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Profiles | Can Yu Do It? Darvish Makes Pitch for US Baseball Stardom


09 Apr 2012 21:15Comments
Yu-Darvish-20-pitcher-US-Presswire.jpgJapanese Iranian debuts for Texas Rangers vs. Seattle Mariners Monday night.

[ sports ] Iranians in the diaspora have watched their compatriots, in the home country and beyond, gain prominence as politicians, comedians, and now, unfortunately, as reality stars. But to date, no Iranian athlete has achieved fame in America. Yes, there were the soccer players Ali Karimi and Ali Daei, both of whom played in the German Bundesliga. But most Americans, still learning to follow the sport of soccer, are unlikely to have heard of them. Then there's the Memphis Grizzlies' Hamed Haddadi, the first Iranian American to play in the NBA. But Haddadi's success, like his time on the court, has been minimal. This baseball season, however, a young Japanese Iranian pitcher, already a star in Japan, appears poised to break significant ground in America's national pastime.

I first heard of Yu Darvish, who now plays for the Texas Rangers, three years ago. The quadrennial World Baseball Classic, which is basically the sport's World Cup, had just wrapped up and my dad, an unlikely baseball junkie, could talk about nothing other than Darvish, then 22 years old. He spoke of him only in hyperboles -- an unhittable pitcher, my dad said -- and most importantly, he was Iranian. Darvish went back to Japan in 2009, but the hype didn't fade. It was unclear whether Darvish would leave Japan, but major league executives continued to follow him. This past winter, two and a half years after his first appearance on U.S. television screens, Darvish agreed to a $60 million contract with the Texas Rangers. Prior to the signing, the Rangers paid over $50 million just to talk to Darvish.

Clearly, it's not just my dad and other Iranian sports fans who are infatuated with the 25-year-old: the New York Times, Economist, Atlantic, plus a slew of sports websites have published stories on the phenom since his impressive showing in 2009. At the World Baseball Classic, Darvish pitched 13 innings, threw 20 strikeouts, and got the final, cup-winning out for the Japanese team.

Jonah Keri, a well-known baseball expert for ESPN's Grantland, says the hype for Darvish is "tremendous." He adds that Darvish has some big shoes to fill as he replaces the Rangers' former pitching star C.J. Wilson, who took the team to the World Series the past two years and left for the rival Los Angeles Angels this off-season. Keri describes the buzz surrounding Darvish's first spring training start last month: "The press box was a zoo. Journalists from all over, eager to catch a first glimpse of the phenom. Big, big things are expected."

Indeed, in Japan Darvish was something of a superstar: he collected two MVP Awards and led the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters to three Pacific League championships and a Japan Series title. Keri, who's followed the careers of plenty of big league pitchers, raves about Darvish's precision and versatility: "He never lets the hitter get comfortable. He'll pitch high and low, inside and outside, fast and slow, often in the same at-bat. He has as varied a repertoire as any pitcher in MLB, and he can throw all of those offerings for strikes. He can carve up hitters with all the tools at his disposal. He's a surgeon."

In Japan, Darvish's off-field life also proved captivating: he married and divorced a Japanese actress, smoked a cigarette as an underage teenager (yes, this provoked a scandal), and appeared half-naked in a woman's magazine. Darvish has cultivated an image of mystery and charm that his former coach, Trey Hillman, told ESPN the star uses to his advantage. Hillman also told ESPN that Darvish beefed up in part because "he wanted to look good for those endorsements."

Of course, Darvish's road to stardom hasn't been without challenges. In the beginning, his Iranian background contributed to his lack of suitors after high school; only one team showed interest in him, even though he had pitched a no-hitter in a major tournament. New Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, who managed in Japan for seven years, explained Darvish's predicament to ESPN: "The Japanese really do like to have their star players from their community, from their prefecture, from their area in the country and, lastly, at least from the country. And sometimes when a guy isn't of the same model as every other guy, there are some old heads in the country [thinking], 'I don't want that guy on our team.'"

Darvish's ego might not win him many friends, either. After surrendering a long double in an exhibition game this spring, he suggested the batter had gotten lucky with a little help from the wind, saying through a translator, "With the dry air in Arizona and the wind blowing out, it carried the ball. It didn't seem like a ball that was hit that squarely." The opposing player, Will Venable, responded with annoyance to reporters, "I think the wind saved it from being a home run.... I would have liked to hear a little more humility from the guy. To each his own. He's a confident guy." According to a statement from Darvish's agent the next day, the pitcher's sentiment had been mistranslated.

His father, Farsad Darvish, met his Japanese wife in America, where they lived before relocating to Iran prior to their son's birth in 1986. An athlete himself, the elder Darvish attended school in Florida to play soccer. In 1979, the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis in Tehran reverberated throughout the Iranian diaspora -- some Iranians in America wouldn't walk alone at night for fear of being attacked. For Farsad Darvish, shifting American attitudes in America quashed his soccer future: "My coach put me on the bench for two years. But then again that made me strong, because I never gave up. I told Yu once how it was, because in the sports world there are people who won't like you."

Farsad Darvish dreams of exporting America's pastime to Iran, a plan his son intends to support "because Iran is my father's country," he told ESPN several years ago. "I'll help him make baseball popular there. I know how much it means to him." Nevertheless, it doesn't sound like Darvish feels especially tied to Iran. The pressures that he faced as he built his career in Japan no doubt contributed to his reluctance to embrace his Iranian heritage. Darvish, who has visited his father's homeland, said in that same ESPN interview, "I'm Japanese. I grew up as a Japanese. I'm 100 percent Japanese."

Like any rookie, Darvish has a lot to prove. He will face better hitters than he did back home, and will be under intense scrutiny given his lavish contract and what many Americans see as his lack of top-flight experience. He needs to look no further than fellow Japanese import Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has thus far failed to live up to inflated expectations, to see how success at home doesn't necessarily translate to stardom in America. But whatever the odds, Darvish has a better chance than any before him of becoming the first Iranian athlete to gain superstar status in America. For someone like my dad, who's been a sports fan ever since he came to America in the early '80s, that means something.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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