Hiroki Kuroda swivels to face Rick Honeycutt as the Dodgers pitching coach slides a seat in front of his opening day starter’s locker. Catcher Russell Martin pulls up a chair and they’re set to launch into a pre-game assessment of the scouting report.
But while fashioning Kuroda’s plan of attack, neither Honeycutt nor Martin even glance in the pitcher’s direction. Kuroda, in turn, directs his focus elsewhere.
Doing most of the talking – and all the communicating – every fifth day for 162 games is Kenji Nimura, a 37-year-old who hasn’t played baseball since he was a teenager living in West L.A.
“You just have to trust him,” Martin said, “that he’s saying everything right.”
A season and-a-half with the Dodgers representing the only time outside his native Japan, the 34-year-old Kuroda’s English is virtually non-existent, hence the Japanese-born Nimura was hired last season to translate.
Turns out it’s not that simple.
“You speak three languages but you don’t speak baseball until you get this job,” Niumura said. “Last year I made a dictionary for myself based on a lot of advanced scouting reports, just picking out all the baseball words I wasn’t really familiar with. And I go through it every time before I go to a pitcher’s meeting because it’s a totally different language.”
Nimura’s efforts stretch far beyond terminology. He studies opposing hitters with Dodgers’ personnel in an effort to streamline the rapid-fire pitcher’s meetings. Per a rule change in Major League Baseball, translators are now allowed on the bench during games.
“We haven’t been able to work it out where he can go to the mound yet,” Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. “And I’m sure that’ll be the next thing. I’m sure it’s going to happen eventually.”
On the most basic of levels, as long as Kuroda knows the pitches’ corresponding signs, he can do his job. But all parties acknowledge pitching is far more complicated than “How many fingers?”
But frustration with the language barrier is something only one member of the team would admit to. The one who doesn’t speak English.
“During the game and before the game in Japan I was able to tell coaches even little things I picked up on, but here I can’t tell them and I can’t understand what the coaches are saying,” Kuroda said with Nimura translating. “So, it’s really frustrating. It’s stressful.”
If it bothers Kuroda, none of his teammates can tell. Always jovial around the clubhouse, Kuroda finds ways to connect with his teammates so as to feel a part of the team. Following a Japanese baseball tradition he employed for 11 years, Kuroda makes a concerted effort to take his teammates out, something Martin estimates he’s done at least once with everybody on the team.
The language barrier doesn’t isolate him socially from the team, and isolation is the last thing he feels at home. Kuroda’s wife Masayo and daughters, Hinatsu, 6, and Wakana, 3, live in Los Angeles during the season while the whole family returns to Japan for the off-season.
“It’s a big factor for me to have the family really close by,” Kuroda said. “They’re speaking a lot more English than I am. They’ve made the adjustment better than me.”
The only time his teammates have seen a somber Kuroda is after a poor pitching performance. Picking him up with a visit to the mound is one of the few things the Dodgers are yet to figure out.
“As far as having a conversation to make him relax or cracking a joke, I can’t do that,” Martin said. “To be successful you’ve got to be able to do it on your own. You can’t be relying on anybody else. But obviously I’d rather be able to speak fluent in Japanese.”
Martin, who grew up speaking French and English in Canada, isn’t quite there yet but he is picking his spots.
“‘Ooh-chi too-te,’ Martin said, “means ‘You can do it.'”