One afternoon in May, the most famous baseball player in the world was running late. Shohei Ohtani had taken the last team bus from the Angelsâ hotel in Oakland to the Coliseum, as is his habit on days when heâs slated to pitch. Ohtaniâs multitiered gigâas one of MLBâs most powerful hitters and flummoxing pitchers and, increasingly, the sportâs global avatarârequires an intricate itinerary. He throws side sessions before rounds of batting practice. He watches tape of that nightâs opposing starter and then studies scouting reports for his own start days later. He finds himself, on occasion, on a bus alongside the Angelsâ traveling secretary, his catcher, Kurt Suzuki, and Ippei Mizuhara, a 36-year-old who has never played an inning of organized baseball. On this day, that bus got stuck in a snarl of Bay Area traffic, and the group had to take the train.
Mizuhara is Ohtaniâs personal interpreter. He has held the position since Ohtani came to Anaheim from Japan in 2018, translating for press conferences and locker-side scrums, shorthanding lines of clubhouse banter, and facilitating the fine-grain coaching sessions that help let Ohtani shape his scythe of a swing and lock in his four-seamer. That afternoon, when they reached the BART station, Mizuharaâs phone buzzed with a text from manager Joe Maddon. Should they push Ohtaniâs start back a day to give him time to go through a proper warmup? Or would that mess with other elements of the routine? Mizuhara conferred with Ohtani, the two quickly weighing team and individual needs, and sent back the verdict: âShoheiâs good with that.â
At its essence, Mizuharaâs job is to make sure Ohtani understands, and is understood. But the role spills beyond the banks of that description. Ohtaniâs agendaâpreparation, play, recovery, media availabilityâbecomes Mizuharaâs own, with the interpreter stepping into any number of sub-duties. He speaks Japanese and English and breaks down advanced analytics and recovery timetables. âHis scheduleâs so unique, there are times when nobodyâs around to throw with him,â Mizuhara says. âIâll step in and play catch.â
Major League Baseball is as rich in international talent as at any point in its history. More than 28% of active players hail from outside the U.S. borders, and many of them prefer to communicate in languages other than English: Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Mandarin and mashups of baseball-speak that exist somewhere in between. That figure includes superstars set to garner no small number of MVP votes (the Juniors Ronald AcuÃ±a and Vladimir Guerrero), Cy Young votes (Hyun Jin Ryu) or both (Ohtani).
The people who make this possible share few distinguishing characteristics but bilingualism and a love for the sport. They are washed-out ex-athletes or onetime megafans who made their way into pro clubhouses doggedly or accidentally. They work across rostersâas Spanish interpreters have since MLB started requiring them in 2016, at the behest of a coalition of players tired of the once-customary practice of asking this or that coach or teammate to translate part-timeâor one-on-one, as is usually the case with the smaller number of players from Asian countries. The role is not particularly sought after; there is no horde of econ-degree Ivy Leaguers chasing it, as with almost every other front-office posting. But interpreters know two things better than anyone else. First, that as much as baseball is a game of skill or strength, it is a game of speech. And second, that the work of finding the right word doesnât stop when the talking does.
In 1964, the Nankai Hawks of the Japanese Pacific League sent three players to participate in the Giantsâ spring training as part of a postwar âexchange program.â During the regular season, San Francisco assigned one of these players, a pitcher named Masanori Murakami, to its Class A affiliate in Fresno, home to a sizable Japanese American communityâa product, in part, of internment camps during World War IIâwhose members provided him lodging and helped teach him English phrases. Infielder Tatsuhiko Tanaka and catcher Hiroshi Takahashi headed to Twin Falls, Idaho, for rookie ball, with no such support system. While Murakami pitched well enough to turn heads in the Giantsâ front office, the others faltered, with Takahashi in particular developing a reputation for defensive miscues. He called for more offspeed pitches than his U.S. counterparts, a trademark of Japanese baseball, and struggled to grasp in-game adjustments.
In September of that year, Murakami became the first Japanese player to appear in the majors, while Takahashi completed the program and returned home. âThe frustration [with the language barrier] manifested in his play on the field,â says Bill Staples Jr., the chairman of SABRâs Asian Baseball Committee. âYou can see it in the box score. Two passed balls in one game, then another, then another.â
It is a history of international ballplayers in microcosm. Clear communication portends successâits absence, failure. The Latinx boom of the 1960s and â70s gathered momentum as more and more players arrived to help translate and facilitate one anotherâs learning English. When the Dodgers signed Hideo Nomoâthe second Japanese big leaguer, three decades after the first, and the player who began the influx of Japanese starsâin â95, his agent, Don Nomura, worked to ensure his clientâs best outcome. âWe had the leverage to say, âWe want this,â â Nomura recalls. âI believed an interpreter was going to play a major role.â If you canât communicate, he says, you canât succeed.
At any given moment in an MLB game, there are more than enough ways to fail. The hitter can torque his hips too early or bring his bat to the ball at an angle removed, by some miniscule degree, from the ideal. The pitcher can fire a high-90s fastballâa marvel of balance and strength and bodily syncâbut place it an inch or two to the side of where he intended. The base hit becomes an out; the strike becomes a homer. Games and careers take on different shapes.
Ask an interpreter about the most taxing part of their job, and theyâll dip into this mode of baseball cynicism. Jun Sung Park, a 30-year-old Korean Canadian who grew up playing hockey, is in his first year as the personal interpreter for Blue Jays ace Hyun Jin Ryu. Ryu has garnered Cy Young votes in each of the last two seasons on the strength of his strike-zone command, a puff-of-smoke changeup and obsessive preparation; the days before his starts involve protracted written proposals and counterproposals passed between him and pitching coach Pete Walker. Ryu understands conversational English and speaks some, but this work is granular, so Park translates each draft of each potential approach to each batter, Korean to English and back again. âA fastball in and a fastball off the plate in are two different pitches,â Park says. âIf we want to throw a ball but [the catcher] is giving out signs to throw a strike, and if that becomes a hit or a run, it changes everything… That means I made a mistake that could cost us the game.â
Has he made such a mistake? âNot yet, and thatâs how I plan to keep it.â Park employs the methods of a scholar preparing to defend a dissertation, scouring pages for any possibility of error or misunderstanding. âIâll double-check, triple-check, quadruple-check if I have to,â he says.
Certain situations preclude such vigilance. Elvis Martinez, an interpreter with the Twins whose services are utilized by 14 Spanish-speaking players on the roster, remembers a recent visit to the mound alongside manager Rocco Baldelli. Right-handed reliever Hansel Robles faced a 10th-inning scenario rife with potential problems: runners on first and third, a speedster 90 feet from home, just one out. Baldelli quickly laid out plans: what theyâd do in case of a bunt, how theyâd handle an attempted steal of second. Around Baldelli and Robles, infielders frantically sorted out their own strategies, and the umpire began strolling over to break up the conference.
âI grabbed Robles on the shoulder and told him, âIâm here; just listen to me,â â Martinez says. âThe situation is already stressful for him, and I donât want it to be more stressful because heâs lost.â Robles got the batter out with a sinker that coaxed a do-nothing ground ball; he retired the next hitter with high heat. In recounting the outcome, Martinez slips into the first-person plural that interpreters use almost universally in describing the successes or failures of their players. âWe were able to get out of the jam.â
Tasked with producing a Latin version of the Bible in the fourth century A.C.E., Saint Jerome wrote of the folly of literal translation, declaring that he would work âsense for sense, not word for word.â In its reliance on idiom and its multiplicity of meaning, the language of baseball rivals that of scripture, and its interpreters follow similar maxims. Martinez describes one in a seemingly infinite number of potential confusions. âCrowding the plateââinching toward the strike zoneâhas no such meaning in Spanish. âIf you translate it [directly], it doesnât make sense in a baseball context,â he says. In such cases, Martinez errs on the side of specificity, describing the technique and its intended effectâtaking away the pitcherâs comfort, or freeing up access to the outside edge of the plateâin detail. âThe players know the baseball lingo…but we shouldnât leave space for misinterpretation,â Martinez says. âOr the message goes missing.â
The ability to correct a misunderstanding, and even to sense when thereâs a misunderstanding to correct, requires a fluency not only in the relevant languages but in baseball itself. MLBâs interpreters have gained and honed this knowledge in as many ways as there are members of their ranks. Martinez played middle infield at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Park translated corporate documents for Korean businesses opening branches in Canada before picking up a postcollege gig with the Korean Baseball Organizationâs Kia Tigers; he spent his spare moments, as he still does, peppering hitting coaches and bullpen staffers with questions about nuances of hand placement and pitch shaping.
Two decades before heâd come to work with Ohtani, Mizuhara, who was born in Hokkaido but grew up in Los Angeles, fell in love with the game by way of another instant icon. âI was right in the middle of Nomo Fever,â says Mizuhara. âEver since then, I just watched a lot of MLB.â
It is the fanâs dream: obsession maturing into livelihood. Mizuharaâs knowledge, accumulated over hours in front of the television, eventually took him from handling stock for an L.A. imports company to a job with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fightersâwhere Ohtani played in Japanâtranslating for U.S. players. His capability there earned him a shotgun ride to the biggest baseball phenomenon in recent memory. Now he talks sequencing in pitching meetings; Nomoâs forkball has become Ohtaniâs splitter. He translated the details of the team’s hitting drill, designed to improve balance, timing and power, which coaches credit for his career-best year at the plate. Despite Mizuharaâs expertise, the education continues. On days when Ohtani serves as designated hitter, player and interpreter stand side by side on the rail of the dugout, tracing the patterns of the game. âHeâs always asking me,â Mizuhara says, â âWhat pitch do you think heâs gonna throw next?â â
The tutelage can be even more hands-on than this. Personal interpreters often shadow players from sunup to postgameâin some cases, they live under the same roofâand proximity compensates for whatever qualities they might otherwise lack as practice partners. Daichi Sekizaki, who works with Minnesotaâs Kenta Maeda, began his MLB career with Yu Darvish: first as an assistant in Texas, then as an interpreter in Los Angeles and Chicago. (Darvish has since polished his English to the point that his Padres interpreter is functionally a safeguard.) Sekizaki had heard all about Darvishâs legendary arsenalâhe put his own estimate, conservatively, at 11 distinct pitchesâbut didnât fully grasp the extent of things until he was pulled into at-home throwing sessions. âHeâs trying out new pitches, and theyâre moving left and right,â Sekizaki says. He remembers closing his glove around a baseball that felt like a buzz saw. âTo learn what true spin wasâthat was really shocking.â
Since then, Sekizaki has stayed attuned to what players can only show, not tell. During the season, he tails Maeda everywhere, from the weight room and treatment area to the outfield for long-toss and the bullpen for side work. âIf he does conditioning, I do conditioning with him,â Sekizaki says. âIf heâs running polesââjogging foul line to foul lineââIâll run poles. Iâll be able to get a better understanding of what heâs going through, how heâs feeling that day or on a certain movement. Then, if thatâs something that he wants me to relate to the trainers, I can be the messenger.â
On a recent afternoon, as Maeda neared his return from a stint on the injured list with a pulled groin, he and Sekizaki competed in the Twinsâ vertical leap test, a weekly ritual between the two. Sekizaki can jump well enough to push Maeda but had never beaten him, until now. He indulged in the rare victory over his much-better-credentialed workout buddy: âI jumped my all-time high,â Sekizaki says with a laugh. But he also, as ever, gleaned some parcel of information from itâabout Maedaâs health, his comfort, the totality of his recoveryâand filed it away.
In February, video of a speech from soon-to-be-ousted Mariners president Kevin Mather circulated. In it, next to admissions of service-time manipulation and broadsides fired at his own players, Mather criticized Hisashi Iwakuma, a former pitcher turned advisor to the club. âIâm tired of paying his interpreter,â Mather said. âBecause when he was a player, weâd pay Iwakuma X, but weâd also have to pay $75,000 a year to have an interpreter with him. â¦ His English got better when we told him that.â
Matherâs remarks emblematized a strain of resentment that still runs through the sport; midyear gripes about a slumping playerâs purported unwillingness to learn English are a sports radio staple. But more and more clubs see interpreters as bastions of flexibility and interdepartmental knowledge in an increasingly impersonal atmosphere. Bryan Lee, Ryuâs interpreter through the 2020 season, was recently promoted out of the role and into the Blue Jaysâ baseball operations department; Hideaki Sato, another onetime Darvish interpreter, now works in the same organization as an international scout.
It is easy to see why. Maybe no other job, short of a managerâs, requires so total a view of the player: as an athlete working to optimize his performance and as a person carrying doubts and discomforts. After Cleveland infielder Yu Chang made a throwing error that decided a mid-April loss, his social media accounts were targeted with racist messages. His teammates, manager and family rallied around him, but one pillar of support was Kuan Wu Chu. The two had met in 2017 in Akron, where Chu was working on a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, and Chang was playing for Clevelandâs Double A affiliate. Seeing a Taiwanese player in the system was a rarity, Chu says, and they became friends. âItâs a small town.â
Last season, Chu joined Chang in Cleveland, helping his friend through the vagaries of a young MLB career. Heâs translated, yes, but also commiserated, celebrated and cooked with the ballplayer. In the days following the social media attacks, Chu offered a standard line of adviceââYou canât control other people, only yourselfââand made beef noodle soup and pork over rice. Appraising the legitimacy of the Taiwanese dishes, given the limitations of Ohio supermarkets, Chu echoes a sentiment he uses in describing his translation work. âI keep learning.â
Describing his own work in these heady days of Ohtani-mania, Mizuhara speaks in blissful quick tempo, the cadence of someone whose best-case projections have been realized. âI always remember how lucky I am to be in this spot,â Mizuhara says. âIâve known Shohei since he was 18, and when I first saw him I was like, âOh, my God, this guyâs unreal.â â That afternoon, Ohtani had inside-outed a fastball to plate two runs in a win against the division-leading Athletics and advance his own MVP case, and Mizuhara is still humming. âThatâs got to be the best part of the job, just getting to be in the house and watch him do his thing.â
If thatâs the best part, what is the most rewarding? Mizuharaâs tone changes, and he mentions long hours in the training room as Ohtani recovered from injuries in 2019 and â20, passing phrases between player and staffer. âI got his groceries for him,â Mizuhara says. âHe couldnât move.â Then he talks about Ohtaniâs arrival, in â18, and a mission he assigned himself, unprompted by any team official. âThe one thing I was focusing on in his first seasonâI had always heard that some Japanese players that came in the past could isolate themselves from the clubhouse. I didnât want that to happen to him.â Mizuhara noticed the rest of the Angels playing a video game on their phones; at his behest, Ohtani downloaded it and joined in. It worked, Mizuhara reports happily. âWe still play it all the time.â
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