FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- If you think learning to pitch in a new league is tough, try learning to speak a new language simultaneously. Koji Uehara, Baltimore's first Japanese free agent, began his uphill education Saturday, when he reported to the Orioles' Spring Training facility and began to meet and greet his new teammates.
In his case, the homework started early. Uehara prepared a cheat sheet for his locker that includes last names and mugshots of his prospective teammates, and he took turns greeting them by name Saturday.
"I have to perform on the mound, and that's the most important thing, but after I do what I do on the mound, the social aspect comes in," Uehara said Saturday via translator Jiwon Bang. "The first thing I have to do is remember the names and faces of my teammates. It's about communication, and that's the easiest way to get to know people."
Uehara, who spent his entire career with the Central League's Yomiuri Giants, is part of a growing international trend that has seen the Major Leagues expand its borders beyond the traditional scouting grounds. But his transition is quite different than those of Latin Americans, who frequently have multiple countrymen on their rosters.
That's just not the case for Uehara, who has his own support staff in the form of a translator, masseuse and physical trainer. Uehara has already picked the brain of fellow Japanese star Takashi Saito and has entered a good-natured agreement with teammate Jamie Walker in which the two players will teach each other a word each day.
"I've played winter ball and it's not fun," said Walker of the language barrier. "I'm going to try to make it easy for him. I'm going to keep it loose. ... You have to have fun. If there is anything that I can help him with, I will. I've already told him that through his translator. I don't speak good English, and I sure don't speak Japanese."
The local media had a good time with that comment, relaying the message to Uehara and getting his take. And when the reporters relayed concern that Walker might teach him the wrong words, Uehara got the joke.
"Only good words," he said via Bang. "I'll be careful, but I need to learn [the bad words], too."
Perhaps the player who knows most about this situation is closer George Sherrill, who played with Ichiro Suzuki, Kenji Johjima and Shigetoshi Hasegawa during his Seattle tenure. Sherrill said that he couldn't imagine having the opposite immersion experience, and he also said it takes a large effort to make the foreign teammates feel comfortable.
"You've got to go through a interpreter for almost everything," he said. "It seems like they do a pretty good job of learning English and fitting in well. They go about their business, and at the same time, they try to fit in. It's a lot tougher on them, because they're trying to learn new names and learn English as well. We do have the same language of baseball, but trying to put it into English makes it extremely tough on them. You just be patient with it."
Perhaps the most important brand of communication will come between Uehara and catcher Gregg Zaun, and it will be complicated by the fact that they'll have to speak on the mound with an interpreter present. Zaun expressed the hope that he'll learn a little Japanese through products like Rosetta Stone in order to speak freely with Uehara.
"Hopefully, I'll be the bridge between him and the dugout and the interpreter while I'm on the field," Zaun said. "Thank God for me, I took four years of Spanish in high school. I don't have any problems communicating with the Latin players. ... Obviously, getting used to the time difference is going to be a challenge for him early. And not only that, the language barrier, and learning his teammates and the organization is going to be a challenge for him. It's something you have to understand and sympathize with. He's one of us now, and we have to do all we can to make him comfortable."
Zaun went on to say that he's played with one other Japanese teammate during his career, and he said that Tomo Ohka was able to find a comfortable way to communicate and just be one of the guys.
"He understood a lot of English," Zaun said. "I don't think he felt real comfortable speaking it around us too much, but the things that he did say were hilarious. He adapted really quick. Every clubhouse has their own vernacular and he picked it up really quick. He became part of the group really fast. I imagine with him having an interpreter and being around and guys busting his chops -- and hopefully he'll be busting guys chops, too -- we'll meet in the middle somehow."
Manager Dave Trembley spoke at great length about that subject Saturday, starting with a joke and getting more serious as he progressed. Trembley said at first there wouldn't be a whole lot of need for conversation, that he'd hand the ball to Uehara and watch him pitch, before actually addressing the subject at hand.
And when he did, he displayed a rare sensitivity and appreciation for the obstacles standing in Uehara's path. Simply put, Trembley said that his primary goal is to make sure that Uehara gets comfortable in his uniform.
"Baseball is baseball, I don't care where you play it or what language," Trembley said. "It's still basics and fundamentals. I'd kind of like to leave him alone, and when I get an opportunity to talk to him -- and hopefully it will be tomorrow -- I'd like to do it in private. Maybe on the back field with his translator and just talk to him with respect.
"I think I've got a pretty good idea what he's all about just by looking at him, watching him, reading about him, seeing him. He's not going to be on any special program. He doesn't want to be treated any differently. ... I just want to make sure he's comfortable. ... You can tell if people are sincere or honest. You can tell. This guy is a real special kid."