Only language he needs is baseball
New York Times
Mar. 3, 2006
PEORIA, Ariz. - As with the nursery rhyme, virtually everywhere that Kenji
Johjima went, his English interpreter was sure to go. So there was Johjima, the
Seattle Mariners' newly imported catcher, in full gear, in a drill at the
Mariners' practice field at the Peoria Sports Complex, taking relay throws.
As the throws came in from the outfield via a cutoff man, a coachshouted advice
in English to Johjima, who had swiped his red glove at yet another imaginary
runner at the plate. An interpreter, who stood a few feet away in street
clothes, repeated the coach's words to Johjima in Japanese. Johjima, trying to
become the first Japanese catcher to make a major league roster, nodded.
When the spring-training routine was switched to the batting cage, the pair
stayed in close proximity. If Johjima was on deck, the interpreter stood next to
him, then watched from the other side of the netting as Johjima, solidly built
at 6 feet and 198 pounds, sprayed pitches around the field.
At one point, outside the cage, Carl Everett, the Mariners' veteran outfielder,
came by and engaged Johjima in a bit of banter.
Johjima was later asked through the interpreter what he and Everett had talked
about. "Golf," Johjima said. What golf terms did he know in English?
"Fore!" he said with a laugh and a wave of his hand to indicate the rough.
Kenji Johjima (pronounced ken-jee joe-jee-mah) has been taking English lessons
three times a week since November. Still he is not completely comfortable
speaking the language - although he is better able to understand it. He began
learning English in the seventh grade in his hometown of Sasebo
- English is required in most Japanese schools - and he has also played with
Americans in the Japanese major leagues, where he was an all-star for the past
At 29, and after nine seasons in the Japanese professional leagues, he said he
wanted a new challenge. He also wanted to follow to the major leagues a former
teammate, Tadahito Iguchi, the starting second baseman for the world champion
Chicago White Sox, and such former Japanese opponents as his current Mariners
teammate, outfielder Ichiro Suzuki. With a three-year,
$16.5 million contract, Johjima should have ample time to prove he can play
When asked what advice he had received from other Japanese players who had made
a successful transition to baseball in North America, he said they could not
give him advice because he played a different position, one that had a variety
of leadership responsibilities.
A catcher has to be all ears in pregame strategy sessions. A catcher often has
to convey the manager's instructions sent from the dugout, and he has to go to
the mound and calm or motivate a pitcher.
"I have a lot of homework," he said through his interpreter. "Some baseball
terms are different here, like back-door sinker, but a lot of the baseball terms
are the same in Japanese. Home run is home run. And there aren't a lot of
different things you have to understand, or speak. By the time the season
begins, I think I'll be comfortable in doing what I have to do."
He has already caught most of the Mariners' top pitchers in bullpen sessions.
The 19-year-old Venezuelan Felix Hernandez, who after a striking rookie season
in 2005 appears to be an ace of the future, said: "He caught me in the bullpen
three times, and he already knows all my pitches and what my tendencies are.
It's obvious he's had a lot of experience."
Relief pitcher Eddie Guardado said of Johjima: "He's got a great personality,
he's always smiling - and you have to like that for a pitcher.
Keeps you upbeat. And he's eager to learn. After he caught me he said, 'Was it
OK?' I see him talking to every pitcher, asking questions."
Gil Meche, another Mariners starting pitcher, said that he liked the way Johjima
"He gives you a big, wide target," Meche said, "and I like that red glove, which
contrasts to his black chest protector. It makes it easy to focus."
Mariners manager Mike Hargrove said he expected Johjima, who had a career
batting average in Japan of .299, to catch 115 to 130 games this season. He will
not play for Japan in the World Baseball Classic, allowing him to concentrate on
the upcoming season with the Mariners.
"I like his quick release on throws to second base," Hargrove said. "I like his
preparation - he has an extensive notebook on our pitchers, and he'll have that
on the hitters we face, I'm sure. But I don't think language will be a barrier
to him. I mean, baseball is baseball, whether it's played in Seattle or Outer
Johjima's family - his wife, Maki; 4-year-old son, Yuta; and 2-year-old
daughter, Miu - are still in Japan. In the meantime, the Seattle players try to
make Johjima feel comfortable in the clubhouse.
"They play little tricks," he said, "like knotting the laces together of my
In any language, it is a major league welcome.