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  • Yu Darvish's legacy might forever be marred by his flop in Game 7 of the World Series. As the top free agent on the market, he plans to revitalize his career and prove he's one of the best.
By Mike Piellucci
November 14, 2017

Yu Darvish doesn’t understand what happened in the World Series, either.

He arrived on baseball’s grandest stage feeling his healthiest since undergoing Tommy John surgery 2 1/2 years earlier, dominating with an approach he resurrected from half a decade ago. Yet after Game 7 on Nov. 1 the righthander found himself sitting at a podium deep inside Dodger Stadium, fighting back tears, trying to explain how he gave up four earned runs and recorded just five outs for the team that had acquired him to deliver at precisely such a high-stakes moment.

Later that night Darvish logged onto Twitter and released a second, more personal statement after the 5–1 loss to the Astros, which followed his other four-run, five-out defeat in Game 3: “The World Series resulted in a disappointment due to my lack of performance.”

That figured to be Darvish’s last public communication until next month, when he will announce what is likely to be the most lucrative free-agent contract this offseason. Five years ago he arrived in the U.S. from Japan, shrouded in mystery and armed with a secret weapon: the shuuto. After 131 major league starts—the first 122 of them with the Rangers—not much has changed. While Darvish is hardly the only athlete to covet privacy, few have been more successful at achieving it. 

Yet just nine days after his Game 7 debacle Darvish, 31, walked into a conference room at the Ritz-Carlton in uptown Dallas, wearing a gray button-down shirt, charcoal jeans and red-white-and-blue Nike Air Force 1s. He was accompanied by part of what his agent, Joel Wolfe, affectionately calls Darvish Nation: Yu’s wife, Seiko; their three sons; two translators; and a personal assistant. As Seiko took two of the boys into the adjacent waiting area, Darvish balanced his two-year-old on his lap. In reflective tones, with expressive hands, he began to share slivers of his life.

Among the revelations: He has six dogs (pit bulls, Cane Corsi and mutts) and three sun conure parrots. The golden rule in his family is to always tell the truth. He reads fitness and nutrition literature but rarely picks up a book on other subjects. However, he’s obsessed with picking up litter. Since the age of 20 his main charitable cause has been the Yu Darvish Water Fund, which promotes clean water in developing countries. He met Seiko, a four-time world champion wrestler whom Darvish insists has “better DNA and physical talent than I do,” in Toronto in 2013, after she tagged along to a lunch with her older sister, a longtime friend of his.

None of which addressed the greatest mystery of all: Why was someone so reticent choosing to open up at the darkest moment of his brilliant career?

***

Two years earlier, while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery in Texas, Darvish flew to L.A. for a visit with Wolfe. Between meetings Darvish told his agent he needed to work out. They drove to UCLA, and during a game of catch, Wolfe worked up the nerve to address a long-standing rumor. “Can you really pitch lefthanded?” he asked.

Wolfe squatted; Darvish set up shop 60 feet away. “He pitched probably 15 pitches and threw a full bullpen on flat ground,” Wolfe recalls. “Curveballs. Sliders. He can go pitch Double-A right now. . . . He wasn’t fully letting it go, but I’ve heard he can throw, right now, in the mid-80s.”

Darvish is pensive as the story is recounted to him, then offers a minor point of correction. “I think I can top out at 80,” he says through his interpreter of the last two years, Hideaki Sato.

Those freakish abilities help explain why Texas paid a $51 million posting fee to the Hokkaido Nippon–Ham Fighters in December 2011 and then signed Darvish to a six-year, $60 million contract. With the Rangers, Darvish reached 500 strikeouts in 4012⁄3 innings—faster than any pitcher in MLB history—and earned an All-Star berth in each of his four healthy seasons. From 2012 to ’14 he finished ninth in WAR among starters, despite throwing at least 95 fewer innings than all but two pitchers ranked higher. In addition to a fastball in the mid-90s, he flashed a repertoire that even longtime observers struggle to quantify. (For the record, Darvish says the actual number is six; seven if you count the curveball he mothballed to reduce stress on his surgically repaired arm.)

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A well-circulated GIF depicts Darvish’s release point as he throws his best offerings. The fluid delivery is the same until the ball leaves his hand—then one baseball morphs into five that shoot off in different directions, like fireworks. Wolfe once asked another of his clients, slugger Jason Giambi, how it felt to confront that arsenal. “Like facing David Copperfield,” Giambi said. “He would throw something at you, and it would disappear, and you would say, ‘There’s no way that happened. Show me how you did that.’ ”

Darvish’s best work—like his 14-whiff, one-hit shutout of the Astros on Opening Day 2013—is beyond reproach, but his critics want more first-pitch strikes, lower pitch counts in the early innings and, in general, more consistency. There is always a sense he could do more, probably because on the right afternoon he can do just about anything. When did Copperfield ever botch a magic trick? After getting traded to L.A. on July 31, 2017, Darvish bought an ad in The Dallas Morning News to thank Rangers fans. It read in part, “There were a small number of voices that said, ‘Darvish only cares about strikeouts.’ Although I may have had strikeouts in my mind, fans, team, teammates and team staff were always my top priority.”

At the hotel he describes that wording as “half-joke, half-serious,” and says, “Back then, there were certain times, like, Why only me? Like I’m seeing Chris Sale; he’s got a similar pitching style and strikes guys out a lot. Why are people only talking about my strikeouts and all that stuff? ... Why not the other guys, who have similar numbers and pitch counts?”

In some ways Darvish continues to measure himself against the pitcher he was in Japan. It’s a daunting comparison. Playing in Nippon Professional Baseball was his childhood dream, and yet he was barely out of his teens before he began to outgrow it. At 20 he was the ace of the Ham Fighters’ first-ever championship team and then in 2007 won the Eiji Sawamura Award, Japan’s Cy Young. That year he became the youngest player in Japanese history to sign a contract worth 200 million yen (or $1.7 million). Within five years he needed a new goal, so he aimed as high as possible: to become the best pitcher in the world.

Rob Tringali/Getty Images

****

In Japan, Darvish was so dominant that he had carte blanche on the mound. He’s naturally analytical and relishes combing through data to suss out a hitter’s weaknesses. “Nobody said anything about my pitching,” he says. “I’d make my own plan and execute it in the game.” Not surprisingly Darvish found it difficult to adapt to hands-on coaching since coming to MLB. “I never had that experience before, of a pitching coach telling me what to do,” he says. “It’s a personal struggle to consume all that advice, making adjustments, [being told] what pitches I need to use. I think that’s when I was gradually losing the fun of the game.”

That, he says, is why he told the assembled media after Game 7 that, “since coming to the major leagues, my passion toward baseball had started to decrease”—a remark that was later widely scrutinized. Those closest to him say it doesn’t jive with someone so immersed in the game. Wolfe struggles to name his client’s interests outside of baseball. “From what I can see,” says Seiko, through an interpreter, “he’s devoting 24 hours a day to baseball and essentially trying to win the title.”

At home Seiko watches Yu teach the game to their sons. For the sake of taking it easy on them, he pitches lefty and bats from the left side too. He attempted the latter in a few games this season, which she believes is a by-product of so many practice swings in their yard. Seiko swears her husband’s facial expressions and mannerisms never change. The Yu Darvish playing on the lawn in the Dallas–Fort Worth area is no different from the one who takes the mound. He is competitive, certainly, but it’s rooted in a deeper joy.

“He is the Yu Darvish everyone knows as a baseball player, but at the same time he’s like a boy who loves to play baseball,” Seiko says. “Whenever we’re together, I see him as that Yu. The baseball-loving boy.”

****

It doesn’t take long for Darvish’s son to grow antsy in the conference room. Darvish scoops him up, cradles him and then apologetically shuttles him out of the room. According to Sato, the youngster is the spitting image of Darvish at the same age, and it only takes the little boy a few minutes to jimmy the door and pitter-patter back inside to his father.

Back on the lap he goes. Between questions, while Sato translates, Darvish sketches on a notepad to hold his son’s attention. First, a smiley face. Then, further down the page, an airplane. According to Seiko, Yu is always watching his children; the first adjective she uses to describe him as a parent is mindful. He is a self-professed homebody, and she can tell when long road trips wear on him. She hears it in his voice over the phone, especially when they discuss the children.

Not long after they first met, Seiko took a position as an assistant coach for U.S. women’s wrestling. Each day she tailored her approach to suit whichever of the team’s 40 or 50 athletes she was training. Now she concerns herself with only one. So as soon as the trade to the Dodgers was announced, she decided to relocate the entirety of Darvish Nation—kids, dogs, birds, assistants—to Los Angeles, even if only for a few months.

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The trade rejuvenated Darvish. Wolfe expected as much. He recalls the final frantic minutes before the deadline, when the pitcher fired off texts from the Rangers’ clubhouse while awaiting his fate. “He was telling me, ‘I’m happy to stay, but if I get traded, I want it to be to the Dodgers,’ ” Wolfe recalls. “That was the one place he really wanted to be.”

Darvish had barely set foot in Chavez Ravine when he described the feeling with the agent: “I’m in heaven.” He was on a title contender that leaned heavily on analytical data and inside a clubhouse full of people he sees as “very positive”—a quality that Darvish prizes. He developed a special appreciation for Rick Honeycutt, the team’s 63-year-old pitching coach. “He’s very quiet, but when he says things, it’s all positives,” Darvish says. “Honeycutt just let me be who I am. I think that helped me to just relax.”

He arrived carrying a 4.01 ERA, the highest mark of his MLB career, after conceding 10 runs in his final start as a Ranger. Darvish knew he needed to change his approach, so he burrowed back to September 2012, the final month of his rookie season and the first in which he found his footing on American soil. Over his final five starts Darvish posted a 2.21 ERA, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio that would have led baseball over a full season. His cutter was the key: After never using it more than 18.9% of the time in any start before Aug. 12, Darvish threw the pitch at least 41.7% of the time over his last four outings.

Empowered by Honeycutt’s light touch, Darvish returned to the strategy in September, deploying it at least 30% of the time over his last three regular season starts. Once again the cutter proved effective. His walk rate and strikeout-to-walk rates markedly improved. He mowed down the Diamondbacks in his NL Division Series start, striking out seven and allowing one run on two hits over five innings. He was even better against the Cubs in the NL Championship Series, again surrendering a single run and fanning seven, but this time over 61⁄3.

A championship was within reach—and perhaps an opportunity to prove he was the world’s ace. “Leading up to the World Series, there were times when I thought, ‘If I keep pitching and improving the way I’m pitching right now, there may be a chance,’ ” he says.

But against Houston, Darvish’s command abandoned him. His slider went haywire. Unable to locate and without a breaking ball he trusted, he took a historic pounding. His final World Series ERA stood at 21.60. He became the first pitcher since 1960 to fail to make it past the second inning in multiple World Series starts.

Game 7 was agony. The wait after his exit was interminable. “I was just praying we were going to come back,” he recalls. “That was all I had in my mind.”

Darvish decided before he walked into the media room that he would shoulder as much blame as possible. He understood that it was the most practical solution. He was the hired gun who had been in town only three months and who might never wear a Dodgers uniform again. He could live with the fans’ scorn better than teammates who could be in L.A. for years to come.

“I’m sure the fans are going to be frustrated and look for somebody to point the finger at,” he says. “It happens all the time, every World Series. . . . And I understand that. So that’s why I said what I said in the media conference. If I say something positive and put that responsibility on somebody else, that’s not a good thing. I was ready to take it, and I think it was the right call to make me the target at that point.”

Rob Tringali/Getty Images

****

If he’s being honest—and, per his family code, Yu Darvish tells no lies—the World Series changed him. He needs no one’s pity. In time he may regard his performance as a necessary setback. It can be another point of data to scrutinize, to improve upon.

Make no mistake, though: “I think this is a very important event that happened to me,” he says. “From that experience, I want to go back on that stage, and I want to pitch better. That’s the only occasion in which I can redeem myself. I want to be part of a team where I can get that chance.”

He can feel himself getting stronger. The first full season after Tommy John surgery is usually a time of re-acclimation. The more Darvish pitched, the more he found himself cataloguing each roadblock and contrasting it to how he felt in 2014, his last full healthy season.

Darvish expects 2018 to be easier. He’ll have a full year to implement his revamped, cutter-saturated approach. His focus during spring training will be to dust off the curveball. If all goes well, he can reclaim what he considers his out pitch against lefthanded hitters. “Next season,” he declares. “That’s when I’ll feel close to where I was before the surgery.”

He will likely do all of that with a new team. The Rangers won’t be on any shortlist of World Series contenders and the Dodgers have an aversion to signing pitchers to long-term deals. Darvish won’t lack for suitors, though. While his World Series implosion will be fresh in the minds of every general manager, the reality is that his is the best arm in free agency. Rich Hill, Darvish’s 37-year-old, famously brittle rotation-mate in Los Angeles, signed a deal worth $16 million annually in 2016. The year before, David Price, whose postseason struggles dwarf Darvish’s, got $31 million per year.

Wherever he signs, the Darvishes will continue to maintain their residence in Dallas, just 10 minutes away from the Ritz-Carlton. Japan remains in Yu’s heart, but he no longer returns there when the MLB season ends, as he used to in his first few years. His English is fluent and only lightly accented—he does interviews through Sato mostly to ensure his words aren’t misinterpreted. “I want to raise my kids in this kind of environment.” he says. “I almost feel like I grew up and was raised in America now, because I’m so comfortable here.”

It’s an unexpected remark from the player regarded as quintessentially Japanese. And perhaps that’s the reason Darvish chose now, of all times, to open up:  To answer any questions about whether his heart is still driven to become the best pitcher alive. “My personal feeling is that it’s something I may never get to,” he demurs. “I don’t think I’ll ever get there. It’s the ultimate goal.” 

He’s willing to work for it. Not today, however. His wife and kids just returned from Los Angeles the night before, and that’s his top priority. He hoists his son into his arm and, with Seiko and the other boys, exits the hotel and piles into the car.

It’s time to go home.

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