Kuroda wants to finish what he began

SAN DIEGO -- Apparently, this was big.

It was a regular-season ballgame between a couple of divisional bottom feeders. It wasn't a packed house, or anything close to it. From the standpoint of the visiting team, the game was almost secondary to the major news of the day, which was that one of its best young pitchers had a date with an orthopedic surgeon that will result in his being out of action for the next year or so.

But when I arrived at Petco Park for Tuesday night's game, one the Los Angeles Dodgers would win 1-0 over the San Diego Padres before 22,543, I noticed an unusually large number of Japanese reporters, including a couple of Los Angeles-based ones whom I honestly couldn't recall ever having seen on the road before.

Yes, Hiroki Kuroda was scheduled to start for the Dodgers, and yes, there always is a sizable Japanese media contingent on the days he pitches, even when he pitches against a last-place team like the Padres. But there was an added twist this time, an undeniable subplot that rendered Kuroda's 22nd start of the season different from his 21st or his 23rd.

This was to be the first time Kuroda would take the mound since shocking the American baseball world, but apparently not surprising the Japanese baseball world in the least, with his announcement on Saturday that he would not accept a trade to any club, a right afforded him by a clause in his contract with the Dodgers.

It didn't surprise those in the Japanese media much, either.

"It isn't that he was scared to go pitch for a good team like the Yankees or the Red Sox," said my friend Yasuko Yanagita, a national baseball writer for the Tokyo-based Hochi Shimbun who was here for the game. "He isn't that kind of guy. He has always been [competitive]. I just think he feels like he has to finish the season with the Dodgers."

Japanese players have been coming to the U.S. with increasing regularity for 16 years now, but that hasn't blurred the cultural differences. I don't want to call it a clash of cultures, because that would seem to imply something negative. But there are discernible differences that occasionally manifest themselves, and when they do, they can sometimes baffle some American fans and media types.

In a way, this is what I have always found odd about baseball's trading deadline, and it sort of feeds into what Jerry Seinfeld once suggested during a stand-up routine, that sports fans really are just rooting for clothing: a player can spend four months with a losing team (one set of clothing), get traded to a contending club (a different set of clothing) and go on to win a championship, but really, how much satisfaction does that player derive from such a series of events?

Is winning a title as a mercenary, on a team you spent all of two months plus the playoffs with, the same as winning one with the same teammates you had on the first day of spring training? Does the champagne taste as sweet? Do all those diamonds in that championship ring sparkle as brightly?

While most American players might tell you yes, in Japan, from everything I have been told in recent days, the answer is a resounding no. And that applies just the same to Japanese players after they come stateside. Yanagita tells me that there is a trading deadline in Japan, but that it works differently. There, she said, there are no non-contending clubs looking to dump salary and build for the future. Instead, any such deals are made to bolster both teams for the stretch run.

What a novel concept.

It isn't that Kuroda wouldn't have considered a trade -- although he was never presented with a specific one, he did ponder the general possibility for a few days before informing Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti of his decision -- it is just that he didn't really want to wear any uniform except that of the Dodgers.

"One win doesn't really say anything," Kuroda said through interpreter Kenji Nimura after one of his best performances of the season, his having thrown seven shutout innings at the Padres while allowing four hits and striking out eight. "But like I said before, I wanted to finish the season with the teammates I started with."

His record notwithstanding, Kuroda (7-13) has pitched marvelously all season as evidenced by his 2.96 ERA, and this marked the sixth time he has shut out an opponent for at least seven innings. But in losing each of his previous four starts, all as trade speculation was starting to pick up around him, he hadn't been as crisp, posting a 4.07 ERA. In this first start since abruptly putting a stop to all those rumors, Kuroda looked like himself again.

As much as he had tried to convince the media that his focus had been on pitching, maybe all that trade stuff had become a distraction for him after all. And maybe now that distraction he claimed didn't exist really doesn't.

"Honestly, I think it looked like that to me," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "He looked more relaxed. He had three or four starts in a row where everybody was asking is he going to be around, does he want to go, does he not want to go? That can't be easy.

"Maybe he was or maybe he wasn't, but he looked like he was at peace today."

After pitching the fourth-place Dodgers (50-59) to within a half-game of third in the National League West, and to within 10 1/2 of the division-leading but suddenly floundering San Francisco Giants, Kuroda reflected on a month he probably never envisioned when he made the decision four years ago to come to the U.S. after a successful, 11-season career with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp.

"After I made my decision, I still wondered if I made the right decision or not," he said. "Given the situation with the team, I had some thoughts about leaving. Maybe I thought it would be better for the team if I left. But when I saw my teammates' reaction, they were really happy that I stayed. So I think I made the right decision."

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.