If you visited ESPN’s site yesterday, for a few hours, they pushed a very interesting piece on Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters pitcher Yu Darvish to the front page, and the possibility that he might be made available to MLB teams via the Pacific League’s posting system as soon as next year. Of course, this being ESPN, they went with the cliche “Dice-K 2.0” for a headline for their usually excellent E-Ticket series of articles, and Yahoo’s Jeff Passan wrote about Darvish and his unique background about a month and a half ago.
What’s particularly fascinating to me is the confluence of Darvish’s half-breed status (son of an Iranian father and Japanese mother who met at college in the U.S.); the 21-year-old is a celebrity figure and was one right out of the gate in high school. He’s covered in Japan like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are here — a scandal actually erupted when a gossip rag caught him smoking a cigarette (the Japanese smoking age is 20.) Both Passan and Jim Caple’s piece describe him as brash, and apparently the crowd seems to love him for it.
I would suspect much of that love is that particular exotic nature in a country where the majority is a highly homogenous, regimented society. The freakishness of a 6’5″ half-Japanese man who is the son of a Muslim will do wonders for celebrity attention, but like all societies with hyper-aggressive celeb hunters, I wouldn’t be shocked to learn if some of that has to do with the traditional condescending attitudes toward “the other,” even if he is half your own — and as Caple notes, it affected some of the teams in the Pacific League when it came time to draft him:
The Darvishes spoke English at home for the first three years of Yu’s life until Farsad gained proficiency in Japanese. Yu visited Iran twice as a child but says the country has had no influence on him: “I’m Japanese. I grew up as a Japanese. I’m 100 percent Japanese.”
Which is not to say that is how others view him. Darvish starred at the Koshien national high school baseball tournament — like Dice-K, he threw a no-hitter in the event — but Nippon Ham somehow was the only team that drafted him (the Japanese draft system allows multiple teams to choose a player). Just as Farsad felt discrimination in America, Yu’s Iranian background in a very homogenous society, Valentine says, prevented at least one team from drafting him. “My scouting director here didn’t think he was what our fans really would like to root for,” [Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby] Valentine says. “That scouting director is no longer with us.”
Passan notes we may be looking at the pitching version of Sadaharu Oh — not quite fully accepted because of his Chinese father, although right now, there’s no denying Darvish’s place in Japanese culture. But the real question outside of all the cultural and celebrity questions surrounding Darvish is the serious issue of whether his rights will be sold by the Nippon Ham Corporation, and what benefit it has for Japanese baseball if all its stars are destined to head to the American major leagues. Japanese baseball operates much more corporately than American MLB — just look at the team names, all feature the corporation that owns them; it’s kind of a soccer club team attitude to baseball. Managers like Bobby Valentine and former Fighters-turned-current-Royals skipper Trey Hillman are giving us more of an understanding of what goes on in the Japanese game, and more exposure of how the system adjusts will be interesting.
Photo: Getty/Toshifumi Kitamura