- - 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.

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