May 13, 2008


Dice-K 2.0 (Jim Caple, ESPN)

In addition to his extraordinary talent on the mound, Darvish is a demographer's dream: young, 6-foot-5 and slender, with the sort of strikingly exotic face that is seen more often in Calvin Klein ads than on baseball cards. Features like this -- a blend of his Iranian father, Farsad, and his Japanese mother, Ikuyo, who met (where else?) in the U.S. -- are practically sui generis in Japan.

The full family name is Darvishsefad. Yu's grandfather was a travel agent in Iran who encouraged Yu's father to explore the world, partially by finishing his high school education in the United States. Farsad did and went on to college in Florida, where he played soccer -- or at least he did until 1979, when Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, kidnapped 52 embassy workers, changed the course of American politics, launched Ted Koppel's career into orbit and instantly made things rather unpleasant for young Iranians studying in America.

"My coach put me on the bench for two years," Farsad says without any apparent bitterness. "But then again that made me strong, because I never gave up. I told Yu once how it was, because in the sports world there are people who won't like you."

Farsad eventually wound up at Eastern Washington University in the small town of Cheney, Wash., which is where the Seahawks used to train each summer. "When I was working in the cafeteria, I used to watch them carry two trays -- one was a milk tray, one was a food tray, so it was very huge," he recalls. "And, of course, I cheered for the Seahawks."

Sadly, though, Farsad missed out on the Stan Gelbaugh era when he and Ikuyo moved to Japan to raise a family in Osaka. The Darvishes spoke English at home for the first three years of Yu's life until Farsad gained proficiency in Japanese. Yu visited Iran twice as a child but says the country has had no influence on him: "I'm Japanese. I grew up as a Japanese. I'm 100 percent Japanese."

Which is not to say that is how others view him. Darvish starred at the Koshien national high school baseball tournament -- like Dice-K, he threw a no-hitter in the event -- but Nippon Ham somehow was the only team that drafted him (the Japanese draft system allows multiple teams to choose a player). Just as Farsad felt discrimination in America, Yu's Iranian background in a very homogenous society, Valentine says, prevented at least one team from drafting him. "My scouting director here didn't think he was what our fans really would like to root for," Valentine says. "That scouting director is no longer with us."

Darvish's enormous popularity clearly proves that director's view was completely wrong.

Yet his background is an issue. "[The Japanese] really do like to have their star players from their community, from their prefecture, from their area in the country and, lastly, at least from the country," Valentine says. "And sometimes when a guy isn't of the same model as every other guy, there are some old heads in the country [thinking], 'I don't want that guy on our team.'"

Nippon Ham has a reputation for signing players considered untouchable by other teams. This past winter, for example, the team signed Kazuhito Tadano, the pitcher who appeared in a gay porn movie while in college and briefly pitched for the Cleveland Indians. If any team was going to sign Darvish, who also had a reputation as being a little wild and undisciplined in high school, Nippon Ham would be the one.

And Darvish began his pro career in Japan with an American manager, Hillman. "When he was drafted his father was outstanding," Hillman says. "He said, 'Trey, he's all yours. I know that you'll treat him like he was your own son.'"

Darvish progressed quickly and steadily with the Fighters. He lowered his ERA from 3.53 as a rookie in 2005 to 2.89 in 2006 to 1.81 last year. But the 2007 season ended on a down note. Despite allowing only one run in the final game of the Japan Series, Darvish took the loss when the opposing team pitched a perfect game. He is 5-1 with a 1.46 ERA so far this season. "Yu is tremendously gifted, and he's developed a great work ethic," Hillman says. "I didn't have a lot of conversations with Yu, because there wasn't a need for it. He understood that he needed to start working harder. Actually, after the 2006 season, he was so dedicated and committed to his workout program that he [chose] to forego the team trip to New Zealand."

"I don't need much motivation," Darvish says through an interpreter. "I'm never satisfied until I win all the games and have an ERA of 0.00. I want to throw a faster fastball. I want a sharper curve. I want to improve all my pitches."

Most observers feel he either is already as good as Matsuzaka or soon will be. "I think his numbers in Japan are going to be equally as phenomenal as he continues to move on, barring injury, as Dice-K's were in Japan," Hillman says. "He's got a different type of frame. Dice-K's got a more powerful frame, but Darvish has looser levers and a taller frame with more whip, and I think that gives him an opportunity to have more powerful and more electric secondary pitches as well as a fastball.

"The curveball is just not fair. Honestly, it's just not a fair pitch."

When Ichiro first came to America, rumors flew that there was a $1 million bounty for a naked photo of him, and he took the rumors seriously enough to dress in a private section of the clubhouse. Darvish, on the other hand, willingly posed nude for a magazine last year (though it did not reveal his genitals). He was embroiled in a national controversy when he was caught smoking a cigarette (gasp!) while still in high school. He clearly has grown comfortable with public, ahem, exposure since then, so much so that one night last season he promised his fiancée that he would win the game so he could use the postgame news conference to announce their impending wedding and her pregnancy. To cultivate his image, he hired an agent who normally represents entertainers. In a humble society famous for the expression "the nail that sticks up is hammered down," Yu is cocky enough to say things such as, "On a scale of 1 to 10, I can bring a 10 to any important game."

Hillman compares Darvish's marketability to Tiger's and MJ's. "He understands how cool people think he is. He understands the adulation and the mystique." [...]

Most everyone says if Darvish is posted, the bidding will easily top the $50 million the Seibu Lions received in exchange for the rights to Dice-K. After that, Johnson says, "The sky is the limit as to where the big-money teams would go." Given the usual escalation in baseball contracts, it isn't crazy to think the negotiating fee could go to $75 million.

While America is a verboten subject, Iran is not. Farsad Darvish says he is involved with a program to promote baseball in his native country, and Yu wants to help bring the game -- President Bush's favorite sport -- to Iran. "Yes, of course, because Iran is my father's country, I'll help him make baseball popular there," Yu says. "I know how much it means to him."

...what would Darvish be worth to a weak Yankee one?

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 13, 2008 3:51 PM

The loaded Sox staff is in second place this morning.

Posted by: Casey Abell at May 14, 2008 8:16 AM

To get technical, the Sox have a staff ERA of 4.19, slightly worse than the AL's overall 4.11. Factor in Fenway, which remains a hitter's park, and the staff may be very slightly better than league-average. But not by much.

Last night was same old. Beckett coughed up five earnies but the bullpen was good. Beckett has been almost exactly a league-average pitcher this year, with a 4.21 ERA. Pretty typical of the staff overall.

Posted by: Casey Abell at May 14, 2008 8:30 AM

In 2nd to the best team in baseball. Their ERA is just a function of a tough early schedule. The vets pitch well enough to win.

Posted by: oj at May 14, 2008 11:26 AM