February 18, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Oakland Athletics pitcher Hideki Okajima (39) poses for a picture during photo day at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Hard Times of Hideki Okajima

You’ll have to excuse Hideki Okajima if he’s even the slightest bit perturbed about his time thus far in the Majors.

From the get-go, his arrival on U.S. soil was overshadowed by the pomp and circumstance of the signing of his fellow countryman Daisuke Matsuzaka just prior to the 2007 season. The Boston Red Sox laid out the red carpet for Matsuzaka  showering him with a massive contract, a full no-trade clause, and even a contractual promise guaranteeing him jersey number 18. As a result, Okajima’s deal was largely overlooked.

Matsuzaka, in his own right was an International Superstar even before his signing. The record breaking 51 Million Dollar posting fee paid by Boston for the right to negotiate with the starter, spoke volumes about both his promise and talent. Okajima, on the other hand was a veteran left-handed reliever riding the coattails of successful 2006 spent in the bullpen of the Nippon Ham Fighters. His career statistics did little to inspire excitement in the Boston press, and his modest deal created nothing more than a footnote in the Boston Globe.

With Okajima firmly entrenched in the shadow of Matsuzaka the notoriously persistent Boston media initially didn’t know what to make of the 31-year old. Dismissed by the local beat writers for his shyness; he was audaciously hinted at as being nothing more than a companion piece for Matsuzaka.

Miscast as a glorified safety blanket. A travel buddy. Someone who would provide a sense of comfort and familiarity to their prize investment as he adjusted to a new country.

To his credit, he took it in stride and yielded the spotlight to a man whom he shared no history and failed to develop anything more than a “professional relationship” with after becoming teammates. Focusing on the field, Okajima showed that he could effectively harness his funky delivery in the Majors and after adopting a revised change-up at the behest of John Farrell,  became a vital member of the Red Sox bullpen. Finishing the season as an All-Star and a World Series Champion, Okajima shined with a 2.22 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and at one point did not allow a single earned run over a two month period. He had silenced critics, and earned the respect of the media and his teammates.

To his dismay, the next 3+ seasons weren’t nearly as kind. His ERA and WHIP climbed significantly each season, his once solid splits began to show a disparity as right-handed hitters made the proper adjustments and clubbed his offerings resulting in a .340/.396/.540 clip in his last full season in 2010. To make matters worse, he began to develop the reputation as being a difficult interview amongst the media. Unaccustomed to the intrusive and violating nature of playing in a major market, Okajima explained that as is custom in Japan all members of the press are banned from the clubhouse following games and all interviews are pre-arranged through the team’s PR director. Even with a trusted translator to his side, the constant media barrage was at times overbearing for the sullen and isolated man.

Cut lose from the dream turned nightmare in Boston, Okajima caught on with the New York Yankees after a tumultuous 2011 which found him unceremoniously Designated for Assignment and later exiled to Triple-A by the Red Sox. However, his stint with the Bronx Bombers was stopped short before it would begin after failing a physical at the start of spring training. Citing “left shoulder concerns”, The Yankees released him from his contract but not without Okajima refuting the claim that he was injured.  Returning home to Japan, he latched on with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and simply dominated in his return to his native land. Showing no signs of a damaged shoulder, he posted a 0.94 ERA and 0.83 WHIP in 56 games putting him in position for a return to the Majors.

Presently, Okajima finds himself with the Athletics competing for a role in the crowded Oakland bullpen. This spring, he has appeared in 3 games and has yet to allow an earned run. The alleged balky shoulder has showed no issues and by all accounts he has been amicable with his press and has spoke highly of Oakland granted him another chance. The long road traveled has not been kind to Okajima, but a happy ending may still be in sight.

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Tags: Daisuke Matsuza Hideki Okajima Oakland Athletics

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