Six Yankees jogged across a practice field, along a path lined with excited fans, toward the bullpen of an adjacent field. The fans recognized and shouted to Mike Mussina, Wang Chien-ming (王建民), Andy Pettitte, Carl Pavano and Kei Igawa, the pitchers who are projected to be in the starting rotation this season.
But some fans said they were curious about the identity of the man in a blue Yankees' sweatshirt who was running beside Igawa. Tall and serious, he stayed close to Igawa, even carrying the pitcher's sweatshirt. He is not a candidate for the rotation or a little-known coach. He is Igawa's interpreter.
His name is Yumi Watanabe, and he remained within a few steps of Igawa, who speaks only Japanese. When Igawa throws in the bullpen, Watanabe is closer to him than the pitching coach.
"If someone needs to speak to him," Watanabe said, "I'm ready to pounce."
As the internationalization of Major League Baseball continues and more Japanese players come to play in the US, teams have increasingly been hiring interpreters to help ease their transition. Unlike Latin American players, who can usually find teammates, coaches and club officials who speak Spanish, Japanese players rarely have that option.
In this evolving aspect of the game, the interpreters are becoming a more visible presence in the daily routines of numerous teams. General managers say they want the players who are acclimating to the US to feel as comfortable as possible. Coaches say they want to know their instructions are being understood. And the players, who have achieved success in Japan and are expected to instantly produce in the US, want to express themselves, too.
"These players have a lot of needs and are important to us," said Brian Cashman, the general manager of the Yankees. "So the people who translate are very important. You have to have the right people in place to support them."
The Yankees, the Boston Red Sox and the Seattle Mariners, who all have two Japanese players, will each have two full-time interpreters this season. They are responsible for helping the players communicate with their teammates and the news media. But the interpreters, who range from an Ivy Leaguer to a former security guard, do more than decipher English and Japanese. Some perform the tasks of a personal assistant, too.
Cashman said players who could not read or speak English needed help with routine tasks like acquiring a driver's license, renting an apartment and opening a bank account.
"You can't say you're only going to help him within the confines of the stadium and then leave him alone," said Roger Kahlon, who has interpreted for Yankees left fielder Hideki Matsui since 2003.
Matsui understands some English and speaks a little, too. On one recent day, he said, "How are you?" when he arrived and "See you tomorrow" when he left. Still, Matsui does no interviews in English and considers Kahlon's presence essential during the season.
"Obviously, on the field, the communication and having an interpreter to help is very important," Matsui said through Kahlon. "Beyond that, what's more important is the way the interpreter helps away from the field. An interpreter, to me, becomes a really good friend."
Wang no longer has an interpreter. The Yankees said that his interpreter was inconsistent and dismissed him. Now Wang says he speaks English well enough to handle himself.
Deciphering baseball slang is one of the trickiest parts of the job, Kahlon said. During a hitters' meeting, a Yankees coach said a pitcher liked to paint the black, meaning he aimed for the corners of the plate. Kahlon wondered whether the expression referred to a pitcher using spray paint.
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