Thu, Jan 26, 2006 - Page 20 News List

Kenji Johjima signs with Mariners and works on English

AP , SEATTLE

The Seattle Mariners hope Kenji Johjima can memorize English scouting reports as effectively as he memorized his introduction to America on Tuesday.

"Hi, everybody. How are you doing? Thank you for coming today," the first Japanese catcher to play in the major leagues said -- in clipped English -- beneath Safeco Field during his first US news conference.

"I'm very happy to sign with Mariners," he said. "I love the city Seattle ... I love baseball fans. I want to succeed in major leagues."

Then Johjima reminded all that his memorization remains ahead of his English comprehension. For now.

"Do you have a question -- in Japanese?" Johjima said, smiling and drawing laughs from the room, including from Seattle general manager Bill Bavasi, who was seated immediately to his right.

Bavasi is banking three years, US$16.5 million, and much of his pitching staff's effectiveness on what is an unprecedented task: A 10-week crash course to make Johjima trilingual on the field, able to communicate with Seattle's English and Spanish-speaking pitchers before opening day on April 2.

Johjima was an All-Star for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks after hitting .309 with 24 homers and 57 RBIs in 116 games last season, which was cut short by a broken left leg in late September. He won seven straight Gold Gloves and is widely considered to be Japan's best catcher, with a strong arm, quick bat, and keen understanding of managing games.

"He's a stud on any continent," said Ted Heid, the Mariners' director of Pacific Rim operations who helped steer Johjima to the team.

There seems to be little doubt Johjima will improve a glaring Seattle weakness. But it's not Johjima's baseball skills the Mariners must hone.

"Although he may not be terribly comfortable speaking English yet, he is understanding it well," Bavasi said. "He's a baseball rat."

Many major league teams are getting used to communicating with Japanese players in their clubhouses. But none of Johjima's predecessors -- including perennial All-Star and Gold Glove outfielder Ichiro Suzuki -- have had to review advance scouting reports on opposing hitters and then relate game plans to his pitchers.

"I'm sure it's going to be a challenge for him," said 43-year-old Mariners pitcher Jamie Moyer. "But the way I look at it is, last year, we went through seven catchers. That was a challenge in itself. If I can get through that challenge, I don't think this year will be too bad."

Johjima began taking on his language challenge in November, when Seattle intensified efforts to sign him. Since then, he has had a live-in English teacher at his home in Sasebo, Japan's southwestern-most island.

He arrived in Seattle last week with his wife, Maki, and their children (son Yuta, 4, and daughter Miu, 2) to begin house hunting. But he is also working with recently retired Mariners catcher Dan Wilson to review the team's pitchers. Johjima will report to the team's spring-training camp in Peoria, Arizona on Feb. 1 to work with minor leaguers and early arriving teammates.

Johjima responded to four questions in English, answering each time though interpreter Ken Barron. He then answered about a dozen more questions in Japanese.

"He's had English-speaking guys on his pitching staff for 11 years," Heid said, referring to Johjima's career with Fukuoka Softbank Hawks of the Japanese League. "It's just he hasn't had to do pre-scouting reports with them before."

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