Yu Darvish to make home debut for Dodgers, 12 years after Lasorda’s failed pitch to coax him from Japan
He won the Sawamura Award, the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young Award, in 2007. (Aug. 16, 2017)
The visitor from Los Angeles arrived in Osaka a dozen years ago, as Yu Darvish pondered leaving home for Major League Baseball. Darvish was a senior in high school, but his talent induced a fleet of baseball lifers to board planes bound for Japan.
One of them represented the beating heart of the Dodgers, the progenitor of Blue Heaven. Darvish can still remember the day Tommy Lasorda came to his house.
So can Lasorda. He was invited by Acey Kohrogi, who ran the Dodgers’ scouting operation in Japan and pursued Darvish with dogged intent. The presence of Lasorda showed the organization’s commitment.
Lasorda lobbied Darvish’s Iranian father and Japanese mother to allow their son to blossom in Los Angeles.
“I just tried to tell them what the Dodgers could mean for him,” Lasorda said. “And what he could mean for the Dodgers.”
Despite Lasorda’s pitch, Darvish chose to start his career in Japan. When he left after the 2011 season, the Dodgers were financially paralyzed by Frank McCourt’s bankruptcy. Team and player would not unite until this summer, when the Dodgers acquired Darvish from the Texas Rangers in exchange for three prospects minutes before the July 31 trade deadline.
What could the Dodgers mean for Darvish? What could he mean for the Dodgers? Darvish will make his home debut at Dodger Stadium against the Chicago White Sox on Wednesday, but the answers to those questions won’t come until October. The team brought him in to alleviate pressure on Clayton Kershaw and end a 28-season World Series drought.
If he’s right, he’s as good as anybody I’ve ever seen.
— A.J. Pierzynski
Darvish understands the stakes. He has operated under intense scrutiny since he was a teenager. His time as a Dodger may be brief; he will be a free agent this offseason. Before him is an opportunity to inscribe his name into franchise lore.
“Of course, the Dodgers have been good in those 29 years but obviously we haven’t done it yet,” Darvish said through his translator, Hideaki Sato. “Which means it’s that hard. Knowing that, with the way we’re playing as a group, I just want to be part of it, to help the team out.”
A complex portrait of Darvish emerges from interviews with his former teammates, former manager and general manager, plus the scouts and executives who have observed him since high school. He appreciates his privacy but exudes charisma and intelligence. His talent invokes awe yet creates outsized expectations. He seeks information but often relies upon old habits. On the mound, some say, Darvish’s greatest foe is the extravagance of his own arsenal.
“If he’s right,” said A.J. Pierzynski, who played with Darvish in 2013, “he’s as good as anybody I’ve ever seen.”
Pierzynski was a catcher for 19 years in the majors, teaming with aces like Johan Santana, Mark Buehrle and Chris Sale. During Pierzynski’s lone year with Texas, Darvish exasperated him with his pitch selection and astounded with his ability. “I’ve never seen anybody who can manipulate a baseball like Yu Darvish,” Pierzysnki said.
In the spring of 2014, after J.P. Arencibia squatted behind the plate to catch Darvish for the first time, his Rangers teammates praised him for surviving the session. Darvish brandishes seven pitches and generates movement that deceives even catchers. “All the pitches he throws are, by far, the nastiest pitches I’ve ever had to catch,” Arencibia said.
The dexterity separated Darvish from his peers as a teen. He was scouted heavily in junior high. He became a national figure after throwing a no-hitter in Japan’s prestigious Koshien high school tournament.
Scouts from the United States took notice. Rene Francisco, the Dodgers’ director of international scouting, saw Darvish as a senior. His fastball sat around 91 mph, Francisco recalled, but Darvish exuded polish that belied his age. “He had a feel for pitching, and that’s an art,” said Francisco, now an assistant general manager for the Kansas City Royals.
Darvish elected not to leave Japan. He won the Sawamura Award, the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young Award, for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in 2007. He led the Pacific League in strikeouts three times and in earned-run average twice.
Darvish remained an object of fascination in America. He grew to 6 feet 5, but maintained balance in his mechanics. The combination of stature and weaponry was tantalizing.
In the summer of 2011, as the Fighters pondered letting Darvish leave, Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos visited Japan on a scouting trip. He marveled at Darvish’s size and arsenal of pitches, and compared him to Zack Greinke. “He could do anything he wanted with the baseball,” said Anthopoulos, now the Dodgers’ vice president of baseball operations.
Texas paid the Fighters $51.7 million for the right to negotiate a contract with Darvish. They doled out another $60 million in salary.
Darvish carried a dual burden: He was viewed as a dynamic addition to a team that had just lost the World Series in seven games. And to many Japanese fans, he represented his country’s best hope for winning a Cy Young Award. He was bigger than Daisuke Matsuzaka, more skilled than Hiroki Kuroda and armed with more pitches than Hideo Nomo.
“Expectations were so high, because of his talent,” said Hideki Okuda, who has covered Darvish since 2014 for Sports Nippon. “Even American people agree his stuff is as good as Kershaw, Scherzer, those guys.”
The transition had some bumps. Darvish’s ERA hovered above 4.00 for much of his first summer in 2012. The Rangers took pains to make him feel comfortable, but his manager, Ron Washington, still felt Darvish “was fighting the culture” those first two years, dealing with the language barrier and the adjustment to major league competition.
The breadth of Darvish’s arsenal complicated his approach and decreased his efficiency. Texas officials preached to him about using his fastball. Darvish was receptive to the advice, and tried to implement it. At times, though, he reverted to the style he used in Japan, running deep counts and shortening his outings.
“You can’t force change on people, especially when they’ve been successful doing the things the way they were doing,” Washington said.
Darvish could reach exhilarating heights. He finished one out away from a perfect game in his first start of 2013. On five occasions that year, he struck out 14 batters or more. Those performances only made his mediocre days more startling.
Pierzynski considered himself a member of the chorus imploring Darvish to trust his fastball. He threw the pitch only 38.2% of the time in 2013, which could create headaches, as Darvish opted for sliders or splitters or curveballs when a heater would suffice. During an outing that September, as Darvish stumbled against Oakland, Pierzynski argued on the mound with his pitcher.
“He was having a bad day, and I tried to challenge him a little bit,” Pierzynski said. “And he didn’t like that.”
Despite the hiccups, Darvish finished second in the American League Cy Young voting. He led the majors with 277 strikeouts. He logged 200 innings for the only time in his career. He continued to flourish in 2014. Washington noticed Darvish had become more open with teammates, more chatty on the bench.
His arm would not allow the idyll to continue. In August 2014, inflammation was discovered in his elbow. He did not pitch again that season. A winter of rest and rehabilitation proved futile. Darvish reinjured his elbow the next spring, underwent ligament replacement surgery and missed all of 2015.
Darvish poured himself into the rehab. “He wasn’t afraid to work,” Rangers general manager Jon Daniels explained, and when Darvish returned on May 28, 2016, his stuff “was electric,” Daniels said. The men had grown close over the years as Darvish came to trust his employers. Darvish had not chosen to play in Texas — the Rangers paid to become the only team he could negotiate with — but he learned to appreciate the market.
“He grew up very much in a media fishbowl,” Daniels said. “He was arguably the biggest star in the country. He told us that he felt comfortable here, that he could go out and be himself.”
One morning this April, a black SUV pulled up to Karly Edington’s East Dallas apartment. Edington, a 31-year-old who works at a veterinary clinic, did not know much about the man inside. A day before, she asked a friend, “Do you know somebody by the name of Hugh Darvish?”
Darvish had come to see about a dog. She was a pit bull named Sage, and she had a hard life. Found on the street and brought to a clinic, the dog required surgery to remove a ruptured mass. Edington took her in, but the dog’s barking irritated the neighbors. Sage could not stay.
Edington asked her friend, a producer for a local radio station, to tweet a message looking for someone to adopt the dog. The tweet caught the eye of a reporter for the Rangers’ television station, who retweeted it, entering Darvish’s orbit. His assistant reached out to Edington soon after.
Edington expected Darvish to help Sage find a new home through a shelter. Instead, Darvish and his wife were smitten. Darvish mentioned how Sage resembled a pair of their other dogs. He offered to keep Sage for himself. Edington was stunned.
“For him to go beyond what I expected him to do, I’m at a loss for words,” Edington said. “I will be in debt to him forever.”
A few months later, after the trade was finalized, Edington visited Globe Life Park in Arlington with a homemade T-shirt: “Yu Adopted My Foster Dog And I Need A Ticket To L.A.”
The acquisition of Darvish delighted the Dodgers. He arrived at a low ebb, with a 4.01 ERA after a 10-run pounding in his final start for Texas. Before he ever took the mound as a Dodger, Darvish showed general manager Farhan Zaidi his eagerness to adapt.
They had met years earlier inside the weight room at Oakland’s O.Co Coliseum, when Zaidi was a member of the Athletics’ front office. Darvish figured anyone who was that close with Oakland general manager Billy Beane “has got to be a smart guy,” he said. When Darvish joined the Dodgers in Atlanta two weeks ago, Zaidi reintroduced himself. “You were the guy always doing cardio,” Darvish said.
Darvish felt Zaidi could help him find an edge. He requested a meeting before his first start in New York. Peering into Zaidi’s laptop, the pitcher and the general manager spent a half hour poring over data about how Darvish could alter his sequences and attack opposing hitters.
“To be honest, there was a little trepidation on our part of how much to share, how he would respond to our ideas of things he could do more effectively,” Zaidi said. “In our conversations, they started off with us being a little careful and trying to be respectful. He has pushed us to give him more information that he can handle and process in his way.”
Darvish debuted with seven scoreless innings and 10 strikeouts. His performance dipped in his second outing, as he struck out 10 Arizona Diamondbacks but needed 106 pitches to complete five innings of two-run baseball. For Darvish and the Dodgers, the regular season matters little. He lost both his playoff starts in Texas. He will get a chance for a third, and perhaps several more, in two months.
Over the weekend, when the team returned to Los Angeles, Darvish reconnected with the Dodger who tried to sign him a decade ago. “He remembered me more than I remembered him!” Lasorda said, beaming inside the Dodger Stadium dugout on Monday afternoon.
It took longer than Lasorda hoped. But those questions — what Darvish could mean for the Dodgers, what the Dodgers could mean for him — will be answered soon.
“I wanted this kid, bad,” Lasorda said. “And we finally got him.”
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