff neck for Yu Darvish may be big news, especially during spring training, but it is not simple news to convey. Darvish isn’t shy, but he speaks very little English, and the Rangers’ training staff, coaches, players, and Dallas-area beat reporters speak even less Japanese. When your team’s star pitcher motions to his neck and seems to indicate something is wrong, you probably want to know exactly where it hurts. So when Darvish has a stiff neck, or Darvish needs to discuss pitching strategy, or Darvish wants to crack a joke, some coach or front-office staffer will invariably turn around and call out, “Kenji!” Most of the time, he’s already there.

That morning, as Darvish sat at his locker, Kenji Nimura, a diminutive 42-year-old former high school teacher, was standing a few feet away, chatting in Spanish with pitchers Alexi Ogando and Joakim Soria, their conversation punctuated by loud, excited laughter. But as the beat reporters crept closer to Darvish for an impromptu press conference, Nimura’s face dropped into a more sober cast. He walked over to the pitcher, took up his familiar position at Darvish’s side, and began fielding questions.

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Originally published: July 10, 2014. Last Updated: July 10, 2014.