Koji Uehara’s remarkable baseball journey, from Japan to the Red Sox to the Cubs – Chicago Tribune
A translator isn’t needed to understand Koji Uehara‘s humility.
Just look at his clubhouse locker. A symbol of it hangs there before every game: his No. 19 jersey.
At 19, Uehara found himself out of baseball and out of school, working as a security guard and studying. His goal of becoming a high school physical education teacher, much less a major-league pitcher, might have seemed distant.
But here Uehara is in his 19th season of professional baseball, one season away from reaching his latest goal of matching his 10-year Japanese career with one of the same duration stateside.
His jersey number does not represent this season. It’s to represent the one long ago when he was 19 and didn’t play.
“Unbelievable,” Uehara said in English, the only time he uses the language and bypasses his longtime translator to cut off a question about his long and winding career.
It may be so if not for a bookend quality to his humility: work ethic.
Here is Uehara, 42, stretching before a recent road game. Here he is warming up by playing long toss with uncanny precision. Here he is following a pregame routine that recently had to incorporate an interview request.
“Koji says he will be ready in 10 minutes,” said C.J. Matsumoto, the aforementioned translator.
Exactly 10 minutes later, Uehara stands in front of his locker in a long-sleeved T-shirt, the No. 19 jersey behind him, his gaze ahead. Most attempts to lead him down memory lane — this is, after all, the author of one of the most dominant postseasons in recent history — are met with similar forward thinking.
“Deciding what my career means is probably something that I shouldn’t decide, that people on the outside should decide,” Uehara said through Matsumoto. “I really don’t care how people view my career. I just concentrate on my performance and what I have in front of me.”
Don’t misunderstand. An answer that may read as cold and unfeeling is actually more about the energy and effort it takes for Uehara to continue playing the game he loves.
This is a player who has threatened to separate shoulders with the force of his celebratory high-fives.
“The pure joy that I feel when I play baseball, that I feel toward baseball, that passion drives me,” Uehara said. “The fact that I feel that any day my baseball career might end, the focus that I bring to baseball just comes out that way.”
At 3-4 with a 3.98 ERA in his one-year deal with the Cubs, Uehara is no longer the virtually unhittable force who helped the Red Sox win the 2013 World Series. But even as setup man rather than closer he remains a respected teammate, trusted enough by manager Joe Maddon to log 49 appearances.
“He’s still doing this like we are, and we’re in our 20s,” said bullpen mate Mike Montgomery, 28. “It’s like, ‘Damn, if only I can be around at that age still doing it.’ It shows you his habits, his work ethic and eating — everything he does — is working. If you’re still around doing this at 42, you’ve done something right.”
Uehara admitted he never could have imagined any of this as he played outfield at an Osaka, Japan, high school, where he was teammates with the more celebrated Yoshinori Tateyama. After not passing the country’s notoriously difficult entrance exam for universities, Uehara spent that year outside of baseball studying and working.
He eventually matriculated at an Osaka university not known as a baseball powerhouse and began pitching because his coach encouraged players to pick their own positions and Uehara enjoyed it.
“At that point, my goal was to play four years in college,” Uehara said. “That’s it.”
But his live arm and strong command led to the well-known Yomiuri Giants drafting him. And he won 20 games as a starter in his rookie year in 1999.
That started an impressive Japanese career in which he won two Sawamura Awards — Nippon’s professional baseball equivalent of the Cy Young award — earned eight All-Star designations and even struck out Barry Bonds three times in a 2002 exhibition.
In 2009, Uehara signed with the Orioles and went 2-4 in 12 starts. He hasn’t started a game since.
Uehara saved 13 games for a 96-loss Orioles team in 2010. But the Rangers left him off the 2011 World Series roster when, after acquiring him for Chris Davis in July, he got roughed up in the postseason.
Posting a 1.75 ERA for the 2012 Rangers created fewer headlines than his injuries; he made just 37 appearances. And then came 2013.
Uehara signed as a free agent with the Red Sox. When new closer Joel Hanrahan and former closer Andrew Bailey suffered season-ending injuries, manager John Farrell turned to Uehara, whose split-fingered fastball suddenly turned sublime.
At one point in the regular season, he retired 37 straight hitters. In the postseason, he earned MVP honors for the championship series, saved seven games and finished 13, including the World Series-clinching victory. He allowed one run in 13 2/3 innings.
The chants of “Koji! Koji!” that preceded his game-ending strikeout at Fenway Park may still be echoing.
“That thrill probably was for the fans,” Uehara said. “But it was my first year there, so I was just focused on my job.”
Notice a theme here? Uehara offers a similar no-frills answer when asked what in his personality allowed him to handle getting moved from folk-hero closer to setup man for the Red Sox in 2016.
“Who decides where I pitch isn’t up to me,” he said. “I just do my best and leave all those kind of decisions up to the manager.”
And this season?