Joe Furukawa speaks baseball
Yu Darvish's interpreter played in Japan and is valuable asset for Rangers pitcher
ARLINGTON, Texas -- When Japanese star Yu Darvish sits in front of a microphone with camera shutters clicking, flash bulbs popping and hundreds of reporters clamoring to ask a question following one of the most anticipated starts not only in Texas, but also in Japan, Joe Furukawa will be there.
He's the face you see -- and the English voice you hear -- every time Darvish chats with reporters, which he'll do following his big league debut against Ichiro Suzuki and the Seattle Mariners on Monday night. And with Darvish, there are no small media scrums.
Japanese camera crews, on-air personalities and writers camped out in the center field lobby at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington for most of the night before Darvish's six-year, $56 million guaranteed deal (plus the $51.7 million posting bid) became official in January. They followed him to the airport in Japan and greeted him when he landed in Dallas for his introductory news conference, carried live in his native country. There were television reporters waiting for days before he arrived in Arizona for spring training.
Darvish is more than a pitcher in Japan -- he's a rock star.
So Darvish knows his every move will be followed and scrutinized. But he's not alone. Furukawa was there for the introductory news conference, interpreting Darvish's comments. And he was there as one of the first Rangers faces Darvish saw when he made the walk from the parking lot to the clubhouse in Surprise, Ariz., the morning of Feb. 21.
"We wanted someone Yu could be comfortable with and someone who understood the game," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "We're thankful for Joe."
Furukawa doesn't just speak English and Japanese -- he speaks the language of baseball. He played in Japan, spending much of his career as a minor-league shortstop, and understands the culture and how the game is played there.
"We're the envy of 29 teams who would love to have a guy like him," said Jim Colburn, senior advisor for Pacific Rim Operations and the point person on the club's expansion to that market the last few years.
"He's a fanatic about baseball. Any scout that goes to Japan knows who he is. It's very important for a Japanese player to have an eloquent interpreter. The English that comes out of Joe's mouth is sensitive and correct. That's what he brings to the table."
And Darvish is certainly appreciative of what Furukawa brings, saying so after his final spring start.
"It was very helpful that there was somebody in the states that can not only help me with baseball but with everything else," Darvish said Wednesday in Frisco, as Furukawa translated.
Playing the game
Furukawa grew up watching big league baseball in the United States. He was born in Yokahama, Japan, but moved to Anaheim, Calif., when he was six years old. Furukawa still has family -- his parents, brother and sister -- who reside in the United States.
Furukawa's father, Takashi, loved baseball. Naturally, he shared that passion with his son. Almost as soon as Joe arrived in Anaheim, a net was set up in the backyard and he would practice with his dad, hitting balls into the net until the sun went down. He was a 5-foot-9 quarterback in high school.
"I was not a drop-back passer," Furukawa said. "They'd have me sprint out and look to run first and if that wasn't there, I'd pass it."
But it was baseball that he loved. He wasn't drafted out of high school, but clearly had ability. The United States Junior Olympic team wanted him, if he would get his United States citizenship.
"But my peers were getting bigger and stronger and I wasn't sure what I wanted to do," Furukawa said.
He earned a college scholarship, playing at the University of California-Berkeley for two years before transferring to UC Irvine. Furukawa played with Jeff Kent and against future major leaguers Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, Bret Boone, Trevor Hoffman and others.
In Furukawa's senior season in 1992, he hit .341 with 28 RBIs and thought he would be drafted by a big league organization. That didn't happen.
He wasn't ready to quit playing, so he contacted teams in Japan and got a minor-league offer with the Hiroshima Carp. Off he went to Japan, where he brushed up on the language and learned about life in a minor-league clubhouse.
"The initial plan was to go there, play a few years, come back to the States, go to grad school and go into sports medicine," said Furukawa, who played shortstop and second base. "I ended up playing, got better each year, but stayed mainly in the minors. I got a cup of coffee with Hiroshima and the Yokahama Bay Stars, but that was it."
Life after his playing career
Furukawa's last season was 1999 and he didn't want to leave the game. The Yokohama Bay Stars recruited Furukawa to become an international scout, where he could help them try to get American players to come to Japan.
He did that for five years, watching not only American players, but high school games in Japan, too. That's when he was given a unique opportunity: Come back to Hiroshima and interpret for manager Marty Brown.
"I had always wanted to see the game from the coach's eyes and see what went on before and after games with them," Furukawa said.
Brown, a native of Lawton, Okla., had been managing since 1997, starting in the Pittsburgh Pirates system. The International League Manager of the Year in 2004 with the Buffalo Bisons (Cleveland's Triple-A club), Brown decided to take his skills to Japan two years later.
He spent a lot of time with Furukawa, trying to learn what he could about life in Japan.
"He went with me everywhere," Brown said.
That included onto the field when Brown wanted to argue with the umpires about a call.
"I had to try to bring the same emotion that he was so that it was a true translation," Furukawa said.
Brown said he and Furukawa had to learn some things together about managing in Japan.
"The first time I was ejected from a game, I didn't know the rules and Joe didn't either," Brown said. "You have a certain time to argue and then the umpires would walk away and you would go back to the dugout. We didn't know that and I couldn't get the umpire to talk to me. The only way I could figure out how to get thrown out was to throw the base to right field. And all four umpires threw me out."
Throwing bases, of course, needs no translation.
But more important than interacting with umpires were Furukawa's interpretations during coaching sessions that took play on the field and in the classroom.
"He had baseball knowledge," said Brown, now the manager of the Blue Jays' Triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas. "A lot of interpreters don't have that playing experience. He knew the baseball terminology and he knew what was happening on the field."
Brown said Furukawa helped him better understand Japanese culture so that he could get certain messages across to his team. For Furukawa, it was a huge learning experience and gave him more insight into how the game is played and evaluated. It has helped him as a scout.
"It changed the way I see baseball," Furukawa said. "The coaches put in a lot of work and they care so much about the players. It's fun if you win and hell if you lose."
Joining the Rangers, scouting Darvish
While Furukawa was working with Brown, the Rangers' Pacific Rim Operations staff was constantly looking for more people. And Furukawa was high on their list.
Colburn and A.J. Preller, now the club's senior director of player personnel, recognized Furukawa's skills as a set of baseball eyes and someone who could speak both languages. And Colburn, who had been scouting the Japanese teams for years, remembered the scrappy infielder he saw a few times.
"He was a hustler and energetic guy who played hard," Colburn said. "Early in my employment here in 2008, we started looking for some people in Japan. He has an impeccable background, spoke the languages and had been a player, in a baseball front office and an interpreter. There was hardly anyone we could think of that was more qualified."
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Furukawa, though, was loyal to Brown and wanted to stay with him for a few more seasons. But once Brown's tenure at Hiroshima was over, Furukawa decided to join the Rangers organization.
And, of course, Furukawa saw plenty of Darvish.
"We started to really focus on him a few years ago and we were ready in case he was posted before the 2011 season," Furukawa said. "I spent a lot of time scouting him and the more scouts we sent over and the effort we had gave me a hint of how serious we were about him."
Furukawa said it wasn't simply watching Darvish's starts and writing a full report. The Rangers wanted to dig as deep as they could.
"We would go to practices and see how he was," Furukawa said. "How was he after games on the bench? What was approach when he wasn't pitching? How was he interacting with other players? What did the coaches think? We wanted to know the whole makeup part."
Furukawa figures he saw Darvish at least a dozen times live in 2011 and most of his other starts on television.
"He's the full package," Furukawa said. "The body, the stuff, the pitches and his ability to control the game were there. He has good command. He's a power pitcher that thinks crafty."
Furukawa said even a week before bids were due for Darvish, he didn't know the club was going to bid. He assumed they would, based on all the work put in.
"But you never know," Furukawa said. "We didn't know how much the bid was or if we'd win and four business days seemed like it took forever. Every single day it was like we couldn't wait. We just wanted to know if we won or not. I was thinking, 'What if we lost by $100,000? Was the bid the right amount?'"
Furukawa, like the rest of the Rangers' scouts and front office folks, was thrilled when the news came that the club had won the bidding.
As part of recruiting Darvish to Texas -- even though the Rangers won the bid, they still had to get a deal done in 30 days -- the club scheduled a visit around New Year's for him and his family. Furukawa flew over Dec. 31 and spent a few days at a hotel to help interpret and be there during the visit.
"That was big," Furukawa said. "Everyone made him feel welcome."
Furukawa went back to Japan and returned a few days before the deadline, unsure if everything would come together. At one point during the negotiations, the club asked Furukawa if he would be Darvish's interpreter, should a deal get done.
"They said they had invested a lot and wanted a baseball guy that could speak the language and someone they thought Darvish would get along with," Furukawa said. "I was surprised. I figured I'd go and try to find the next guy we could sign."
But he readily accepted, knowing it was an opportunity to not only help one of the club's most important players make the transition to life in the United States, but also a chance to experience life in a big league clubhouse through the eyes of one of the top teams in the league.
Furukawa was there when Darvish was introduced as a Ranger for the first time in a prime-time news conference in Arlington in January. Since then, they've had a chance to spend time together inside the clubhouse, on the field and away from the ballpark.
"I've gotten a chance to know him better," said Furukawa one day midway through spring training. "We've grown closer and I think he feels more comfortable and the same with me. He's a good guy and very smart. He says what he feels, is pretty straightforward and down to earth."
Furukawa won't make any bold predictions when it comes to Darvish's season, though it's clear he believes the pitcher will do well.
"I don't think that's my place," Furukawa said. "My job is to be there to translate for him and be around when he needs me. It should be an exciting year."