By Barry Horn The Dallas Morning News
ARLINGTON, Texas — Yu Darvish is on stage in the bowels of the ballpark as a battery of cameras lovingly clicks away, capturing the essence of the pitcher sitting behind a table at a news conference. Clicks will outnumber Darvish’s words 50 to one.
It is two days before his major league debut today, a few minutes after 5 p.m. and the interview room, down the tunnel from the Rangers clubhouse, is packed. If the World Series had numbers on the assembled media in the room one game into the new season it wasn’t by much. Japanese media outnumber the locals six to one.
Minutes earlier, the cameras were trained on Darvish, late of the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, as he pedestrianly ran with his Rangers teammates in the outfield.
John Blake, the Rangers executive vice president with 33 years of major league duty who serves as gatekeeper and master of ceremonies for everything Darvish, called the outdoor scene “incredibly unusual.”
Not for Darvish, who has been a center of such attention since the start of spring training, but certainly for Rangers baseball.
The Rangers have had Japanese pitchers before. There was reliever Akinori Otsuka in 2006-07, and now there are relievers Yoshi Tateyama and Koji Uehara. But Darvish, who will start Monday night against the Seattle Mariners, arrived with a $111 million price tag and far loftier expectations.
Blake, the Rangers’ communications boss, estimated there were 100 Japanese media members in Arizona for Darvish’s first spring training workout in February. He estimated there will be 80 assigned to Darvish at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on Monday. Ichiro Suzuki, the Mariners’ outfielder in his 12th season, will bring a similar four score of media members.
“There is nothing comparable in American sports,” Blake said. “We have six Japanese radio and television networks, two wire services and 15 newspapers covering us now. If Michael Jordan in his prime went to play in Japan, how much U.S. media would stick with him?”
Blake has seen the phenomenon previously. In a respite from his Rangers duties, which date to 1984, he served in a similar capacity for the Boston Red Sox. In 2007, similarly heralded pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka arrived from the Seibu Lions.
“Their spring trainings were fairly comparable,” Blake said. “The thing that makes this different is NHK (the publicly owned Japan Broadcasting Corporation). In 2007, NHK was at Daisuke’s first start in spring training, and that was it. They were with us for all of Yu’s starts.”
The 25-year-old Darvish’s first spring training start in early March was watched in 1.7 million homes in Japan. First pitch was around 4 a.m.
Indeed, NHK broadcasted the three-game season opening series against the White Sox. The network will follow up with all four games of the Mariners’ series. Kenji Wantanabe and analyst Tsayoshi Yoda were dispatched from Tokyo to call the games. Blake estimated the NHK crew includes 40 people.
Monday’s 5:05 PDT p.m. start translates to 9:05 a.m. Tuesday throughout Japan.
There is no firm schedule to broadcast Rangers games in Japan beyond the first few weeks of the season. The most likely scenario is that the games will be limited to Darvish starts. Those that are beamed back with U.S. network video feeds will be supplemented with broadcasters anchored in a Tokyo studio. Complicating the plan will be the London Summer Olympics, which belong to NHK.
If the Darvish storyline follows Matsuzaka’s, Blake expects the Japanese media contingent will shrink to 25 as the season progresses.
“But who really knows?” Blake said. “What if it only gets bigger?”