Only language he needs is baseball
New York Times
Mar. 3, 2006

Ira Berkow

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 six seasons.

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 here.

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 set up.

"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 Mongolia."

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 baseball shoes."

In any language, it is a major league welcome.