I’m one of the fortunate people who loves his job. However, it’s still a job; deadlines have to be met, specific things have to be covered and, occasionally, I have to do things I’m not crazy about. Covering baseball for the last decade hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm for the sport, but I do treasure the all-too-infrequent moments when I can follow the game and not have to work.
I’m currently in the middle of a six-week stint covering Kansas City Royals spring training. Saturday was the first official day of workouts for the position players – official workouts for the pitchers and catchers always start a few days earlier, since pitchers need more time to prepare – which also means physicals for the position players. As a result, the Royals workouts started in the early afternoon, about three hours later than usual. I made the short drive from my spring training residence and arrived at the Royals spring training complex in Surprise, Arizona around 9 am – late by spring training standards – did a couple of player interviews and then lounged in my black leather (or is it pleather?) chair in the Surprise Stadium press box. The Royals are co-tenants of their Surprise, Arizona spring training complex with the Texas Rangers, which means those of us covering the Royals share the press box with those covering the Rangers. And, those covering the Rangers have been a harried bunch, thanks to the arrival of Yu Darvish.
Never has so much money been invested in someone who’s never thrown a Major League pitch. The Rangers paid Darvish’s Japanese team, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, over $51.7 million just for the right to negotiate with him before giving the righthander a six-year contract that guarantees Darvish $56 million. Granted, Darvish was a sensation in Japan – the caliber of play in Japan’s top professional league is somewhere between American AAA baseball and the American Major Leagues – and he’s only 25 years old, meaning his best years should be ahead of him. And, the Rangers already have an outstanding pitching staff, a staff that’s helped them to back-to-back American League championships, so Darvish isn’t coming into a situation in which he’s expected to be the savior, reducing the pressure on him somewhat.
Speaking of pressure, there’s no other player in Major League history who knows what it’s like to have a team spend nearly $108 million to get you AND to have an entire, baseball-mad nation watching your every move. Dozens of Japanese media members have been assigned to cover Darvish, leading to the creation of an auxiliary press area at the Surprise spring training complex just to house them. Having spent a year working for the New York City bureau of the Yomiuri Shimbun – the Japanese newspaper with the world’s largest circulation – I know how ravenous their media can be. Heck, when I spotted Darvish at the local Target a few days ago, I was surprised he wasn’t being trailed by a few scribes and cameras. When it comes to following their great baseball players once they come to the States, the Japanese media make the American paparazzi look more timid than housecats who hide in the attic when guests come over.
Saturday was a big day in Rangers camp because Darvish was going to throw – a five-minute bullpen session followed by five minutes of live batting practice. I had nothing else to do so, shortly before 10 am, I ventured over to the Rangers side of the Surprise spring training complex – a mirror image of the Royals side with Surprise Stadium serving as the mirror. The first thing I noticed were the signs – there were twice as many. Since several Japanese media are covering Darvish, signs have been printed in both English and Japanese. Most of the signs noted mundane details, like where the press box is located and where media are – or aren’t – allowed to go. The second thing I noticed were the crowds. The Rangers play in a bigger market and have been more successful recently than the Royals, so it would stand to reason there would be more fans on the Rangers side of the complex. But, it’s one thing to assume a larger fan presence and another to actually see it. There were so many folks to see the Rangers, gates and fences were strategically placed to help control the crowds and make it easier for the players to get on and off the fields, something that isn’t necessary on the Royals side.
The biggest crowds were around Darvish. I was able to secure a coveted spot next to the bullpen fence just as Darvish made his way to the top of the mound and was immediately surrounded by fans and media who also wanted a closer look. I heard a cell phone ring behind me, followed by a male voice saying “moshi moshi,” the Japanese equivalent of “hello.” Then I heard the unmistakable pop of the catcher’s mitt as Darvish began throwing. I didn’t have a radar gun, but I’ve covered enough baseball to make educated guesses on a pitcher’s velocity, and there was little doubt Darvish was throwing in the mid 90s. And, he made it look easy; most pitchers who throw that hard have elaborate deliveries with high leg kicks and look like they’re trying to throw the ball through the catcher rather than to the catcher. Darvish’s delivery was like a picture-perfect golf swing; everything made sense, each body part worked in concert with the others and not a single motion seemed wasted or rushed. The leg kick was high enough, the stride was just right and the finish was balanced. There’s no doubt pitching coaches at all levels will be recording Darvish’s delivery and showing it to their pupils.
After the bullpen session was done, Darvish was accompanied by a police escort as walked the 20 feet from the bullpen mound to the practice field where he would be throwing live batting practice to a handful of Rangers minor league hitters. I once again secured a post next to the fence, on the third-base side, and was once again enveloped by fellow onlookers. The L-screen was placed in front of the mound – the same screen used during pre-game batting practice to prevent BP pitchers from getting hit by line drives – and Darvish and his catcher let the hitter know what pitch was coming. I saw the effortless delivery again, but now I was in a better position to see the location of Darvish’s pitches, which gave me a chance to marvel at his impeccable command. I don’t think he threw one pitch above the batter’s knees and he worked his fastball effectively to both sides of the plate. I’d heard Darvish had an excellent split-fingered fastball, but I was more impressed with his changeup, which darted down and away from lefties. Not surprisingly, the minor league hitters were no match for Darvish, even though they knew what pitch was coming.
After his live batting practice stint ended, Darvish walked to a spot five feet from where I was standing, so he could be under the shade the dugout provided and drink from a bright orange water cooler. As Darvish drew water into a green Dixie cup, a 35-millimeter camera with a zoom lens went off next to my left ear, the photographer shooting pictures of Darvish refreshing himself in rapid-fire succession. Fans started pushing their way toward the field’s exit, getting their pens, Sharpies, balls and baseball cards ready for Darvish’s signature; they would be disappointed, as Darvish’s police escort helped lead him to another field for his post-throwing PFP – pitcher’s fielding practice – so the $108 million dollar man could work on how to properly cover first base on a ground ball hit to the right side of the infield. A few fans followed Darvish, but most dispersed, content to watch other players work or to seek more autographs. I walked back to the press box, jealous of the media who cover the Rangers; they would get to watch God’s gift to pitching every fifth day, and I wouldn’t.
I covered Royals camp later that Saturday and, for the first time, I noticed how peaceful it was. I love my job.Follow @raford3