With the “Linsanity” craze beginning to fade, the fascination over Major League Baseball’s Yu Darvish is growing with the slender Japanese pitcher poised to claim the mantle of the newest Asian sporting phenomenon.
Described as the best pitching prospect to ever come out of Japan, the Texas Rangers paid handsomely for that potential spending $111-million to sign the flame-throwing right-hander and now the pressure is on Darvish to prove it was money well spent.
Millions of curious baseball fans on both sides of the Pacific will be watching on April 8th to see if the crafty pitcher can deliver as advertised when he makes his much-anticipated MLB debut at home against the Chicago White Sox.
“People are saying, ‘He could be the best pitcher ever from Japan,’” San Diego Padres second baseman Orlando Hudson told reporters after a spring training game against the Rangers.
“He’s got pressure from Japan. Pressure from the (United) States. Pressure from the writers ... That’s a lot of pressure.”
For a player who has yet to pitch in a regular season MLB game, the buzz around Darvish is deafening.
Since Masanori Murakami became the first Japanese player to make a major league roster in 1964 expectations of Asian players have grown.
Murakami was followed to America in 1995 by Hideo Nomo, who raised the bar for Japanese imports over a productive 13-season career, throwing two no-hitters and twice leading the major leagues in strikeouts.
Daisuke Matsuzaka set another standard in 2008 recording 18 wins, the most by a Japanese pitcher, for the Boston Red Sox while Seattle Mariners hitting machine Ichiro Suzuki was an American League most valuable player and Hideki Matsui earned World Series MVP honours with the New York Yankees.
Now, amid chatter of Cy Young awards as the top pitcher and 20-win seasons, speculation mounts that Darvish, the 6ft-5in (1.96m) son of an Iranian father and Japanese mother, could be the best yet.
Such lofty expectations may have crushed others but rest lightly on the 25-year-old’s delicate shoulders.
Darvish is a strikeout specialist with an impressive arsenal of pitches, including a fastball that tickles the radar gun in the mid-90 mph range.
A sparkling resume suggests the Rangers are not taking a massive gamble as Darvish’s trophy case already includes two Pacific League most valuable player awards and Nippon Professional Baseball’s equivalent of the Cy Young.
He led the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters to a Japan Series title in 2006, represented Japan at the 2008 Olympics and helped his country capture the World Baseball Classic in 2009.
The marketing machines in the United States and Asia are also revving up as Darvish looks poised to fill the void left by Jeremy Lin, the NBA’s first Taiwanese-American player who shot to international fame this year from obscurity.
While Darvish and Lin have the potential to become marketing dynamos for their respective sports by tapping into the Asian market that both the NBA and MLB covet, that is where the similarities between the two young athletes begins and ends.
Lin was a castoff sleeping on his brother’s couch before seizing his chance while Darvish has been groomed for stardom from an early age and enters the major leagues with credentials and a reputation that mark him out as a future ace
“This guy is a major, major transcendent celebrity in Japan. He is a rock star. He’s tabloid fodder in Japan,” Steve Herz, president of sports marketing and media talent agency IF Management told Reuters.
“Being that he has this type of profile and he seems to have a very colourful, charismatic personality...if he performs well, he will do well in the U.S. and he can do great in Asia. He could be marketed around the world.”
Certainly, Darvish does not fit into the quiet, humble stereotype associated with Japanese players trying to fit into a Major League clubhouse.
There is nothing brash or boastful about Darvish but he has already shown he does not lack in confidence.
That edge was on display during Darvish’s spring training debut against the Padres when he suggested a hard hit ball by San Diego slugger Will Venable was not that well struck but helped by the wind and the dry desert air.
“He definitely has good, pure stuff,” reigning National League MVP Ryan Braun said after going hitless in two at bats against Darvish. “You can tell he’s confident out there.
“He looks like a pitcher. He definitely is a presence on the mound.”