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Columnist Vahe Gregorian offers musings about the sports scene in and around Kansas City

Language no barrier between Royals, new leadoff man Nori Aoki

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04/10/2014 9:52 AM

05/16/2014 1:06 PM

Editor’s note: With Star columnist Vahe Gregorian on vacation this week, here’s a look back at a recent column he wrote on Norichika Aoki, the outfielder the Royals acquired via an offseason trade with the Brewers.

Like most major-league clubhouses, the Royals’ is a melting pot. Their roster features players from 16 states and 10 men from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela.

But those seemingly disconnected pieces actually have a certain commonality.

“With Spanish, everybody’s kind of coming towards the middle,” pitcher Everett Teaford said. “They’re learning English as well as us trying to learn Spanish.”

It’s a somewhat different dynamic when it comes to the Royals’ other foreign player: outfielder Nori Aoki, who is the Royals’ first Japanese-born position player and just their fourth overall from Japan.

“With Japanese, where do we start?” Teaford said, smiling. “Let’s work on, ‘Hello,’ and, ‘Good morning.’ ”

So Teaford worked on that and plenty more. His spring training locker was separated from Aoki’s by the stall of translator Kosuke Inaji, who came with Aoki from Milwaukee and is very much an extension of him.

Inaji is an amiable sort who already seems established in the room. That was illustrated by Teaford’s mangled attempts to say the Japanese word for “fired” to playfully tell Aoki to get rid of Inaji.

“You are saying nothing at all,” Inaji chides Teaford, laughing.


All of this looks like a snug and happy fit so far for the Royals and Aoki, who was acquired from Milwaukee in the offseason.

Manager Ned Yost considers Aoki “a bit of a catalyst,” perfectly suited to be the leadoff man the Royals have been lacking. Moreover, between Aoki’s renowned work ethic and track record of good health, he also figures to be a fixture in the lineup.

“The most impressive thing I’ve seen about him so far is the back of his baseball card,” Royals outfield coach Rusty Kuntz said. “First year, 151 games. Last year, 155. That does not happen in baseball. He took seven days off last year. You know what that means? You can count on this guy.”

Yet as promising as this all sounds, it’s easy to overlook the fact that none of this is simple for Aoki.

For one thing, as common as it’s become for Japanese players to find their way into the major leagues, a certain weight still comes with it. Baseball in certain ways has emerged as what Inaji calls “the No. 1 sport” in Japan.

“From a psychological standpoint, the players over there that do well, I think their next steps are to prove themselves is going to the U.S.; these are ambassadors for a game that they’re looking for equality in,” said Royals bench coach Don Wakamatsu, who in 2009 became the first major-league manager of Asian-American descent when he took over the Seattle Mariners. “I don’t know if people realize the pressure that’s on them.”

When he was working with the Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki, Wakamatsu recalled that Suzuki returned from the 2009 World Baseball Classic with an ulcer.

“And it was the first time in his career he went on the disabled list,” Wakamatsu said.

For that matter, Wakamatsu even wondered what role such pressure might have played in the 2011 suicide of Hideki Irabu years after his spotty major-league bid.

“You dig a little bit deeper, and there’s success and tragedy,” said the Oregon-born Wakamatsu, whose cultural attachment includes his father being born in an internment camp during World War II. “To put it all in perspective is to think of the burden and also the reward that they get. …

“I think also the story is what could (Aoki) be in Japan? What is he giving up in Japan? He could be a superstar over there, where here he’s a good player. As a pro athlete, you want to play at the highest level. But it’s simpler in a sense to stay at home and be the stud there.”


While there are some stylistic and philosophical differences in how the games are played in Japan and the United States, mostly baseball is baseball.

And Aoki, 32, is considered highly disciplined from his foundation in the sport with the Yakult Swallows of the Nippon Professional Baseball league.

That showed in his two seasons with the Brewers. He hit .287 with a .355 on-base percentage and struck out just 95 times in 1,262 at-bats. In fact, he was the hardest man to strike out in the National League last year (once every 14.9 at-bats).

He also has an above-average arm and a terrific awareness for outfield play.

“We don’t have to start from square one,” Kuntz said, “and that makes it a whole lot easier on what I’m trying to do with him.”

That being said …

“Thank goodness for Kosuke,” Kuntz said, “because without him there it’s a lost-in-translation kind of deal at times.”

Through Inaji, Aoki says he now has a fine grasp of what English he needs in the field, the “I-got-its” and such.

“It might be because everyone started talking real slow,” Inaji quoted him saying as Aoki laughed.

But Kuntz is working every day to figure out ways to develop more specific signals to align Aoki in the more complicated situations.

By way of example, Kuntz took almost a minute to talk through one that would require an outfielder to move back five or six steps but not 10-15.

“That’s a lot of translation,” he said. “So do you see where I’m going with all this? That’s just one. And I’ve got a sheet of probably 45 of those, OK? And all those scenarios I just gave you are an instant, the blink of an eye. …

“So I guess what I’m saying is you hope that your translation gets into his translation.”


Inaji was born in Japan but grew up in California and earned degrees in biology and chemistry from the University of California-Davis. But he ended up with the Atlanta Braves as translator because, as he put it, he “knew the right guy.”

He then went to Milwaukee along with pitcher Takashi Saito in 2011, and he connected from the start with Aoki when he arrived a year later.

Now, Inaji considers himself somewhere between an interpreter and an assistant to Aoki, about whom it is difficult to learn much despite the apparent best of intentions.

That gap is part of what in some ways makes his job an awesome responsibility.

“I don’t know where this fits in the story, but what is the interpreter’s role?” Wakamatsu said. “Here you have a team, and yet you’re going through an intermediary …

“And your image is being portrayed through the guy who’s telling the story. There’s all these pieces that have to come, and if you have a guy who doesn’t articulate your meanings in the spirit, it can get a little fuzzy.”

Wakamatsu also considered the importance of Inaji as a reflection of Aoki in terms of image, and it already seems evident he’s seen as part of the team.

When Inaji had his long locks sheared recently, for instance, any number of players gave him guff about it. He’s constantly engaged with others around him, making him not only a connector but a worthy ambassador in his own right.

Meanwhile, language barrier notwithstanding, there are other ways to communicate.

Kuntz is apt to pat Aoki on the back or hug or “squeeze” him, and others seem to generate or feel a vibe with him.

“A smile is very translatable in every language,” Teaford said. “And he’s always smiling.”

Aoki will likely be smiling all the more when his family joins him in Kansas City this season.

But that doesn’t mean at times he won’t feel alone behind that smile, striving to make this all look easy when so much just can’t be.

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