If Yu Darvish is cool enough to be on the cover of the Japanese edition of GQ, he should be a Yankee. That’s my latest thinking. On the other hand, there are still too many post traumatic flashbacks to Irabu and Igawa for me to fully embrace the idea of signing Darvish. (Maybe we shouldn’t sign pitchers whose last names begin with the letter “I.”) Still, this New Yorker piece just prompted me to wonder if he wouldn’t be the perfect fit for New York after all. Take a look.
DECEMBER 7, 2011
GETTING YU DARVISH
Posted by Seth Berkman
The 2012 baseball season is beginning to take shape at the winter meetings at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas, where hundreds of agents, general managers, and players are hammering out deals. On Monday, Jose Reyes, the Mets All-Star shortstop, reportedly signed a six-year deal with the Miami Marlins for $106 million. And now attention has turned to the Albert Pujols sweepstakes.
One of the top talents available this offseason, however, is Yu Darvish, a twenty-five-year-old half-Iranian, half-Japanese pitcher from Osaka, who has played the last seven years for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters and achieved mega-celebrity status in Japan. Darvish already has two agents, Arn Tellem, who has represented N.B.A. stars like Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol, and Kobe Bryant, and Don Nomura, known as the father of the sports-agent profession in Japan.
Nomura spent his early years in Tokyo, raised by a Japanese mother, and a Jewish father, who was a bowling-ball importer from Brooklyn. (His name at birth was Donald Engel.) After their divorce, Nomura stayed behind with his mother, who married Katsuya (Moose) Nomura, a slugger for the Nankai Hawks who hit six hundred and fity-seven home runs in Japan. Don Nomura moved to the United States in 1975 to study at Cal Poly Pomona. Returning to Japan in 1978, he spent three years as a backup infielder for the Yakult Swallows—where Moose was manager—before reloacating back to California in 1981.
Japan’s first professional baseball league started in the thirties, and for nearly six decades, pro ball there operated without young players demanding trades or looking for multi-year contracts; they were loyal to their teams and there was no need for agents to negotiate new terms. The landscape changed in 1994, when the pitcher Hideo Nomo hired Nomura to get him out of his contract with the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes to pursue a career in the United States.
Nomura had long seen an opening to capitalize on Japan’s rising baseball talent pool. In 1989, he purchased half-ownership of the Salinas Spurs, a Class A team in the United States, and filled the roster with Japanese players. In 1991, he signed a deal with Kanematsu Chemical to sell the first official baseball cards in Japan. Four years later, Nomura instructed Nomo to retire from Japanese baseball, a loophole that would allow him to become an international free agent. Nomo signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in February of 1995, for the league-minimum of $109,000, plus a $2 million signing bonus.
Nomura also negotiated deals for the Japanese stars Hideki Irabu, Hideki Matsui, and paved the way for Alfonso Soriano, who began his professional career with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, to sign with the Yankees in 1999. As a sixteen-year-old in the Dominican Republic, Soriano showcased his talents at a baseball camp run by the Carp. The team signed him and flew him to Japan in 1996. Unsatisfied with his environment and pay, Nomura suggested the same route that Nomo used to become a free agent. The Carp sued Nomura—the case was later settled—and Major League Baseball conducted a two-month investigation before declaring Soriano a free agent.
Irabu, who passed away in July, was a veritable rock star in Japan, an ace with the frame of Babe Ruth. In 1997, the Padres purchased his contract, but he only wanted to play for the Yankees, who eventually signed him to a four-year, $12.8 million contract. (At one point during the negotiations, Nomura compared his client’s situation with the Padres to being in an internment camp.) As Irabu became the talk of New York, Nomura was becoming a public enemy in Japan. Ichiro Yoshikuni, the Japanese baseball commissioner, described Nomura as a “chameleon” and “evil.”
By the time Ichiro Suzuki—who has become the most successful Japanese player ever—signed with the Seattle Mariners in 2001, the baseball climate had changed, both in Japan and the U.S. Nomura created a new market for one league, but also abolished the traditions of another. After the Nomo deal, all Japanese players became international free agents through a posting system; M.L.B. teams bid for the rights to sign the player, with that money going to the player’s Japanese team. In 2007, the Boston Red Sox paid a $51.1 million posting fee for Daisuke Matsuzaka. After two good seasons at Fenway, Matsuzaka has been beset by injuries, pitching in only forty-five games since 2009. Other players, such as Kosuke Fukudome and Kei Igawa, have also not panned out after garnering high posting fees.
Perhaps as a result, Yu Darvish’s free agency has been greeted with uncertainty and a surprising lack of media attention, even though his statistics are better than those of Matsuzaka or any other Japanese pitcher. Darvish has compiled a sub-2.00 ERA the past five seasons, while winning seventy-six games. Last season, he went 18-6 with a 1.44 ERA and two hundred and seventy-six strikeouts. Masato Yoshii, a former Mets pitcher who coached Darvish in Japan, told the Times in 2009 that “Darvish has better control than Matsuzaka,” and “he has exceptional control of every pitch known to man except a knuckleball.”
No clear frontrunner has been established for his services. But wherever Darvish lands, many should hope for him to succeed—not just Nomura, who inflated the market he is now trying to prevent from bursting, but baseball fans everywhere, to ensure that the best talent from around the world continues to compete against one another at the highest level.
Why do I have this sense now that he would be great in pinstripes? Am I crazy? Or just hungry for a starting pitcher? Or maybe I just like the image of the crowd at a packed Yankee Stadium chanting, “Yuuuuuuu?”