RUNNING HIS WAY BACK
Hiroki Kuroda said he felt lost.
He didn’t know why he was getting hit and he didn’t know whether he could make it stop. He didn’t know whether he would ever be able to repay the Dodgers for the three-year, $35.3-million deal he received or whether he would even remain in their rotation.
“I felt like I had to do something,” he said. “I felt like I couldn’t go home.”
The San Francisco Giants had just battered him for seven runs in 3 2/3 innings and Kuroda felt he needed punishment of sorts as a kind of therapy.
So he did what he always did whenever he was angry with himself in Japan.
Back and forth, Kuroda sprinted across the outfield at Dodger Stadium, which was vacant except for the nighttime cleaning crew and reporters in the press box.
Since then, he has posted a 2-0 record and 1.21 earned-run average in three starts. But going into his start tonight against the Colorado Rockies, Kuroda, 33, said he remains insecure.
And not only because he’s still acclimating to a new country, playing in a new league and trying to learn a new language.
For the first time, Kuroda is pitching without his father in the background. A year ago, Kuroda’s father died of lung cancer.
“This is my first season without him,” said Kuroda, who has a 7-8 record and 3.88 ERA. “I used to always talk to him after games. That’s gone for the first time and I’m playing in the United States for the first time. In that sense, I feel like I’m playing a different kind of baseball.”
His father, Kazuhiro, played professionally in Japan for eight seasons, mostly as an outfielder, and later became a youth coach.
Kuroda said his father told him not to bother with baseball when, as a first grader, he said he and a friend wanted to start playing.
“I probably gave him the impression that I wanted to play for the sake of playing,” he said. “He told me to not play if I wasn’t going to take it seriously.”
Kuroda said he would -- and he did.
In Japan, baseball is as much a spiritual exercise as it is a sport -- or at least it was when Kuroda was growing up. He said it was common for him to be hit by his high school and college coaches. When practicing in the summer heat, he wasn’t allowed to drink water because it was believed that doing so would weaken the spirit.
“If something like that happened now, it’d probably be a problem,” Kuroda said, laughing. “But in my times, that was common.”
He also learned to not lash out at others when something went wrong.
Drafted in the second round by the Hiroshima Carp in 1996, Kuroda became the club’s opening-day starter in 2003. But his status as the Carp’s top pitcher came into question the next season, when he was 7-9 with a 4.65 ERA.
Kuroda said he woke up one morning to find a column in the local newspaper with a headline: “Kuroda is no longer the Carp’s ace.”
“When something like that gets written about you, as a human being, you don’t feel good,” he said. “But there was part of me that felt I deserved to have something like that written about me.”
Kuroda posted the article in his locker in Hiroshima. When Kuroda announced last winter that he would be leaving the Carp for the majors, the article was still there.
“It was torn and wrinkled because it was there for so long,” he said. “I wanted to remember what I felt when reading the newspaper that morning.”
Dodgers Manager Joe Torre said he has seen that side of Kuroda.
“He’s always taking the blame,” Torre said. “It’s always front and center. It’s a great example for people who are pointing fingers at somebody else. I think that comes from the culture.”
A sense of responsibility is what kept Kuroda in Japan for an extra season.
Kuroda was eligible for free agency at the end of 2006, making his future the subject of widespread speculation. Would he leave the small-market Hiroshima Carp for the Hanshin Tigers? Would he go to the U.S.?
Kuroda made up his mind during the final home game of that season.
The Carp, which draw notoriously small crowds, sold out the game. Fans held up red posters with his uniform number, 15, printed on them in white. A huge white flag, also bearing his number and signed by hundreds of fans, was waved in the stands.
The sight drew a strong response from the usually stoic Kuroda.
“I was touched,” Kuroda said, “that everything I had done up to that point meant something to the fans, that I meant that much to them. That they did that for me, that was something for which I was very grateful. Even in the stadiums here, you don’t see something like that much.”
His father’s health was an issue. With his condition deteriorating, Kuroda moved him into his house in Hiroshima so that he and his wife could look after him. Kuroda’s mother had passed away five years earlier.
And with Japan’s Central League adding a playoff format -- instead of the first-place team advancing directly to the Japan Series, the top three teams would be entered in the postseason -- Kuroda thought he might get a shot at playing for a championship.
He was wrong, as the Carp finished in the bottom half of the six-team league for the 10th time in his 11 seasons in Hiroshima. So when the season ended, Kuroda declared his intentions to leave for the majors.
Kuroda denied that he signed with the Dodgers for three years instead of four because he has designs of returning to the Carp.
“I was entering a world I didn’t know,” he said. “Baseball is still baseball, but this is where the best players in the world come together. I didn’t want to sign a long contract without knowing how well I’d do here. If I signed a long contract and didn’t do well, life would be painful.”
For a time, it already has been.