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Toronto Blue Jays' Munenori Kawasaki bows to fans following their MLB American League baseball game against the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas, June 16, 2013. (TIM SHARP/REUTERS)
Toronto Blue Jays' Munenori Kawasaki bows to fans following their MLB American League baseball game against the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas, June 16, 2013. (TIM SHARP/REUTERS)

BASEBALL

Irrepressible Kawasaki continues to revel in spotlight Add to ...

Being interviewed on television after Munenori Kawasaki drove him home with a game-winning double on May 26, Mark DeRosa stops in mid-sentence to call in “Muni” from off-camera.

Kawasaki accepts the microphone from Sportsnet reporter Arash Madani, and declares in animated voice: “Thank you very much! My name is Munenori Kawasaki. I am from Japan. I am Japaneeeeeessse!” In a sped-up world, he needed fewer than 15 seconds to capture worldwide fame. On YouTube, the clip has generated nearly two million views.

Instantly popular as a stop-gap replacement for injured shortstop Jose Reyes, Kawasaki has characterized his time with the Blue Jays with infectious enthusiasm, quirky antics, irrepressible energy and an unquestionable passion for baseball.

Going without a translator purposely to integrate himself into the clubhouse social network, Kawasaki has engaged Spanish- and English-speaking teammates alike, and vice versa. As part of that process, he collects North American clichés in an ever-expanding notebook, an exercise only partly satirical. MLB Network brought DeRosa on camera in the wake of the Sportsnet interview and once again, DeRosa called Kawasaki into the picture.

In that session, Kawasaki consults his playbook to anticipate what sombre media had been asking the Blue Jays for weeks. Before the hosts have a chance to talk, he says, “It’s not over yet.”

Back in the studio, Chris Rose and Kevin Millar go crazy. Kawasaki gets on a roll:

“What’s your point?”

“Forget about it.”

“This is too much fun.”

“I love you.”

“I’ve got a feeling.”

DeRosa can barely control himself; he’s nearly in tears from laughter.

“That’s real,” he says. “That’s no act. That’s all nat-ur-al.”

Kawasaki and catcher J.P. Arencibia will engage in occasional clubhouse hilarity over proper use of sports clichés, together recreating a version of the iconic Bull Durham bus-ride scene between the veteran catcher played by Kevin Costner and the pitching prospect played by Tim Robbins. The twist is that Kawasaki speaks little English.

“J.P., my translator,” Kawasaki joked in heavily accented English during an interview on Monday. Before elaborating in Japanese, Kawasaki pounded his chest with his fist three times. “Language is no problem,” a Japanese journalist said, roughly translating Kawasaki’s words. “It’s all about the heart.”

Aged 32 and looking 23, Kawasaki earned celebrity status in Fukuoka, Japan, being named to eight Japanese League all-star teams, winning a championship ring with the SoftBank Hawks in 2011, playing on two World Baseball Classic and the 2008 Beijing Olympics national teams. He left his reputation behind to play with idol Ichiro Suzuki in Seattle last season, signed with the Jays in early March, and got promoted from Triple-A Buffalo when Reyes injured his ankle on April 12. “I don’t know where we’d be without him,” manager John Gibbons says, repeatedly.

They may soon find out as Reyes, a switch-hitting all-star leadoff hitter and Kawasaki’s match on the ebullience scale, is expected to rejoin the team within days. While Kawasaki compensates for sub-par fielding range with consistency, Reyes ranks among baseball’s top defenders and is a former National League batting champion. Kawasaki, hitting .219 and routinely benched against left-handers, may be returned to Buffalo, though an option for Toronto is to send down a relief pitcher instead.

“That is nothing to worry about,” Kawasaki said. “I am healthy. No matter where, I just enjoy the playing of baseball.”

His expressions of joy range to performing headstands against a fence, playing catch with fans, and helicoptering a bat around his head in slow motion in the on-deck circle. During an at-bat last Tuesday in Chicago against the White Sox, he stepped out of the batter’s box and pranced rhythmically from foot to foot. “He’s dancing!” an incredulous Chicago radio announcer told listeners. During post-game celebrations with Emilio Bonifacio, they’ll flap their arms three times in sync as though performing a chicken dance at a wedding.

“Just natural,” he said, in Japanese. “I enjoy myself. I love the people here. I’m having fun with my teammates.”

Suzuki, visiting the Rogers Centre in April with the New York Yankees, assessed the crowd’s enthusiastic reaction to his compatriot by asking whether Kawasaki was giving out free pizza.

“He would be the same way, no matter if he played for the Toronto Maple Leafs or Manchester United,” Suzuki said.

The clownish side camouflages a competitive personality. He’ll wave off Japanese journalists politely in the wake of a tough loss, to compose himself emotionally. Long before stadium gates are opened to fans, Kawasaki follows a rigorous routine with daily discipline. First, he takes his bat, glove and a ball to the foul line, drags a protective screen behind him as a shield from batted balls, and begins a 22-minute stretching routine. Then he sprints to centre field alone to break right and left in reaction to phantom ground balls, pivoting to throw the ball against the outfield fence as though making a double-play relay. Later, he swings the bat on a foul line, visualizing pitches. All before joining the team for regular pre-game practice.

“Nobody is like that,” said Blue Jays pitcher Esmil Rogers.

Indeed.

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