- - Tuesday, December 20, 2011

TOKYO — Perhaps more than anyone, Marty Kuehnert knows what it’s like to miss a chance to sign Japanese superstar pitcher Yu Darvish.

He was general manager of the Rakuten Golden Eagles, based in Sendai, where Darvish had been a high school baseball sensation attracting the kind of hype showered on schoolboys Magic Johnson and LeBron James in the United States. Many local fans in Sendai hoped Kuehnert would draft Darvish out of high school in 2004, but he chose the country’s top college player instead.

“I often refer to it as the biggest mistake I made as GM of the Eagles,” said Kuehnert, the only foreigner to ever run a Japanese pro baseball team.

Two years later, Darvish led the Nippon Ham Fighters in Sapporo to their first title in more than 40 years. A year after that, he won a golden glove and league MVP. He’s been Japan’s most dominant pitcher for five years, a good-looking, soft-spoken guy with a comic-book smile and a rock-star following.

Now he’s poised to bring his show to Major League Baseball. The Texas Rangers won exclusive rights to negotiate with Darvish, MLB announced late Monday night. The two-time defending American League champions bid a reported $51.7 million just for the right to negotiate with the 25-year-old and now have 30 days to sign him to a deal.

The Rangers’ blind bid for Darvish is the largest in MLB history, topping the $51.1 million the Boston Red Sox laid out for Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2006. Boston went on to hand Matsuzaka a six-year, $52 million contract, but he has slipped into mediocrity after two stellar seasons for the Red Sox.

While skeptics predict Darvish could become the next in a line of Japanese pitchers to flop in the majors, Kuehnert believes the right-hander will be different.

“He’s got the best shot of anybody I’ve ever seen,” said Kuehnert, who remains a senior adviser to the Golden Eagles while also working as a professor and the vice president of Sendai University.

Darvish is great, he’s super great. He’s got a jaw-dropping performance. My expectations are very high. I would be very surprised if he falters.”

Born in Los Angeles, Kuehnert has been involved in Japanese baseball since the 1970s, and he was also part-owner of the Birmingham Barons, whose baseball players included football star Bo Jackson and a basketball player named Michael Jordan. He says Darvish, at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, has the raw physical power to mow down major league hitters, plus excellent control and a proven ability to excel under pressure in baseball-mad Japan.

While many U.S. scouts have been following Darvish since his junior high school days in Osaka, Kuehnert first saw him as a preschooler, running around the field at the Kobe Regatta and Athletic Club, where his father played soccer and Kuehnert played rugby.

Though he certainly wasn’t poor like other Japanese players who went to the U.S. to support their single mothers, Darvish had to overcome a culture and system skewed against him from birth.

In Japanese, he is called a “ha-fu,” a “half breed.” His grandfather came from Iran, and his father played college soccer in Florida. His Japanese mother had to endure prejudice against Japanese women who marry foreigners, especially from Iran.

When Darvish was growing up in Osaka in the 1990s, Japanese TV often broadcast trumped up stories about Iranian expatriates allegedly involved in “crimes” in Tokyo, such as selling discount phone cards near parks or train stations.

Darvish would have been teased or bullied like other non-pure Japanese kids, except for the fact that he was one of the most-watched schoolboy athletes ever in Japan.

“Like most ballplayers, he’s been a standout since a little kid,” said Kuehnert. “He is very mentally 99 percent Japanese. But his environment was quite international. He stood out because he was so big and good looking. He’s been pampered in a different way than the average ballplayer here. He’s grown up with a different view on life. He’s more of a maverick.”

Kuehnert said he worried on draft day in 2005 about Darvish’s slacker reputation in high school, compared with Japanese kids known for practicing day and night.

“It was said that he sometimes avoided practice in high school,” he recalled. “We were told at times he had a bad shoulder, bad knee, or a bad back. I don’t think any of that was true. I think they were all shams to avoid having to practice as much as his teammates. He wanted to do things his own way.”

Japanese media had also played up a story about the underage Darvish smoking and “gambling” in a pachinko parlor, which is more like the Japanese version of a U.S. pinball or video-game arcade.

“He was immature, in hindsight, in the beginning,” Kuehnert said. “It’s turned around.”

Darvish gained celebrity beyond the sports world by posing in bed half-nude, covered by a blanket up to his waist, on the cover of fashion magazine “An-an”. After that, his Texas-born manager Trey Hillman, currently bench coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers, sat him down and told him to “grow up and focus,” according to Kuehnert. “Hillman told him, ‘You have the chance to be the best pitcher in the world. Why are you doing these things outside of baseball?’ “

Kuehnert says Hillman really helped Darvish focus on training. Darvish even stayed in Japan to train while others went on overseas trip to celebrate Japan’s international victories. “He realized that if he trained properly, he could be one of the greats. I think the Trey Hillman lecture to him helped a lot. He’s stepped it up a lot since that.”

Darvish set up a charity fund in 2007 dedicated to providing water in developing countries, and he also gave generously to the March 11 tsunami victims.

Some have wondered if Darvish’s impending divorce could distract him, since Japanese family courts often deprive fathers the right to ever visit children awarded to mothers. Japanese media branded his November 2007 marriage to Saeko, a Japanese TV starlet, a “shotgun” wedding. Saeko is known in Japan for posing in bikinis and appearing in coquettish roles on TV shows watched by millions of older Japanese men who fantasize about schoolgirls. She has recently released a book about their relationship, and wouldn’t comment on reports that she’s delaying the divorce to gain custody of both children and a share of Darvish’s future MLB income.

Kuehnert predicts Darvish will adjust well to American baseball culture, as many Japanese and Latin players do. Cultural adjustment is “not a barrier to the good players,” he said. “It’s way overblown for everybody.”

Kuehnert says Darvish is best compared to another flame-throwing right-hander from Osaka, Hideo Nomo, whose wicked forkball handcuffed major league hitters during his first three seasons with the Dodgers in the mid-1990s.

“I think he’s as good as Nomo was in his first three years, if not better,” Kuehnert said. “Darvish doesn’t walk a lot of guys like Matsuzaka. He has the good parts of Matsuzaka but not the bad parts.”

But he does worry that Japanese coaches have left Darvish in games too long, since he’s so dominant, with an ERA under 2.00 throughout his career.

Matsuzaka had been brainwashed to think he has to throw a lot. They thought the way to build up arm strength is to throw the hell out of it,” Kuehnert said. “There’s some of that concern about Darvish.

He’s grown up to believe that a man has to finish a game. He’s thrown a lot, though not as much as Matsuzaka. Darvish is young and he’s strong. I wouldn’t be as concerned as I was with Matsuzaka.”

Those questions undoubtedly will linger until Darvish settles in as a major leaguer, but Kuehnert is confident the pitcher will ultimately prevail.

“He’s in a special class,” Kuehnert said. “He’s just so attractive. If you don’t want him, you’re nuts.”

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