In baseball-crazy Japan, where players are treated as celebrities, Yu Darvish is a superstar.
He’s been called the greatest pitcher in the country, but the relaxed 23-year-old takes any pressure that comes his way, on and off the field, in his substantial stride. Standing 6 feet 5 inches (196 centimeters) he immediately stands out from most other players in the game and has added some extra color to the sport, as well as some peerless pitching. “I don’t really feel that much pressure,” he told CNN. “Instead, I’m just happy to play the game here. I have a pride in being a baseball player. With poor results, I would feel responsible for it and feel embarrassed. I don’t want to become like that. So setting high standards for myself doesn’t cause frustrations.”
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He joined the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters straight after High School where he had been identified as the most promising player for many years. He was almost immediately thrust into the media spotlight as an 18-year-old when he was photographed smoking a cigarette in a pachinko parlor. The media outcry that followed would have been comparable to a U.S. Major League player caught in a doping scandal. With an Iranian father and Japanese mother, Darvish had a different upbringing from most of his schoolmates. “I grew up in a different environment from the typical Japanese family,” Darvish said. “Compared to them, we had quite different life. But my parents gave me the great influences and I am very grateful for that.” He remains in contact with his family heritage in Iran, organizing games in the country and sending over kits to youth teams. He has also helped to set up the Yu Darvish Water Fund to help provide clean water to communities in developing countries. But mostly for Darvish, “it’s baseball all the time.” He practices every day, even on days off, and has no problem living and breathing baseball. “Baseball is a game where you can never predict what will happen next,” he said. “With great players, the sport creates drama. If you come to the stadium, you will soon understand how exciting baseball is. I wish everyone could see a game in Japan.”
Japanese baseball players are expected to lead an exemplary life off the field, and while Darvish was never the enfant-terrible of the game, he believes that marriage to actress Saeko in 2007 has had a particularly positive effect on his life and his game. “My lifestyle became more stable after the marriage. Marriage gave me many positive influences. If I’m in a tight spot on the mound, I think of my wife and I think how sad she will be if I am batted down. This helps me to throw better,” he said. He maintains he’s happy playing in Japan, but he could be the next big thing from Japan to hit the U.S. Major League. Rumors have circulated that the likes of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are willing to pay the Fighters millions of dollars just to talk about the prospect of signing him.
The unflappable Darvish refuses to play up the attention coming his way from the other side of the Pacific. “Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Daisuke Matsuzaka and all the other Japanese players are doing a great job in the States. They really encourage me to become a better player. But I don’t particularly dream of playing in the major league or in the states now.” But if he produces more stellar performances he may well be living that dream, sooner rather than later.