Yusei Kikuchi introduced himself to the local media and Mariners fans and wanted to do so in English.
As the constant clicks from the array cameras turned into a din filling the media room of what is now called T-Mobile Park, Yusei Kikuchi moved close to the microphone. Wearing an impeccable suit and a striped tie, which he bought the day before and featured the Mariners’ colors, Kikuchi introduced himself to the 50-plus media members, the Mariners and baseball fans watching via the internet stream.
But this introduction would be different from his Japanese predecessors, who came to Major League Baseball in search of playing at the game’s highest level. Like throwing a 3-2 slider with the bases loaded, Kikuchi wasn’t going to look to someone else for help. He had been preparing for this moment. He was going to do this in English instead of speaking in his native language and relying on an interpreter.
“Hi everyone, my name is Yusei Kikuchi of the Seattle Mariners,” he said carefully. “Today is a very special day for my family and I. Thank you to my family and my amazing wife, Rumi, my friends, my high-school coach and my mentor, Mr. Sasaki, for supporting me every day. Playing in the big league has been a dream of mine since I was 15 years old. Thank you, Seibu Lions, for letting me go and living my dream.
“Mariners ownership and Mr. Dipoto and Mr. Servais, thank you for this new journey. And to my new teammates, I can’t wait to meet you guys soon. Thank you.”
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It was a surprising introduction. Few foreign-born players exhibit the sort of confidence with a nonnative language to do something like that, particularly in their first media session.
Less than 24 hours after the Mariners announced that Kikuchi had signed a four-year contract guaranteed for $56 million, and with club options that could push it to seven years and more than $100 million, Kikuchi felt it was important to show his commitment to the transition and to his new team by making his opening statement in English and answering questions from U.S. media in English. His interpreter, Shawn Novak, relayed the questions to him in Japanese, though it was clear Kikuchi understood much of what was being asked.
Why do it this way?
“I don’t know all the details yet,” he said of the process. “But I want to practice hard and adjust myself. I want to enjoy every single thing.”
As Kikuchi answered questions, general manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais beamed at their new acquisition while super agent Scott Boras nodded with approval on the dais.
“I’m fascinated with how he handled that news conference,” Dipoto said. “We knew we were getting a very sharp, good mind and a player of high character, but the fact that he sat there and went through this interview process in English is phenomenal in my opinion. He’s clearly been working on his English. It was great.”
Boras has represented players from Japan, including Daisuke Matsuzaka when he came to the U.S. with much more hype. But this was a new experience for him.
“This is an extraordinary young man,” Boras said. “I’ve never had a news conference with a Japanese player where he’s come here on his own and presented himself to the city of Seattle and done so in perfect English. All of us who are language challenged and have played in different countries or done things in different countries, we know how difficult that is. It says a lot about his learning aptitude, about his commitment, about what he wants to do in the Major Leagues.”
Servais had dinner with Kikuchi on Tuesday evening, and Kikuchi told him of his intentions to do the first part of the news conference in English.
“I’m more impressed with the person,” Servais said. “He told me he was going to do this in English, and I was like, ‘we’ll see.’ And he did it. I was very impressed. He’s got some personality about him. He’s a really smart guy, and he wants to get better. I think it’s a good fit.”
When asked by Japanese media about speaking English, he elaborated on the decision:
“I want to apologize to the English-speaking media for my bad English and the short answers,” he said through Novak. “Thank you for bearing with me. Being here on the biggest stage of baseball in the world, it’s a global stage, and I wanted to ingrain myself with that and be available to everyone and be able to speak to everyone directly. So I worked hard, and that was an important thing for me to do going forward. From high school, when I first had the dream of playing in the big leagues, I wanted to be able to communicate directly and from the heart to the fans over here in English by myself. I made it a goal to speak English by the time I got here. And here I am today.”
How he got here today was a combination of the Mariners’ plan for his development and adjustment to MLB and a creative contract with Boras.
As part of the process to pitch themselves, the Mariners showcased a development plan for Kikuchi that will help him adjust to the MLB schedule of pitching every five days compared to the every six or seven days in Nippon Professional Baseball.
The Mariners want to limit the struggles of Japanese pitchers, who seem to deal with injury or severe downturn in production after two years of work. By limiting his usage in 2019, the Mariners hope Kikuchi will be stronger in 2020 and 2021, when the team hopes to be emerging from “step back” mode.
It was something that Boras had asked of teams. He’s cognizant of the track record of Japanese pitchers coming to the U.S.
“It was very helpful to sit down and talk about what YK’s needs were coming in because that was very important to us,” Boras said. “There’s been a history of Japanese pitchers, who are very, very gifted coming here and being thrust into a situation where the physicality, not the talent of the pitcher, but the physicality and durability of the pitcher has been challenged and often led to surgery.
“Jerry was just completely understanding to our concern and mindful of it. He came back to us with a developmental plan that was very impressive and something would lead to an acclimation to the major leagues and adjusting from the six-day, seven-day approach in Japan than a five-day approach here.”
Kikuchi, who looks much younger than 27, became sheepish when asked about having Ichiro as his teammate. At about the age of nine, his first professional baseball game featured Ichiro playing for the Orix Blue Wave in 2000.
“Since then I’ve read any book that there is about Mr. Ichiro, read any article about Mr. Ichiro, about his playing style, his work ethic,” Kikuchi said.
A year later, Ichiro left for the U.S. and the Mariners. Now, they will share a clubhouse and a field together. Of course, Kikuchi must still meet his childhood idol.
“It’s starting to hit me that I get to meet him,” he said. “I have a lot of questions that I want to ask him.”
And yet …
“Mr. Ichiro is kind of a person in the sky, a legend. I don’t know if he really exists,” he said. “So the first step is to be able to meet and talk to him. When I do have the opportunity to step on the field with him, it will be a great memory for me that I’ll cherish forever.”
Both players will be on the field of the Tokyo Dome during mid-March when the Mariners play two exhibition games and two regular-season games to open the 2019 season. Will Kikuchi start one of the two games vs. the Oakland A’s?
“I hope so,” Kikuchi said. But it is not my place to say.”
Servais said it’s possible.
“He’s in the competition to pitch in Tokyo,” he said. “I’m anxious to get to spring training and see him pitch and see how he assimilates to our ballclub and go from there, but why wouldn’t he?”