From security guard to security blanket, the journey of Koji Uehara
He wears the uniform number as a reminder, a reminder of where he was when he was a teenager in Japan, 19 years old, lost and directionless. The number is a reminder of just how far he has come.
Koji Uehara wanted to be a teacher. This was his dream growing up in Osaka prefecture. Out of high school he failed the entrance exam for prospective university students, and he began working as a security guard to make money while he studied for his next chance at university. All he wanted was a way toward a respectable life. His career goals were modest: He wanted to teach -- he was always a good athlete, and high school physical education was one option. A life in baseball, playing in the major leagues in America? Back then he would have laughed at the idea.
Baseball has always had its unlikely stories. The modest son of a fisherman from Panama finds a pitch by accident and becomes one of the greatest pitchers to ever play the game, for example. And like Mariano Rivera's, this tale of another unlikely closer -- the story of the boy from Osaka who became a postseason hero for one of the game's most storied franchises -- is another one of that kind of baseball story.
Signed by the Red Sox to a one-year deal before the 2013 season, Uehara began the season entrenched as a middle reliever but he emerged to become the team's spectacularly dominant closer. Chants of "KO-JI! KO-JI!" rang across Fenway Park moments after the final game of the 2013 American League Championship Series, and there was Uehara, at the tender age of 38 the unlikely Red Sox hero, clutching the ALCS MVP trophy in his hands as he walked across the field, wearing a white Boston uniform emblazoned with that number that is a reminder: 19.
Long before he became one of the most beloved players on this Red Sox team, Koji Uehara was a teenager with no baseball future. Most of Japan's best baseball players were famous by the time they reached college; the national high school baseball tournament, Koshien, which enjoys as much hype as March Madness is in the U.S., turns high schoolers into national stars. Uehara never even played in Koshien, and when he was eventually admitted to university, he joined the baseball team at Osaka University of Health and Sports Sciences.
On one of the first days of practice, the coach asked if there was anyone who wanted to pitch. Uehara had been an outfielder in high school as well, but he had always enjoyed pitching in the rare instances he took the mound.
He raised his hand.
When the story of the 2013 Red Sox is told years from now, few will cite Boston's 4-3 loss to the Detroit Tigers on June 20 as a pivotal day in their season, but that was the moment their accidental closer was born. Tigers shortstop Jhonny Peralta socked a two-run walk-off home run off of Andrew Bailey, who'd been anointed Boston's closer following Joel Hanrahan's season-ending Tommy John surgery the previous month. Bailey's second-straight blown save compelled manager John Farrell to turn to his third different closer of the season: a former Yomiuri Giants starter with 15 career major league saves on his résumé.
Uehara was far from a no-brainer choice to take the closer's role. He'd arrived in the United States in 2009 from Japan, where he was one of the most dominant pitchers in the country. After impressing scouts at university in Japan with his fastball -- he saw a sudden uptick in his velocity upon bulking up in his early college years -- he signed with Yomiuri and won 20 games as a rookie in 1999. After a successful run as a starter in Japan (he was an eight-time All-Star and two-time winner of the Sawamura Award, the equivalent of the Cy Young, in 10 seasons with the Giants) Uehara signed with the Orioles, before nagging left hamstring and right elbow injuries were part of what led the team to turn him into a reliever. He was later traded to Texas, where he struggled so mightily as a reliever in the 2011 postseason (ERA: 33.75) that the Rangers left him off their World Series roster. In December of 2012, Uehara signed a one-year deal with the Red Sox for $4.25 million and was cast in that supporting role in the bullpen.
But after Farrell turned to Uehara in late June -- by "necessity," says Farrell -- the pitcher went on to deliver a regular season that was, quite simply, one of the greatest by a reliever in baseball history. On June 26, Uehara notched his second save, and after that he put up numbers that would be hard to replicate with an Xbox controller. He went 34⅓ innings without giving up an earned run, a streak during which he retired 37 batters in a row. For the season he led all major leaguers in ERA (1.09), strikeout-to-walk ratio (11.22) and WHIP (0.57), which was the lowest ever for a pitcher with at least 40 innings (he logged 74⅓). He threw 74% of his pitches for strikes, the highest rate for any pitcher (with 10 innings or more) since at least 2000, the first year such data exists. He became the first major leaguer to record 100 strikeouts in a season while issuing fewer than 10 walks.
"There's a viewpoint that closers come from anywhere," says Farrell. "But the strikeout capability is the one thing that Koji has set himself apart with."
Many of the great closers rely on one pitch that becomes synonymous with their dominance: Rivera and his cutter, Trevor Hoffman and his changeup, Bruce Sutter and his splitter. Uehara's sudden dominance is tied to his recent mastery of the Invisiball, a Sutter-like pitch that emerged as one of the most unhittable in the game (opponents batted just .095 against it). Out of Uehara's hand, the pitch looks like a traditional fastball, straight and hard, but then just before it reaches the plate, it dives toward the dirt -- in on righthanders, away from lefties. Uehara throws the pitch roughly half the time; he thrives with the unpredictable oscillation between the splitter and his four-seam fastball.
"He throws a 90-mph fastball, and it looks like it's got the reaction of an upper-90s pitch," says Farrell. "[With] that split he can do multiple things . . . throw it for a strike, finish a hitter off."
It was, fittingly, a splitter in the dirt that struck out Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias for the final out of the ALCS. Fans tend to overstate the value of closers, as managers who are slaves to the save statistic too often end up deploying their best relievers in low-leverage situations (say, with a three-run lead to start the ninth) when almost any pitcher could do the job. In October, though, when the games are low-scoring and the margins are often razor-thin (four of the six games in the ALCS were decided by one run and Uehara nailed down Boston's pair of two-run wins in Games 4 and 5 of the World Series) the closer can be the difference-maker.
Throughout the postseason Farrell has deftly deployed Uehara in much the same way the Yankees used Rivera, who recorded 31 multi-inning saves in his postseason career. While also leaning heavily on effective setup men Craig Breslow and Junichi Tazawa, Farrell turned to Uehara in high leverage situations (with the tying or winning run at the plate) before the ninth inning three times over the first two rounds of the postseason, and his closer rewarded him with a Rivera-like performance in the ALCS: Over six scoreless innings Uehara struck out nine Tigers, saved three of Boston's four wins (he got the win in a fourth) and joined Dennis Eckersley and Rivera as the only relievers to be named MVP of the American League Championship Series.
In the Fenway Park interview room after the clinching Game 6 win over Detroit, a reporter asked Uehara whether during the series he was ever concerned about tiring, given his workload this postseason. Uehara, who never passes up an opportunity to joke about his age, turned to his translator beside him and deadpanned in Japanese, "I am tired right now." Everyone in the room laughed.
Uehara possesses none of the props of the archetypal closer-as-intimidator. He does not have the headbanger's entrance music; when the bullpen door swings open at Fenway Park before he comes into the game, what blares on the speakers is a Norwegian techno pop song -- Darude's "Sandstorm" -- that was cool at high school proms in 2000. His fastball, as mentioned, does not light up radar guns. He does not punctuate his saves with a snarl and a fist-pump; he usually dissolves into the arms of a teammate. After he put away Iglesias to end Game 5 of the ALCS, one of his many crucial saves during the 2013 postseason, Uehara seemed to be on the verge of tears as he embraced catcher David Ross in what one baseball blog deemed "the tenderest televised hug in baseball history."
He does not wear the de rigueur facial hair -- on a Red Sox team that's bonded by the beard, he keeps his face as pristine as a marine sergeant's. But even though he still has a language barrier, even though he's on a team of burly, bearded alpha males, Uehara was just one of the guys in Boston's clubhouse of memorable characters, with his bubbly personality and quick sense of humor. Asked by FOX's Erin Andrews during the ALCS trophy presentation if he felt any nerves recording the final out, Uehara said, "To tell you the truth, I almost threw up."
"He may not speak very much English, we may only understand half of what he's trying to say," says Ross, "but he's one of the guys here. He fits in perfectly with the personality of this team. We've got a bunch of guys who've come a long way and overcome a lot, and he's certainly gone through a lot in his career to get here. I mean, how can you not love his story?"
It is a story, indeed, that anyone can embrace: the story of the boy from Japan who wanted to be a schoolteacher and instead became a hero in Red Sox Nation.