When Koji Uehara, the Orioles' first dip into the Asian talent pool, arrived in Baltimore in 2009, one of my favorite things to watch that season was Koji interacting with his new Orioles teammates, especially the awkward high fives like the one pictured above (a photographer snapped that one last August).
In my defense, should-have-been relievers Mark Hendickson and Alfredo Simon and the immortal Adam Eaton joined Uehara in the Opening Day rotation that year, so pretty much any distraction from the actual baseball part was quite welcome.
The Orioles’ first Japanese-born player was an interesting storyline as he adjusted to a new language, a new culture and a new style of baseball -- with a crew of Japanese reporters following his every move.
His first season was a minor disappointment as injuries limited him to 12 starts (he went 2-4 with a 4.05 ERA). The Orioles sent him to the bullpen in 2010, and in the middle of the season, something clicked.
The Orioles realized they couldn’t use Uehara every night, and if they gave him adequate rest, he was a pretty effective pitcher. In the second half of the season, he had a 2.57 ERA, earned the confidence of Orioles manager Buck Showalter and converted 13 of 15 save opportunities. He got comfortable, grew some fierce sideburns and started connecting on more high fives (except for the one pictured above).
He re-signed in Baltimore this past offseason, and pitched well enough to earn a trade to a contender over the weekend, though in an emotional chat with reporters, he admitted that he had mixed emotions.
"There are two contradicting feelings. Part of me says that a contending team wants me, and that's gratifying,” Uehara said. “At the same time, Baltimore -- I've been there for two years. It's really sad.”
When asked which players he would miss most, he simply responded, “Everybody.” He later teared up.
I’m not crying on my keyboard as I write this, but I’m sad to see the Uehara era end here in Baltimore. He adapted to his new environment, battled injury and adversity and exceeded expectations in the end.
I’ll miss Koji, who was one of my favorite Orioles. May he always be awkwardly high-fiving us in our hearts.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times