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SAPPORO, Japan -- The Sapporo Dome's sellout crowd of 42,126 (not counting 45 assorted cheerleaders -- yes, 45 cheerleaders!) bangs Thunderstix and howls for Yu Darvish as he fires his 124th pitch of the game. The pitch snaps the bat in half -- the long end sails toward the mound and bounces off the dirt -- as Darvish calmly fields the ball. Taking his time, he tosses the ball to first to complete a four-hit, 10-strikeout 1-0 shutout on opening day for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. The best pitcher in Japan slaps his glove against his teammates' hands, walks to the dugout and exchanges a high-five with the club's costumed mascot and ... no, hold on a minute. Back up.
Travel to Japan to catch a glimpse of the country's latest pitching phenom, Yu Darvish.
One thing you must be clear on before going any further is Darvish pitches for the Nippon Ham FIGHTERS, not the Nippon HAM FIGHTERS. American fans get this wrong all the time. "Everybody probably thinks you're out there beating up pigs," says Trey Hillman, who managed Nippon Ham for five years before taking over the Kansas City Royals this season. "Pigs out on the field and you're out there with baseball bats." While it is amusing to imagine porcine samurai flashing swords on Japanese diamonds or an evil manga punching country hams inside a meat locker, Rocky Balboa-style, the distinction is important: the Nippon Ham FIGHTERS, not Nippon HAM FIGHTERS. We might think American sports have become overly corporate, what with stadium naming rights (what is the name of San Francisco's ballpark this season?), the Chick-fil-A Bowl and the "Snapper Mow 'Em Down" Inning, but this is nothing compared to Japanese baseball. American teams are identified by the cities in which they play, while Japanese teams almost always include corporate ownership in their names. Thus you have, in addition to Nippon Ham (which sells meat products), the Yomiuri Giants (named for the media giant), the Seibu Lions (a department store and railway company), the Chiba Lotte Marines (a candy company) and the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles (who bear the name of an Internet shopping company and play in the unfortunately named Kleenex Stadium). While winning is great, a team's primary function is to advertise the company. In this, alas, the Japanese are way ahead of their American counterparts, though it is probably only a matter of time before the tendency spreads to the United States, giving us the Wal-Mart Royals, the Blackwater USA Rangers and, naturally, the Halliburton Yankees.
AP Photo/KyodoAt 6-foot-5 and just 21 years old, Yu is a whirling Darvish of power on the mound.
So whether the wildly popular Darvish remains Japan's best pitcher until he is eligible for free agency in five years or is posted earlier (and perhaps much earlier) for a major league team to sign depends on what makes the most financial sense for the Nippon Ham Group, and not necessarily what makes the most competitive sense for the Fighters. Of course, it also depends on whether Darvish -- the stylish half-Iranian son of a man who once worked in the cafeteria at the Seattle Seahawks' training camp -- even wants to leave his native country to pitch in the majors. Although given the way so many Japanese superstars (Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kosuke Fukudome) have signed with major league teams recently, and the way even the nonstars have begun to follow them, it seems a pretty decent bet Darvish, too, will feel the pull of a higher salary and the world's premier baseball league. The important questions, then, are not just whether Darvish will pitch in the majors or when he might pitch in the majors. The equally important issue is whether this wave of emigrants is good for pro baseball in Japan. The answer is complicated, though Chiba Lotte manager Bobby Valentine, as usual, has his own view. "[It's] kind of like going into the Amazon and cutting down their forests without replacing the trees," he says. "Eventually you have a major ecosystem problem, and here, if the middle players keep leaving, there's going to be an enormous problem, not only in the fan base but in the talent level of the game of baseball in Japan." By the way, in case you were wondering, the Nippon Ham mascot is not a pig; it is, of course, a bear with a Mohawk.
NAKED CAME THE PITCHER America's retro-park craze has yet to reach Japan's shores. There is no Camden Yards here -- half the teams in Nippon Professional Baseball play in domed stadiums, including the Fighters. Built in 2002 for soccer's World Cup, the Sapporo Dome has foul territory so vast it could swallow both Dakotas and have room for part of Wyoming. With distant power alleys and a 15-foot fence encircling the field, it is the ideal pitchers' park. And right now, the league's best pitcher is striding onto the artificial turf before a game with what appears to be half the Japanese media firing questions in his wake. Are the reporters asking Darvish about his spotless record and sub-1.00 ERA? Or about the time he posed naked in a magazine? Or about his winter wedding to his actress wife, Saeko? About his son born the last week of March? About whether he wants to pitch in America? About his dream of making baseball popular in Iran? It doesn't matter, because Darvish isn't responding. Head up, the 21-year-old right-hander continues to the outfield without so much as a word or a backward glance. There is nothing lost in translation here: Darvish is giving reporters the full Barry. Unlike Bonds, though, Darvish doesn't have an image problem. To the contrary, he is extraordinarily popular, particularly with the teenage girls who swoon over him, his youthful face staring out from ads and magazine covers (and, inside one publication, a good deal more of his body). And not just on the less densely populated north island of Hokkaido where Sapporo is located, but throughout Japan.
AP Photos/KyodoIn Japan, Darvish is more than an unhittable pitcher. He's a rock star, married to an actress and fodder for the tabloids.
And why not? In addition to his extraordinary talent on the mound, Darvish is a demographer's dream: young, 6-foot-5 and slender, with the sort of strikingly exotic face that is seen more often in Calvin Klein ads than on baseball cards. Features like this -- a blend of his Iranian father, Farsad, and his Japanese mother, Ikuyo, who met (where else?) in the U.S. -- are practically sui generis in Japan. The full family name is Darvishsefad. Yu's grandfather was a travel agent in Iran who encouraged Yu's father to explore the world, partially by finishing his high school education in the United States. Farsad did and went on to college in Florida, where he played soccer -- or at least he did until 1979, when Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, kidnapped 52 embassy workers, changed the course of American politics, launched Ted Koppel's career into orbit and instantly made things rather unpleasant for young Iranians studying in America. "My coach put me on the bench for two years," Farsad says without any apparent bitterness. "But then again that made me strong, because I never gave up. I told Yu once how it was, because in the sports world there are people who won't like you." Farsad eventually wound up at Eastern Washington University in the small town of Cheney, Wash., which is where the Seahawks used to train each summer. "When I was working in the cafeteria, I used to watch them carry two trays -- one was a milk tray, one was a food tray, so it was very huge," he recalls. "And, of course, I cheered for the Seahawks."
Sadly, though, Farsad missed out on the Stan Gelbaugh era when he and Ikuyo moved to Japan to raise a family in Osaka. 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," Valentine says. "That scouting director is no longer with us." Darvish's enormous popularity clearly proves that director's view was completely wrong.
Courtesy an-an MagazineDarvish revealed plenty when he posed nude for a women's lifestyle magazine.
Yet his background is an issue. "[The Japanese] really do like to have their star players from their community, from their prefecture, from their area in the country and, lastly, at least from the country," Valentine says. "And sometimes when a guy isn't of the same model as every other guy, there are some old heads in the country [thinking], 'I don't want that guy on our team.'" Nippon Ham has a reputation for signing players considered untouchable by other teams. This past winter, for example, the team signed Kazuhito Tadano, the pitcher who appeared in a gay porn movie while in college and briefly pitched for the Cleveland Indians. If any team was going to sign Darvish, who also had a reputation as being a little wild and undisciplined in high school, Nippon Ham would be the one. And Darvish began his pro career in Japan with an American manager, Hillman. "When he was drafted his father was outstanding," Hillman says. "He said, 'Trey, he's all yours. I know that you'll treat him like he was your own son.'" Darvish progressed quickly and steadily with the Fighters. He lowered his ERA from 3.53 as a rookie in 2005 to 2.89 in 2006 to 1.81 last year. But the 2007 season ended on a down note. Despite allowing only one run in the final game of the Japan Series, Darvish took the loss when the opposing team pitched a perfect game. He is 5-1 with a 1.46 ERA so far this season. "Yu is tremendously gifted, and he's developed a great work ethic," Hillman says. "I didn't have a lot of conversations with Yu, because there wasn't a need for it. He understood that he needed to start working harder. Actually, after the 2006 season, he was so dedicated and committed to his workout program that he [chose] to forgo the team trip to New Zealand." "I don't need much motivation," Darvish says through an interpreter. "I'm never satisfied until I win all the games and have an ERA of 0.00. I want to throw a faster fastball. I want a sharper curve. I want to improve all my pitches." Most observers feel he either is already as good as Matsuzaka or soon will be. "I think his numbers in Japan are going to be equally as phenomenal as he continues to move on, barring injury, as Dice-K's were in Japan," Hillman says. "He's got a different type of frame. Dice-K's got a more powerful frame, but Darvish has looser levers and a taller frame with more whip, and I think that gives him an opportunity to have more powerful and more electric secondary pitches as well as a fastball. "The curveball is just not fair. Honestly, it's just not a fair pitch." When Ichiro first came to America, rumors flew that there was a $1 million bounty for a naked photo of him, and he took the rumors seriously enough to dress in a private section of the clubhouse. Darvish, on the other hand, willingly posed nude for a magazine last year (though it did not reveal his genitals). He was embroiled in a national controversy when he was caught smoking a cigarette (gasp!) while still in high school. He clearly has grown comfortable with public, ahem, exposure since then, so much so that one night last season he promised his fiancée that he would win the game so he could use the postgame news conference to announce their impending wedding and her pregnancy. To cultivate his image, he hired an agent who normally represents entertainers. In a humble society famous for the expression "the nail that sticks up is hammered down," Yu is cocky enough to say things such as, "On a scale of 1 to 10, I can bring a 10 to any important game." Hillman compares Darvish's marketability to Tiger's and MJ's. "He understands how cool people think he is. He understands the adulation and the mystique." Indeed. Hillman says the driving force for Darvish's weight regimen was an intense desire to get stronger and "be the dominating pitcher that he can be" but also that "he wanted to look good for those endorsements."
AP Photo/KyodoThe Nippon Ham Fighters exist not just to win baseball games ... but to sell pork.
COMING TO AMERICA ... OR NOT So, does Darvish want to pitch in the majors? Unfortunately, the conditions for an interview with the pitcher come with the following stipulation: No questions regarding his thoughts on Major League Baseball. Which is telling in itself. If Darvish had no desire to play in the majors, wouldn't it be easy for him to just say so? "I told him not to say anything, because it would increase interest," Fighters director of operations Toshi Shimada says. "I told him it will increase his popularity and make the club more popular." In addition to boosting his popularity now, is it designed to also drive up the price for Darvish in a possible posting down the line? Under Japanese rules, players are not allowed to become free agents until after nine seasons (though free agency rules might soon be changed, allowing players to become free agents after seven or eight years). Darvish is in his fourth season. However, a player may leave early under the posting system in which his team sells the right to negotiate with him to the highest bidder. Teams do this when they realize they will lose the player anyway and want to get some money in return (which is how Dice-K came to the Red Sox). They usually don't do so until the penultimate year of the player's enforced servitude, but Nippon Ham general manager Masao Yamada was quoted this spring saying that if a player requested to be posted earlier, his team would pretty much have to abide by his wishes. "We will admit a transfer, if it is allowed by the system," he said. "We won't chain our players. Actually, we want to train players like the majors are looking for and [see them] perform well over there. That's kind of our goal." One Fighters beat writer thinks Darvish is looking for a greater challenge and gives better than even odds the pitcher will be posted after this season. He also says it depends on whether Darvish's wife wants to go to America. Oakland Athletics scout Randy Johnson, who played two seasons in Japan, says he thinks Darvish will be posted early but not for several years. Others believe he will never leave Japan.
Get a sneak preview of "The Zen of Bobby V." The documentary film, looking behind the scenes at Bobby Valentine's Chiba Lotte Marines, debuts at 9 p.m. ET Tuesday on ESPN2.
"I did read something the other day that [the Fighters] said they made a profit last year, which is very encouraging considering so many teams lose millions of dollars because of the advertising vehicle they are for the parent company," Valentine says. "But if they're in a state where they need a lot of money, I would think that he could be posted, and he could make a centerpiece in a rotation in the States. I just hope that doesn't happen. I hope the good players stay here. And I hope NPB can do enough to keep them here." Most everyone says if Darvish is posted, the bidding will easily top the $50 million the Seibu Lions received in exchange for the rights to Dice-K. After that, Johnson says, "The sky is the limit as to where the big-money teams would go." Given the usual escalation in baseball contracts, it isn't crazy to think the negotiating fee could go to $75 million. While America is a verboten subject, Iran is not. Farsad Darvish says he is involved with a program to promote baseball in his native country, and Yu wants to help bring the game -- President Bush's favorite sport -- to Iran. "Yes, of course, because Iran is my father's country, I'll help him make baseball popular there," Yu says. "I know how much it means to him." If Darvish can make the Great Satan's national pastime popular in Iran, he should take on an even greater task, like signing with the Cubs and seeing whether he can help them win a World Series. While American fans wait to see whether Darvish leaves Japan early (or at all), they can watch him pitch in this summer's Olympics or next spring's World Baseball Classic. For what it's worth, Farsad Darvish says Yu's background -- he has traveled to the States twice, and he has several aunts and uncles living in the U.S. -- would help him adjust culturally to the major leagues. "If he ever wants to go there, he'll be around the right people, the right connections," he says. "If Yu ever wants to maybe go to America, he will be ready." And is there any team for which Farsad would like Yu to pitch? "I love the New York and Boston area. If he ever makes it there, I don't know, it's up to him, anywhere in the States is good, but I personally love New England." Theo Epstein, Brian Cashman: Consider that your wakeup call.
Nik Kleinberg/ESPN.comWhen Farsad Darvish says, "I personally love New England," you know Red Sox Nation is listening.
A HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO SPRING BASEBALL To learn just how much major league opportunities have grown for Japanese players, you could consult no better source than the trim and nattily dressed man in a sport coat and slacks sitting in the back of the Tokyo Dome during an exhibition game between the Boston Red Sox and Yomuiri Giants. He is Masanori Murakami, and 44 years ago he became the first Japanese player to play in the big leagues. It was a different era in 1964. World War II had been over less than 20 years. Americans considered sushi a truly exotic if not downright strange food, if they knew about it at all. Japanese cars hadn't made a dent in the American market. And baseball players were paid much, much less, particularly if you were a 19-year-old prospect from Japan pitching in the U.S. through a complicated arrangement between the Nankai Hawks and San Francisco Giants. Murakami learned just how different a world it was during the Giants spring training camp in Casa Grande, Arizona, a small town between Tucson and Phoenix. He did not realize until arriving in camp that major league player's do not receive their salary until after spring training. "I had no car," he recalls. "I had to hitchhike into town for dinner."
AP Photo/KyodoDarvish says he would like to help make the game popular in his father's home country of Iran.
It was a lonely experience. "I lost a game one day in Fresno and lost again the next day," he says. "I felt so bad. I wish I had somebody to talk to after losing those two games." Murakami pitched two seasons before returning to Japan after a dispute between the Giants and Hawks over who owned his contract rights. No other Japanese player would play in the majors until Hideo Nomo 30 years later. More than three dozen players have made the transition since then, including the 15 playing in the majors this season. Their paths have been smoothed by personal interpreters and fabulous salaries, easily five times what their counterparts earn back in Japan. Matsuzaka earned $10 million his first season in Boston. This much is certain about Darvish's future: If he chooses to play in the States, he will not have to hitchhike. "It is not so good for the Japan League," Murakami says of the exodus of Japanese stars. "But the best players like to go over there because it is the best league. It is like a musician going to Carnegie Hall." How have the departures affected Nippon Professional Baseball? Ratings for the Yomiuri Giants, the Yankees of Japan, have fallen from the high 20s in the 1980s to single digits since Hideki Matsui left the team. The club also has drastically cut the number of its home broadcasts. The same day Ichiro made his debut with the Mariners in Seattle, his former team, the Orix Blue Wave, drew so few fans they could be counted easily by hand and has since merged with another club. "Their fan base has not recovered since the Ichiro days," Hillman says. Baseball is so popular in Japan there are entire museums dedicated to individual players (the Ichiro museum is so comprehensive it includes the player's junior-high dental retainer), but Robert Whiting, author of the authoritative English book on Japanese ball, "You Gotta Have Wa," worries about the effect of the migration on fans. "Since 2001, Japan has lost its best hitter, its best home run hitter, its best catcher, its two best infielders and its best pitcher," Whiting says. "And this year they lost a couple other all-stars. Three of the guys that were named to the all-time all-star team in Japan are now playing in the United States, so that's a very big hit. If you're a fan, it's very depressing. You develop an attachment to a team because of its star player, and then he leaves." "A lot of people are worried about it," Hillman adds. "They're worried about losing their best players and continually having to follow their best players from their homeland with their players being on the other side of the world. It was said more than once to me, 'Help us keep our players.'" Valentine likens it to what happened to the Negro Leagues. "Jackie Robinson went and other [stars] followed and then they took the medium-level players away. What eventually happened was there was no Negro League. A league that had full stadiums, a league that had many teams in different cities, that league, in fact, collapsed. I don't know that the same thing will happen here, but there's definitely the same possibility. "MLB should understand, the game of baseball is too important here in Asia to just take the talent away. What MLB has to do is think of the growth of baseball in the world, not just the growth of individual franchises in the States."
Nik Kleinberg/ESPN.comFormer NPB stars Hideki Matsui, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Ichiro Suzuki became hotter properties by leaving for America.
"WHERE DID THE DAMN GAME GO?" The breathtaking cherry trees are blossoming along a stream flowing through Kyoto's Gion District while the occasional geisha darts across a low footbridge and down a narrow lane lined with red lanterns, providing one of the loveliest scenes in Asia. But who cares? The TV in the hotel room is showing Nippon Ham's game against the Seibu Lions, and Darvish is starting for the Fighters. Cherry blossoms? Red lanterns? Geishas? They will have to wait, because Darvish has another shutout going as he takes the mound for the fifth inning and even with the exotic allure of nightlife in one of the world's great cities you can't just pull yourself away from the TV now when this is getting good and ... Hey, wait a second! Why the hell are those newscasters on the screen? Where's Darvish? Where did the damn game go? What the #@&% is going on??!!!
Calm down and set aside the remote. It's just 7 p.m. and time for the news. This is merely another side of Japanese baseball. If NHK is broadcasting a game, the network always breaks for the news at 7, no matter what inning it is. Similarly, other channels end broadcasts of games at 9 p.m. for the Golden Hour, when ratings and ad rates are highest. Doesn't matter whether Darvish is pitching or the game is over, the broadcast halts.
AP Photo/KyodoIchiro reached another level of stardom by coming to the majors in 2001. Will Yu follow suit?
This is another aspect of baseball in Japan you need to appreciate. Mohawked mascots notwithstanding, the NPB is not marketed as well as it could be. "You see as many advertisements for Major League Baseball in Japan as you do [for] the NPB. And in some cases more so," Hillman says. "Sitting in our dugout during games the last five years and up on the scoreboard there's Ichiro Suzuki, and now Matsui commercials in Yankee pinstripes and Dice-K commercials in a Red Sox uniform. If they want to fix it, in my opinion, they've got to stop selling the product on the other side of the world." The keys, he says, are getting NPB teams to work together to promote their own game and doing a better job of keeping players like Darvish. But that's not as easy as it sounds. "People think of Japan as the land of the group, and they think of America as this group of entrepreneurs who are all independent of one another," Valentine says. "But the fact is, in American baseball there are 30 teams that are owned by rich guys and they work together. They promote each other's teams, they share revenues, they share ideas and they prosper together with TV contracts and sharing the wealth of the game. Here, there are 12 teams that work independent of one another. They share nothing." That explains why the Yomiuri Giants, the richest team in Japan by far, thought nothing of inviting the Red Sox and the Athletics to play in Tokyo the same week Japan opened its season. The Red Sox-A's series angered competing teams because Yomiuri not only stood to make money off the series but also hurt its competitors. Giants pitcher Koji Uehara was so upset about the series he criticized his own employer, telling a reporter, "Why are major league teams coming here when the Pacific League has already started its regular season?" Jim Small, MLB International's VP for Asia, says Major League Baseball simply accepted an invitation to play the Red Sox-Athletics games in Tokyo before the NPB schedule was set. He also says Japan's problems are related as much to marketing as to the departure of its players. "We would love to have every fan in Asia be a Major League Baseball fan, but I think the key is they can be a Seattle Mariners fan and a Hanshin Tigers fan, they can have a Tomoaki Kanemoto jersey and an Ichiro jersey," he says. "What we need to do as an industry -- and I'm talking about the NPB and Major League Baseball -- is make sure that those kids growing up are baseball fans. We don't want to lose them to video games. We don't want to lose them to television, to soccer, to other sports."
Nik Kleinberg/ESPN.comFans enjoyed the Red Sox-Athletics series in Tokyo, but many NPB teams did not.
The exodus, actually, has had some positive effects on Japanese baseball. The success of Japanese players in America, Valentine says, has given the NPB new credibility. He also says the talent level is better than ever, in part due to Japanese players paying attention to major league style. Teams are slowly trying to bring their facilities up to major league quality. While ratings might be down for the Giants, more fans are watching the other teams. Nippon Ham, which used to share the Tokyo Dome with the Giants, moved to Sapporo in hopes that being the only baseball team on Hokkaido would boost attendance. It did, as did signing Darvish. "He brings them out," Hillman says. "He puts rear ends in the seats." Given Darvish's popularity, it would make more sense for the NPB to do whatever it takes to keep him home rather than let him go to America, where he would become just another loss for Japanese baseball. By staying, he would help Japan market its game better and perhaps reverse, or at least slow, the current trend. Of course, that would depend on what Nippon Ham felt made the most sense for the corporation and not for Japanese baseball.
And how would Japanese fans react if Darvish should leave? "I think they're just numb," Whiting says. "They've lost so many of their top stars they would just go, 'Well, who's coming up next?'" By the way, there is one spot in Kyoto where you can watch baseball games without newscast interruptions, and you watch them deep into the night. You won't see Darvish, though. At this joint, where Hideki Okaji's Red Sox jersey hangs on the wall, the 2004 and 2007 World Series run on a continuous loop. The bar is named Fenway Park.
Nik Kleinberg/ESPN.comIn Little League, Japanese players are taught a respect for the game that isn't seen in many other countries.
THE KIDS ARE STILL ALL RIGHT To fully gauge the health and appreciate the culture of Japanese baseball, you must look to the amateur level, where the players of tomorrow are learning the game. The Koshien national high school tournament holds a place in Japan that is on par with the NCAA men's basketball tournament in the U.S. The games are nationally televised. Tearful players scoop the infield dirt into plastic baggies to preserve as lifelong mementos. And tournament stars such as Darvish become Japanese heroes overnight. You also must look to the Little League level, where teams practice on weekends year-round, even in the snow. Consider Dice-K's old Little League program in the suburbs of Tokyo near its Disneyland. On a warm spring Saturday, more than 70 players ages 7 to 15 show up at 9 a.m. for practice that begins with -- get this -- three hours of running on a beach. (The youngest, 9 and under, are not required to run.) Three hours of running? In the sand? American kids won't run three minutes unless they're racing toward an Xbox or Wii at the end of an aisle at Target.
Nik Kleinberg/ESPN.comShingo Ariyasu can sell his players on the intense running program with these simple words: "Dice-K ran."
"The kids don't like the running program," manager Shingo Ariyasu acknowledges. "But I tell them, 'Dice-K ran. If you want to play pro baseball, you have to run, too.'" After running, the kids break by age groups onto three fields for fielding, batting and pitching drills. The older players pitch to the younger players. They are all in full uniform. They will practice until it is too dark to see the pitches. No wonder Japan has won the Little League World Series three times in the past nine years. Retired from a career in construction, Ariyasu is 67. He has been a Little League manager for three decades, and he coached Matsuzaka for several years. Ariyasu answers questions through an interpreter while sitting in a lawn chair behind the backstop during an intrasquad game. It doesn't appear he is watching the practice closely, but when a pitcher brushes a batter back with a pitch up and in, Ariyasu suddenly interrupts the interview to bark at the team. Instantly, every player stands at attention and bows his head. "There are no beanballs in practice!" the manager yells. There might be room for pitching inside during a game, but beanballs will not be tolerated. He has seen two players hit in the mouth by pitches, suffering broken jaws. The players nod to Ariyasu that they understand. They return to playing. There are no more beanballs. You get the feeling Ariyasu runs a slightly more disciplined team than, say, Morris Buttermaker. "What's amazing watching kids play baseball here is the amount of respect they have for everybody," says Small, whose son, John, plays for a Tokyo Little League team. "When they get on the field, they drop their hats and they bow, because the field is sacred. And when they go to the batter's box and the umpire is there, they bow to the umpire. And the worst thing you can do -- and my kid was taught this really early -- is throw your glove. Because his glove is his tool, and the glove is sacred.
Watch "Outside the Lines" For more on the future of Yu Darvish, watch "Outside the Lines: First Report" at 3:30 p.m. ET on Thursday on ESPN.
"They're taught -- and you see this with Dice-K and with the top players here -- from when they're this tall to respect the game," Small says with his hand held waist high. "And I just think it's wonderful the way they do that." Still, even Japanese Little Leaguers have changed. Rather than get in front of a groundball, Ariyasu complains, they try to backhand it, saying, "That's the way I saw it on TV!" Next thing you know, they'll be catching fly balls with one hand and admiring their home runs before circling the bases. Remember, Manny Ramirez was here in March. More importantly, Ariyasu says, the kids increasingly talk about playing in the majors rather than Japan. They want to go directly to America and bypass pro ball in Japan entirely, no messing around with waiting nine years or asking to be posted early, as Darvish must. And Ariyasu says he wants them to do so. "I tell them that Japan lost to the U.S. in World War II, so they need to practice hard and go to the majors and show Americans what they can do." But often, kids don't know what he's talking about when he mentions World War II. "They say, 'Huh? World War II?' They don't know. So instead, I tell them, 'Be like Dice-K.'" As Ariyasu speaks, a 12-year-old named Ohzeki Takumi digs in at the plate. During batting drills, Takumi showed a quick stroke so smooth you could ice skate on it. Now he takes a relaxed stance, coils as the pitcher delivers and crushes a ball over an outfielder's head. Ariyasu says Takumi reminds him of Matsuzaka -- the kid pitches, as well -- only he is better at his age than Dice-K was. He calls Takumi over. The boy races in, skids to a halt and bows respectfully (Kelly Leak, he isn't). Big for his age, he's about 5-8, a full head taller than some of the others. Is he the type of player who matures early, dominates because of his physical advantages and then loses his edge as his peers grow into their bodies? Or will he continue to grow tall like Darvish and one day earn millions as a professional? Will he eventually play alongside Darvish and help him to a NPB title? Or will he replace him in this country should Darvish leave for the majors? Time will tell. Darvish might not be talking about his plans for the future, but Takumi is. He already knows what he wants to do with his considerable baseball talents when he grows up: "I want to pitch for the Red Sox." Japanese fans will have to decide for themselves whether his answer should inspire pride, anticipation or dread, or possibly a mixture of all three.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Masa Niwa contributed to this story.
Join the conversation about "Dice-K 2.0."
Nik Kleinberg/ESPN.comSome argue that a new generation of players will be ready to replace Japan's departing stars in the NPB.