PORT CHARLOTTE — Let history show that Yoshi Tsutsugo’s career with the Rays got off to an inauspicious start Tuesday.
His first swing of his first batting practice was a miss at a 50ish mph low-and-away fastball from Spanish interpreter Manny Navarro.
He kept a straight face. Onlookers stifled their surprise. From a large group of top team officials watching, several involved directly in signing Tsutsugo as a free agent from Japan joked about turning over their credentials and slinking away.
“I was hoping you wouldn’t ask about that,” Tsutsugo said later, in Japanese, and with a smile.
Actually, for the most part, Tsutsugo’s first day on the field as a Ray was a hit, including two balls he launched over the rightfield fence once he got comfortable later in the 26-swing batting practice session that included several line drives.
As the Rays held their first full-squad workout to truly open a spring they hope leads to another trip to the playoffs, Tsutsugo was clearly the focus.
A group of more than 20 journalists from Japanese outlets, another dozen or so locals, plus national reporters Buster Olney and Ken Rosenthal and an MLB Network crew (who were coming for the opening day anyway), gathered first in the clubhouse to watch Tsutsugo prepare — Yes, he did put his pants on one leg at a time — for the workout.
They then followed him from field to field at Charlotte Sports Park as he did baserunning and defensive drills, then when he took batting practice, many charting every swing, and when he stopped on his way off the field to sign autographs before doing interview sessions with both groups.
A couple of fans held signs in Japanese. One, Kahei Haya, was a college student from Yokohama — where Tsutsugo played the last 10 years — who took a spring break trip to see his favorite player. “I’m a huge fan,” he said. The other, Tomoko Okada, drove up from Miami, saying she regularly attended Rays games when she used to live in Orlando and was excited they had another Japanese player, following Hideo Nomo, Aki Iwamura and Hideki Matsui.
Not many, if any, Rays players over the years have gotten this much attention in spring training. Tsutsugo didn’t seem to mind. “I’m very used to it,” he said, with minor-league athletic trainer Tsutomo Kamiya translating.
Nor did he seem too concerned that the Rays could have held an executive staff meeting behind the cage where he was swinging, as principal owner Stuart Sternberg, general manager Erik Neander, vice president Peter Bendix, special assistant Bobby Heck, pro scouting director Kevin Ibach and assistant Ryan Bristow joined manager Kevin Cash and hitting coach Chad Mottola to watch.
“More excited than nervous,” Tsutsugo said. “Honestly, I wasn’t that nervous.”
Rays players also were curious to see for themselves. Kevin Kiermaier and Austin Meadows were among those who went to YouTube to see highlight videos after Tsutsugo was signed in December for $12 million over two years, plus another $2.4 million to his Yokohama team.
That was enough for Meadows to deem Tsutsugo “a beast.” He raved even more after the workout. “He looked pretty good to me,” Meadows said. “He’s got a sweet swing, and we’re excited to have him. It’s fun with all the media around him. It’s a big fiasco out there.”
Though Tsutsugo isn’t comfortable yet talking much in English, he has found ways to communicate as his new mates are making an effort to reach out and make him feel welcome. Plus, he knows enough Spanish — or least what he called the “slang” words — to communicate, and he and shortstop Willy Adames were already bonding.
“We expect a lot from him,” Adames said. “No pressure though. I think he’s going to help us win a lot of games. He’s a big thing — he’s got his own translator, he’s got his own (massage therapist), whatever. He seems like a cool dude, that he’s going to be a funny guy in the clubhouse. I’m looking forward to seeing him succeed.”
Tsutsugo, 28, noted there were some differences, that the two-plus hour workout was much shorter and more efficient — and “better that way” — than he was used to, and that having the batting practice pitcher only 40 to 45 feet away, rather than at 60 and on the mound as at times in Japan, required some adjustments.
It’s going to be like that for weeks, or even months, for Tsutsugo. At work, he has to get used to a new routine and clubhouse atmosphere but also stadiums, opposing pitchers and level of competition. But even more so, differences in language, food and culture from moving to a new country.
“I cannot imagine what he’s going through,” Cash said. “But, for what it’s worth, I think he’s handled it really, really well. I’ve seen him interact with staff, with coaches, with players, small talking where he’s going to dinner, things like that. It’s a big learning curve, but it’s our job to help that process speed up as much as possible.”