I don’t consider myself a sportswriter. That shouldn’t be taken as a statement of superiority over actual sportswriters; rather, it’s separation, because I don’t feel what I contribute should be compared to what they do. I consider myself a scout first and a writer second, and I’m liberal with the definition of the latter, making the following story all the more difficult to document. Last Monday, on March 11th 2012, I happened to be at the right place at the right time, watching random groups of players rotate in and out of cages on field number two on the Rangers side of the Surprise, AZ complex. Behind me I heard the explosion of a hundred shutters, like a symphony being conducted through the fingers of dozens of eager Japanese photographers. The intensity of the orchestration continued to build, and right before the crescendo, I realized I was face-to-face with Yu Darvish.
As Darvish attempted to navigate the obnoxiously large pool of spectators standing in his path, my geographic location on the field occupied a pathway for escape, a pathway Darvish was motivated to exploit. Standing just inches apart and aware of his exit strategy, I casually relocated my position to allow him to pass, only Darvish moved in the same direction as my attempted relocation, and the great Harpo Marx pantomime was upon us. After four or five times of going left and meeting a fellow human who is going right, what was once awkward and random shifts into creepy territory, like a coin landing on heads ten times in a row or Miguel Olivo taking a walk. We were both frustrated, yet oddly amused at the same time; it was obvious that our paths were in sync, and what bound us needed some kind of acknowledgment. Right there in the middle of the media scrum, the great Yu Darvish acquiesced to the moment, reached his precious right arm towards me with his left arm reaching up to my right shoulder, and offered a formal greeting, which was captured by the eyes of the world around us. I relished the palm-to-palm embrace with every ounce of my fandom, and gathered my bearings after the whirlwind slapped me out of reality. Did I really just share a moment with Darvish?
After the strange meet-and-greet, I went about my day, taking notes on bullpen sessions, live batting practice sessions, and fielding drills; business as usual. As I left the backfield section of the spring training facility, I was approached by a Japanese cameraman that I’ve become somewhat friendly with, and without words (we’ve never really spoken, as his English is as limited as my Japanese; we communicate with enthusiastic head nods, playful handshakes, and the occasional tooth-baring smile.), I’m handed a note with my entire name written in delicate cursive on the front of the folded lip. After a head nod, a handshake, and a more conservative smile that bares no enamel, I opened the note to discover the author is none other than Darvish himself. Here is the note in full, recreated in its original language [English] and structure:
Dear Jason Parks from Baseball Prospectus,
What an interesting morning we shared. I hope you didn’t take me for rude when I walked away after our traditional greeting. I was tired of standing in the sun and the media frenzy was making me feel claustrophobic. I’d like to re-animate our encounter over a meal, which I would also like to purchase. If available for such an occasion, please check the box marked “yes” in the designated area. The specifics are: Vogue Bistro, 7 pm, Surprise, Arizona. No jacket required.
I hope this finds you well, and hopefully staying cool :-)
I quickly checked yes, handed the note back, exchanged another round of handshakes, head nods, and clever smiles, and immediately sent out text messages to everybody in the living world. Does this actually happen to people? I know people want to live in a world where this happens to people, because that suggests it might eventually happen to them, assuming they put themselves in the right situation and offer up the right selection of words.
Every day I see adults line the fences of batting practice, holding a book of cards, or a poster, or a photograph, or a piece of dialog that has been rehearsed to the point of exhaustion, hoping to get that one moment with a superstar in order to win their hearts with the perfect introduction. From that, I assume the fan believes a friendship will strike up, perhaps courtesy tickets left for a game, or a personalized note inscribed on their memorabilia, or perhaps a life-long friendship will erupt; if only the player would open their hearts and their minds to the notion of becoming close friends with a person wearing a jersey with their name on it, a person who just pushed a child to the ground in order to deliver their message of hope, the world would just make more sense. A life of working a dead-end job, being proficiently obese, wearing oversized jerseys of a major league baseball player, and carrying around miniature baseball bats in order to get them signed is made all the more colorful and exciting when you can add Best Friend of a Major League Baseball Player to a resume. I honestly believe that a large chunk of the autograph-seeking audience believes that something beyond the pen to the page is possible, and perhaps even likely, given an opportunity to promote their worth.
I left the field so I could prepare for my dinner with Darvish. I thought about bringing a tape recorder to the meal in order to capture some of the intimate banter, but I realized that would be tacky, and I don’t own a tape recorder, so I’d have to make a special trip to purchase one and that’s not far removed from purchasing a miniature baseball bat and bringing it to the fields.
Vogue Bistro is a faux-French restaurant located in a shopping center on the far west side of Surprise, with an almost haute bourgeoisie aesthetic with acceptable, if not slightly overpriced food. In a town where chain-restaurants plague the landscape with their bland and tasteless poison, Vogue Bistro stands alone when it comes to pretentious fine dining, and Darvish had clearly done his homework. I arrive early and alone, having debated a tag-along companion for the purpose of corroboration and perhaps documentation. I’m greeted at the front of the restaurant by a well-built man in his late-30s, wearing a four-button blazer that is at least two sizes too small, causing his ripped muscle mass to bulge through the material, with what I assume is the desired visual effect. He is a shade beyond tan, with a reddish hue that looks painful, and the texture of his skin looks like distressed leather pulled over a Terminator skeleton.
The restaurant is almost completely empty, as the more financially inclined members of the greater Surprise area are retirees, and they prefer to eat their evening meal at a more acceptable hour, like three or four in the afternoon. I’m asked if I have a reservation by the Maître ‘d of Muscle Mass, and I causally point out that I’m meeting someone and I’m unsure if they have a reservation, but judging by the current occupancy, the restaurant is more than equipped to handle a walk-in table for two seeing as how the place is completely empty. He took my name and took a seat near his podium of power, where he stared over his seating chart looking for the meaning of life. I think I saw him drink a Ripped Fuel shake, but I’m not certain.
At precisely 7PM, Darvish arrived through the Bistro door, a splash of Arizona sunshine at his back which picked up some of the highlights in his hair and some of his more prominent facial features. We locked eyes for the second time that day, but Darvish quickly turned his attention to the maître ‘d, and after a few casual words and a slight smile, we were being escorted to our table. We didn’t shake hands or even introduce ourselves upon arrival at the quaint table located near the rear of the restaurant; rather, we sat silently, waiting on the waiter to step forth and offer us water, bread, and a litany of faux-French menu options that ranged from dishes that were of actual French provenance to dishes that had nothing to do with French cuisine. I found out that I could add bleu cheese to an American burger and the dish would miraculously transform into a French culinary experience. I felt like I was in Paris. Darvish had yet to speak.
The evening continued, and aside from a few awkward bursts of conversation, all of which drove into a dead-end, we sat in silence and consumed our food. I asked him how the arm felt. He didn’t answer. I asked him what it was like to get asked the same questions every single day. He didn’t answer. I should have asked him if he found this to be as strange as I did. I should have asked him what it was like to be a hero, and if we were destined to become best friends. The entire time I’m sitting with Darvish in Vogue Bistro, I’m thinking to myself, what if someone walks in and witnesses this? “Oh, hey guys, just sitting here enjoying an American cheeseburger in a faux-French bistro with the most famous man in Japan, who invited me to this gathering with a secret note after a chance encounter on a practice field. You know, no biggie. We will catch up later. I’m the best.”
Nobody walked into the restaurant while we were dining, but from my seat I could still see the maître ‘d studying his seat charts like they were genetic formulas for adding more upper-body rip. I had to focus on other things while in the throes of this social encounter, because Darvish wasn’t speaking and I wasn’t sure what else to say, and I’m uncomfortable for a number of reasons, and I felt like I was crossing some professional boundary by being with him in the first place, and I wanted him to just speak, and I wanted the food to be better, and I wanted someone to be in the seat next to me, and I wanted the world to return to normal, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world, and this is the best night of my life.
Moments before the check arrived, Darvish and I were staring at each other in isolation, free from words or affect, just two men sharing a meal in an unprecedentedly awkward environment. I mentioned for the twelfth time that I thought the food was good, even though I didn’t really think the food was good, and I awaited a smile or a smirk or a word in any language he so desires to escape his mouth. At this point, I’d take an insult and a slap to the face. I just wanted to know how to feel. My anxiety reached a boiling point as the waiter approached with the bill, which I quickly paid without comment or debate. Darvish didn’t change his pose. I was in kindergarten all over again: I miss my mother and I might wet my pants if someone doesn’t tell me what to do.
After I signed my name on the receipt and offered a gratuity that was closer to a ransom demand, I stood up from my chair and extended my hand to the Japanese ace, who was still sitting and staring into the space that I previously occupied. After moments that seemed like hours, Darvish matched hands and offered a firm grip, as if to say, “You’ve survived this encounter, and I’m proud of you. We will do this again soon. Our friendship will be built on this.” I felt better immediately, but that’s relative to miserable, so I was still eager to walk through the Bistro doors and never speak of this awkwardness again. Nobody would believe me anyway.
A few days later I was on my computer, reading about Yu Darvish and his assimilation into stateside baseball when I came upon a close-up picture of the Japanese ace, standing alongside his interpreter. My heart started to thump and my breath was trapped in my chest cavity as I stared at the photo, even enlarging it on my screen for maximum analysis. I quickly begin searching Google’s photo index for every available picture of Darvish, both in the United States and in Japan. The more I looked the more I panicked; a taiko drum was shaking my insides with every subsequent strike. The intensity was rising and I begin to feel faint; my senses left me and I lost touch with the tangible aspects of the world. The face was unfamiliar to me–unfamiliar in the sense that I didn’t stare at it in silence for an hour straight only two nights prior. I’m not sure who I had dinner with, or if I even had dinner at all, but I’m sure it wasn’t with Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish.
My hands are on the fence, and I’m gazing at the green grass of the outfield, the baseballs overflowing from the numerous buckets scattered across the powder of the infield, dreaming of the perfect world that exists in front of my eyes. I stand silent at that boundary and fall into delusion, which is merely a side effect of being touched by magic, and I have no qualms about having such a fantasy. Spring training can take even the most battle-hardened baseball insider and reanimate his or her dreams, turning the dust in our imagination into particles of gold. Sports fandom is built on delusion, yet we push the more extreme examples out of our minds, as if allowing yourself to believe in something that is utterly unbelievable is a weakness that will infect all your other strengths.
If you are of age, I bet you once imagined what it would be like to have a few cold ones with Mickey Mantle, sharing round after round with number seven after he went yard from both sides of the plate in front of thousands of screaming fans. I bet you wonder what it’s like to have a cookout and have Ozzie Smith show up, do backflips across the lawn, slam a burger, and then talk baseball for three hours as your friends gaze from a distance in absolute and total envy. Or maybe you’ve wondered what it’s like to have dinner with Yu Darvish.
Being a fan is the reason I turned down the security of a private sector job, the reason I spend weeks and even months away from my family in order to follow the game, the reason I stand in the sun all day watching teenagers learn how to hit the cutoff man. My dinner with Darvish reminded me of the purity of the game, and the fundamental ingredient of appreciation is acceptance. I’m not a sportswriter or a scout. At the core, I’m still just a fan.