Kuroda transcends language barrier

Hiroki Kuroda has been pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers since 2008, and here's what most people know about him:

He's right-handed. He's wealthy. (His three-year contract with the Dodgers, expiring this year, is worth nearly $12 million per season.) He'll suffer through tough innings and stretches, but all in all, he's a fairly reliable member of the starting rotation.

From there, details grow scarcer.

It's hard to imagine that even hardcore blue-bleeders have gotten a bead on the personality -- much less the personal life -- of the Japanese hurler, thrice an All-Star as a member of the Japanese Central League's Hiroshima Toyo Carp. Exposure to Kuroda has been limited to the field and, from that vantage point, the man wearing the No. 18 jersey can be tough to read.

His presence is consistently and remarkably inscrutable -- reserved, even. Whether dealing or struggling, he's got a poker face Lady Gaga would die for. During the 2008 NLCS Game 3 against Philadelphia, a pitch high and inside at Shane Victorino's head sparked an angry reaction from the outfielder and a bench-clearing brouhaha. Tempers flared, but the instigator's body language was more Greg Maddux than Carlos Zambrano.

Since his rookie season, we've taken him at face value because that's all we've had to go on, creating a perception of his inward and reserved nature. But appearances can be deceiving.

"I may portray that image to you or maybe to others mainly because of the language barrier," Kuroda said through interpreter Kenji Nimura.

Kuroda is hardly the only non-English speaking player in the Dodgers' clubhouse, but ever since Takashi Saito's departure after the 2008 season, Kuroda is the only one speaking Japanese as a primary language. Saito provided solace in the form of a teammate with a common tongue as Kuroda adjusted to baseball in the states. Ever since, however, Kuroda's been marooned on a linguistic island. He still uses Nimura to interact with the non-Japanese speaking media and, quite often, his teammates.

"As far as my hearing comprehension goes, it has improved a lot," Kuroda said.

Unfortunately, there is an equalizing caveat. Understanding what's said isn't always the same thing as knowing how to respond. There are times when Kuroda can't conjure words to keep a conversation flowing, or simply lacks confidence in his vocabulary. It's an aggravating reality.

"It's really frustrating that I can't express my feelings," Kuroda said. Teammates offer specifics about Kuroda in short supply. Chad Billingsley talks about how the married father of two is often a homebody; he spent last year avidly watching Japanese dubbed DVD's of the TV show "Prison Break." James Loney said Kuroda has picked up bits of basic American slang. Beyond that, there aren't many details.

But teammates say they feel like they know Kuroda -- his essence -- even if they don't know everything about him as a person. The blanks are filled in through mutually relatable qualities.

Mutual understanding

Those around Kuroda have been cognizant of his situation, of the vulnerability to isolation sometimes felt during the earlier part of time in L.A.

"You think about it, it's a very lonely existence," manager Joe Torre said. "It's bad enough changing teams, but when you're changing countries, it's a little overwhelming."

"In the beginning, I felt a lot of stress because I could not communicate, even a little thing, to the players that were around me," Kuroda said. "That was probably the most difficult thing that I had to face."

Torre helped ease the stress after Nimura reminded him that managers are typically revered in Japan, and players are often seen and not heard by their skipper unless summoned. This detail slipped Torre's mind as he attempted to give Kuroda the space he'd provide any pitcher. Upon clarification, the manager made a special effort to visit his pitcher and establish lines of communication.

"I tried to treat him like everybody else until I realized he doesn't do what everybody else does," Torre said. "He's not going to come in and ask the manager something without bring invited. Once I sort of connected the dots, I made sure I made time." The gesture wasn't lost on Kuroda, who was flattered an iconic figure would take time on his behalf.

"I already had the highest respect for him, so it was such a great honor for him to come talk me on anything," he said. "I was really overwhelmed when he first approached me. Whenever I pitch really well, he pats me on the back and gives me words of praise, so there's a strong feeling inside of me that I want to do something for him and I want to contribute to the team."

As Kershaw noted, it's hard to fathom the culture shock Kuroda experienced. Loney and Blake DeWitt played ball in the Dominican Republic, and neither has forgotten how it felt being outside their elements.

"You've gotta embrace a guy like that," Loney said. "It's hard for him to go out of his way."

DeWitt was a member of Kuroda's rookie class. "The comfort level there, especially the first year, it definitely had to be tough for him," DeWitt said. "But you can tell, he's definitely having fun."

"He's a little more of an introvert," Torre added. "But over the last couple of years, he's certainly felt [like one of the guys]. I think that first year was a little uneasy for him. I think he's been more at home here."

Particularly after reminders of home. Fellow starter Clayton Kershaw surprised Kuroda one day by showing up in the clubhouse with a Carp T-shirt he found in a Santa Monica store. "I thought it was so random, I had to buy it," Kershaw said. The clothing was intended to be a present, but Kuroda told Kershaw he'd prefer if the youngster wore it.

"I was very happy for his gesture, because that shows a lot about him," Kuroda said. "Just for him to be wearing a T-shirt of a team that I pitched for, that says a lot about him as a person."

Kershaw has spent most of his big league life as Kuroda's rotation mate. Starters often travel in flocks, and like Billingsley, Kershaw says watching the games in the dugout together and tossing the ball during batting practice has forged a bond. Conversations heavy on baseball terminology flow easily. Chatter unrelated to the diamond happens, but with more effort and less certainty. The relationship, however, hasn't missed a beat.

"I consider him a good friend of mine," Kershaw said.

Understanding what translates

Crosby, Stills and Nash once sang, "If you smile at me, I will understand, 'cause that is something everybody everywhere does in the same language." Kuroda's public persona doesn't include steady smiles, but in the sanctity of friends, it's commonplace. And perfect communication hasn't been necessary for one personality trait to shine.

Teammates think Kuroda's a funny dude. Like, really funny.
You wouldn't know this from the outside looking in, or casual time around the club. You might not necessarily know this if you're Hiroki Kuroda, who isn't always convinced his zingers are effective.

"Language is really needed to describe any kind of humor," insists the pitcher, adding how "so many things … get lost in translation."

Not if you ask his teammates.

"He's a goofball," Kershaw said. "He likes to joke around. Little stuff in his own way. … The one phrase he knows, he knows when it's funny and when it's not, he's got good timing."

"If you're playing a joke on somebody, he's not afraid to join in," Russell Martin added.

When asked about his relationship with young pitcher James McDonald, Kuroda turned smart-aleck about his buddy. "I don't really get along with him." Why, Mr. Tongue-in-cheek? "That wishy-washy personality he has," Kuroda elaborated, as Nimura broke into laughter while translating.

And when asked about the incident with Victorino, Kuroda paused for a well-timed beat, then slyly noted how "it's very hard to comment on that." Not bad for a guy concerned about punch lines falling flat.

Understanding character

Kuroda's acclimation to his new surroundings and life was gradual, but no wait was required before one matter transcending language and culture was revealed.

Kuroda is a perfectionist on the mound, working off a high standard he's set for himself.

His debut was a seven-inning dazzler, limiting the San Diego Padres to three hits and one run en route to a 7-1 victory. From there, it hasn't been all sunshine and rainbows. There have been ups, downs and injuries, his current 8-8 mark paced perfectly percentage-wise with his 25 wins and 25 losses as a Dodger. He hasn't been consistently dominant, but his will and professionalism can't be questioned.

In 2009, he took the mound less than a month after a concussion from a comebacker to the face from Diamondbacks Rusty Ryal. As fearful a moment as it was to witness, imagine strapping on the cleats and putting yourself at risk again.

"You've got to have a lot of heart to get back on the mound," Billinglsey said.

Heart, as well as chutzpah, was also needed when Kuroda buzzed Victorino. The Dodgers weren't just down two games in that series. They'd been pushed around, drilled by the Phillies' pitchers like they were targets in a carnival game. The Dodgers' veterans groused about Billingsley (Game 2's starter) not responding in kind, and Kuroda took it upon himself to send a message. His six innings of five-hit, two-run ball didn't just spark the first win of the series. It reinvigorated the Dodgers' pulse.

"That was a big turning point," Torre said. "You knew he was a competitor, but I think at that point and time you realized what kind of a competitor. He knew what his team needed because he does have a sense for the game and certainly was right there at a time when we needed him badly."

Said Martin, "He's not afraid out there. That's for sure, man. When the game's on the line, he doesn't cave in." Kuroda can't picture any alternative.

"As a professional baseball player, as a starting pitcher, that's what you think about; that's all you think about," Kuroda said. "Go out on the mound and win the game."

Language can create hindrances, but Kuroda is solidly one among this band of ball-playing brothers. Unusual circumstances and parameters are in place, but they've ultimately served to make the unique experience more memorable for Kuroda.

"There's so much that you can understand about a person beyond words. And since I can't really express myself, I've noticed a lot more, I'm tuned to notice the quality of a person without speaking. There's a definitely a lot more importance in trying to understand a person without words.

"I really feel close to these guys. This is really special. The friendship that I feel for them is something that I'm never going to forget."

Andy Kamenetzky is a writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com and author of the Land O'Lakers blog.