One sentence from the Yu Darvish stories sticks with me. It's not that Darvish, the Japanese pitching phenom, is supposed to be a future American League ace. Scouts think he is a better prospect than Boston's Japanese import, Daisuke Matsuzaka. He might be an ace or he might not -- I have no idea. Darvish put up great numbers in Japan, and people who know a lot more about this than I do think he has a chance to be a star, so I'll assume he does.
That's not what sticks with me, and it's not that the Rangers paid Darvish's Japanese team $52 million just for the privilege of signing him, or that they will have to pay Darvish another $60 million to $90 million. The dollars in sports became absurd long ago. They don't even seem like real dollars anymore. (Heck, you probably didn't think twice when you read "another $60 million to $90 million," as though a THIRTY-MILLION-DOLLAR DIFFERENCE was a minor accounting issue. I actually think we should stop referring to athletes' incomes in dollars and just make up some futuristic term for their salaries. "The Rangers will pay Yu Darvish between 60 and 90 zoidic chips." What's the difference, really?)
I'm also not bothered by the transition from Japanese baseball to the Major Leagues. Sure, Matsuzaka has been a disappointment, and Hideki Irabu and Kei Igawa were bigger disappointments. But enough Japanese players have succeeded in the U.S. to make me think a Japanese pitcher can be a star here.
No, what sticks with me about Darvish is one sentence. It comes during the discussion about his "transition" to the U.S., after the inevitable reference to his divorce from Japanese actress Saeko:
Yu Darvish's older son will turn four during spring training. His younger son is two. The Rangers seem to think he can spend eight months a year in another country and still excel at a fragile position in a high-pressure environment. They will bet more than $100 million on it.
I have a five-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son. For their entire lives, I have spent between 60 and 90 nights per year on the road. I am not complaining, because I'm a sportswriter, and as a general rule, sportswriters should never complain about anything. Besides, nobody made me choose this profession. Travel is part of the job. When I'm not working, almost all my time is devoted to my family. I won't find out if I'm a good father until my kids become adults and tell me all the ways I screwed them up, but at least I feel like I'm putting in the time.
And yet: Every time I leave for the airport, no matter how long the trip is, my kids give me the old "Daddy, don't go! Don't go!" and give me 37 hugs and kisses, and I know they get over it 10 minutes after I leave, but it puts a pit in my stomach. Every time. It's hard. (And you might say: "Oh, come on, your kids are just manipulating you." To which I say: "Yes, but they're really good at it.")
I'm not judging the Rangers. They sought to be Darvish's employer, and that is their role. They are paying him to pitch. My boss doesn't tell me how to raise my kids, and Rangers president Nolan Ryan shouldn't tell Darvish how to raise his.
I'm also not judging Darvish. Family lives are complicated, and divorces are especially complicated, and I can't even guess what his relationship with his kids is really like. I don't know his plans for child-care, or private-jet flights for his kids. And I'm not saying every parent has to be home all the time. Soldiers go overseas for months -- they display courage and toughness that I can barely comprehend, but I do understand that they feel like they are answering a higher calling.
I just know that geographically and culturally, Japan is a long way from Arlington, Texas. Unless Darvish's ex and his kids all move to Texas, he is making an enormous leap in his personal and professional life.
A few years ago, I was chatting with a Major League infielder about the daily grind of the baseball season, and he said: "Do you know how many weddings I've missed?"
Think about that. Most people get married from April to October, and from the ages of 21 to 35. A longtime major league player must miss most of his friends' weddings (though presumably, some close friends suck it up and get married in the offseason). As hardships go, this is not a big one. The player in question was one of the most gracious in the game, and he knew he was extremely lucky to play baseball for a living. He certainly would not have asked for anybody's sympathy.
But professional athletes, by necessity, live in a cocoon. In-season, their job is their life. They work odd hours, often seven days a week. They can be transferred at any moment -- not just to another employer, but to another city. And of course there are hangers-on, and groupies, and reporters who hang on their every thought, and more groupies. It's an extremely lucrative and enjoyable life in many ways. But it is detached from the real world.
The Rangers are betting that Darvish loves the cocoon. They are betting that he will thrive in it -- that, in fact, he is more comfortable inside it than outside it. That is the story, buried inside the stories, that could determine if Darvish is successful. Consciously or not, the Rangers are gambling that when Darvish lives far away from his two little boys, his belief that the games are important will triumph over how much he misses them.