The stadium gates were still closed and the seats still empty. As Yu Darvish stretched on the right field turf, he exchanged laughs with Kenta Maeda. The conversation lasted about 10 minutes, after which Darvish slipped into the nearby bullpen and returned to the visiting clubhouse through a back passageway.
From the time Darvish signed with the Chicago Cubs, he counted down to this week with a measure of curiosity. Never did he imagine his return to Dodger Stadium would be this calm.
“No one’s forgotten what happened,” Darvish said in Japanese.
The last time Darvish pitched here was for the Dodgers last year in Game 7 of the World Series, and his performance in the loss to the Houston Astros transformed the Japanese right-hander from a symbol of hope to one of failure. If he pitched in the Cubs’ four-game series against the Dodgers this week, the question wasn’t whether he would have been booed. He accepted that he would have been. What he didn’t know was how much.
“I wondered the entire time, ‘What’s going to happen if I pitch in L.A.?’” Darvish said.
Sidelined for the last month by tendinitis in his right triceps, he was spared from finding out.
Except the reprieve could be short. Darvish could be pitching here in October.
“In the playoffs, it will be worse,” Darvish said. “It wouldn’t be as bad in the playoffs if I could pitch in this series. The frustration of the fans is pent up at this point. If they could release some of that frustration now, I think it wouldn’t be as bad later.”
Darvish forced a smile.
“I’m a little scared of how that frustration is building and building,” he joked.
Darvish is familiar with what the fans are feeling because he shares their disappointment. Unlike the players who returned to the Dodgers this season, he can’t make it up to them. And unlike the others who moved to other teams over the winter, he’s too closely associated with the failure to ever simply vanish from the city’s collective memory.
All Darvish can do is communicate how he feels, which could be why he made it a point to do so. Shortly after Darvish started to talk about his return to Dodger Stadium, a Cubs public relations official told him the clubhouse was now closed to the media.
“Let’s talk outside,” Darvish said.
There, in one of stadium’s underground hallways, Darvish said what has stayed with him over the last seven months are the looks on the faces of his teammates after the Houston Astros were crowned World Series champions.
“More than the bad things that were said about me, what I regret is that I couldn’t repay those people,” he said.
Darvish reiterated what he said in October, that his trade to the Dodgers at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline last year is what revived his passion for baseball. What he newly revealed was that prior to the deal, his disenchantment had reached a point where he was thinking of retiring when his contract expired at the end of last season.
“I had told my wife that I was thinking of retiring at the end of the year,” Darvish said. “I was thinking I didn’t want to do it anymore, but then I was traded to the Dodgers.”
He emphasized his previous team, the Texas Rangers, wasn’t at fault.
“It was my problem,” he said. “But my environment changed drastically and playing in that new environment changed something in my soul.”
In short, baseball became fun again.
As the team’s No. 3 starter in the postseason, Darvish rewarded the Dodgers with victories in the National League division and championship series. But he failed to maintain his form in the World Series. He allowed four runs in only 1 2/3 innings of a Game 3 defeat. He was equally ineffective in Game 7, giving up five runs and recording only five outs.
“[Dave] Roberts said something about how I couldn’t make pitches when I had to, and I think that too,” Darvish said.
As for the widespread speculation that he was tipping his pitches, he said, “Even if I was tipping my pitches, I could have thrown pitches good enough to not be hit. Or if I had thrown them in the right places, the results could have been different. Simply put, I just think I didn’t have the command that I did in the DS and CS.”
Walking around town in the aftermath of the World Series, Darvish said the fans who spoke to him offered only words of encouragement. That wasn’t the case on social media.
But Darvish saw beyond the hostile words.
“More than what was actually written, what bothered me was the idea that Dodgers fans were disappointed,” he said.
Darvish became a free agent after the World Series. He wanted to re-sign with the Dodgers. He spent the winter at his off-season home in Texas and worked out with Clayton Kershaw five times a week.
Darvish had concerns about returning to Los Angeles, however, specifically how the city’s hatred of him could affect his family. He contemplated the downsides of sending his children to area schools.
“Their last name is Darvish,” he said.
Darvish negotiated with the Dodgers, but the team’s mandate to remain under the luxury-tax threshold made a reunion unlikely. The Cubs signed the 31-year-old Darvish to a six-year, $126-million contract.
“The first thing I looked at was when the Cubs would play the Dodgers,” he said.
Darvish has posted a 4.95 earned-run average in only eight starts for the Cubs this season. He has been on the disabled list twice already, the first time with the flu and now with tendinitis. He pitched in a minor league game on Monday as part of a rehabilitation assignment.
When he rejoined the Cubs on Tuesday at Dodger Stadium, he made it a point to spend the game in places where fans couldn’t see him.
“I won’t go to the front of the dugout,” he said before the game. “I’ll stay in the back or in the clubhouse where fans can’t see me.”
However much he understood why fans would boo him, he didn’t want to subject himself to that kind of abuse if he could avoid it.
“When people boo you, they’re telling you, ‘We don’t like you,’” he said. “It’s not a good feeling to get that from the fans of an organization you respect so much.”
But it’s something he will have to face one day, perhaps in October, perhaps next year or perhaps the year after that.