Yusei Kikuchi is a Seattle Mariner, a sentence that remains strange to type considering this nightmarish off-season, and today he visited what will be his new home for the next three or four or seven years:
The LL staff has adjudicated this outfit and found it to be Fresh To Death, with downtown-working Tim Cantu planning a brief lunchtime excursion to T-Mobile Park specifically to ask Yusei where he got that sweet bag. Kate enjoys the subtle nod to the Mariners’ color scheme in Kikuchi’s tie (Kikuchi says it was the first tie he saw, and took it as another sign that he’s in the right place). It should be noted, Kikuchi looks all the better contrasted with Darth Boras skulking along behind him there.
You can watch the press conference on the Mariners’ site, but in case your boss is super uncool about using “company time” on your “personal hobbies,” here’s a skim-able breakdown on how it went:
Kikuchi will wear no. 18, last worn by our dearly departed rock-bear Hisashi Iwakuma. (Eric was hoping for some kind of touching ceremony where Kuma passed the jersey to Kikuchi and asked him to carry on the legacy of battling against the American League, but alas.) If you aren’t familiar with the significance of Japanese pitchers wearing 18, there’s a brief explainer here.
And while we didn’t get Eric’s touching Iwakuma moment, apparently Kuma has been in communication with Kikuchi, when he was warned by NPB to change part of his pitching motion that they deemed illegal. Kuma sent Kikuchi a message of support, for which Kikuchi expressed gratitude.
The press conference opened with a brief statement from Jerry Dipoto, who called the Kikuchi signing “the most enjoyable thing we’ve done” during his and Scott Servais’s tenure. “From an age, character, and talent standpoint, we don’t think this fit could be any better for us.” Dipoto mentioned quality of character every time he spoke about Kikuchi; the reason for which became obvious when it was Kikuchi’s turn to introduce himself to the media.
While it’s not unusual for a player to make a brief, memorized speech, Kikuchi’s initial statement was significantly more detailed, thanking everyone who played a role in his development and making his dream of coming to the big leagues a reality, as well as the Mariners organization, Mr. Dipoto and Mr. Servais, and telling his future teammates he can’t wait to meet them.
Not only did Kikuchi introduce himself in English, he continued on to take questions in English, allowing his translator to repeat the question in Japanese before responding in English. Kikuchi later apologized in Japanese for his brief answers, but said ever since he decided at age 15 that he wanted to come to the big leagues, he’d been working hard on his English so he could address fans directly “from the heart.” When asked about why he chose Seattle, Kikuchi’s answer was brief, but covered all the necessary ground: “I feel like this team needed me the most, and I feel the chemistry between us.”
Boras spoke next, and picked up the thread of the fit between Kikuchi—who he insisted on calling “YK,” and by the end everyone was doing it, such is the insidious language-twisting power of Scott Boras—and the Mariners. Boras pointed out that with Servais and Dipoto both being former players, he and Kikuchi both felt confident in their ability to help “YK” integrate into MLB with a developmental plan that can lead to a gradual acclimation.He emphasized that Kikuchi is an “extraordinary young man,” pointing out he’s never had a client from Japan who presented himself entirely in English to his new city, and needed an extraordinary fit. “There needs to be an adjustment in how we treat the acclimation of a Japanese pitcher to the major leagues,” Boras said, and he thinks the Mariners can lead in that department.
Dipoto echoed Boras’s sentiments, noting that pitchers often come over from Japan and start strong before dropping off. The Mariners have a developmental plan that they believe will help the “focused and high-character” Kikuchi succeed. While not wanting to disrupt a 30-start season, Dipoto believes the Mariners can lessen the inning burden by shortening every fifth or sixth start, similar to the acclimation process for minor-leaguers. “We want to use 2019 to develop the innings in an appropriate, health-conscious way,” said Dipoto. Boras noted that the unusual structuring of Kikuchi’s contract—which was apparently in development for over a month with nary a whiff of a leak, another win for Dipoto’s airtight FO—rewards the Mariners for a successful developmental process.
While Kikuchi acknowledges that coming to a team with a strong history of success with Japanese players was important to him and he feels a desire to continue that success, the player Kikuchi has the most special connection with is one he hasn’t met yet: Ichiro Suzuki. Back when Kikuchi was a young boy just getting into baseball, he attended one of Ichiro’s final games as a member of NPB, and now, almost 20 years later, he recalls that experience with perfect clarity. His face lights up talking about Ichiro, as he describes the experience of seeing Ichiro in person, the “aura” he had. From that day on, Kikuchi read everything he possibly could about Ichiro, every book or article about his style of play or work ethic. “It’s really hitting me now,” said Kikuchi in Japanese, “that I will get to meet him.”
Is he excited to play with Ichiro, potentially, when the Mariners open their season in Japan?
“To me he was like a person in the sky. I have to see if he’s real first.”