It was early inspring camp when rookie catcher Kenji Johjima, who signed a three-year, $16.5million deal with the Mariners in November after 11 seasons in his nativeJapan, encountered his first serious trouble because of the language barrier.Seattle first baseman Richie Sexson motioned toward manager Mike Hargrove andtold Johjima, who understands a little English, "Hey, Jo. Go tell Grover,'F--- off.' He likes it."
Johjima (pronouncedjo-JEE-muh), the dutiful rookie, marched up behind Hargrove, tapped the manageron the shoulder and, with a wide, proud smile, blurted, "F--- off!"After a moment of alarm, Hargrove broke out in laughter, realizing that theEnglish lessons Johjima was getting were not limited to the thrice-weeklyformal ones with a college tutor.
Johjima laughedtoo, after teammates clued him in on the joke. If nothing else the ebullientJohjima, 29, is a constant source of energy and good cheer around the Mariners.His new teammates have given him a nickname (Jo Mama), tricked him with ashock-emitting cigarette lighter and tied the laces of his spikes togetherbefore he put them on.
More important, anyworries Seattle might have had about a Japanese-speaking catcher running theirpitching staff quickly went sayonara. Johjima arrived with a deep vocabulary ofimportant baseball terms and has proved to be a quick, eager student ofEnglish. Though the team provides him with a translator, Johjima summons helponly when necessary. "I want to learn myself," he says through thetranslator. "I'm doing the best I can, so I don't use him as much aspossible."
Lefthander JarrodWashburn and Johjima huddled on their own one day after Washburn threw battingpractice with Johjima behind the plate. "When I want to [throw]outside," Washburn told Johjima, "especially with a man on second base,set up in the middle, then move to the outside."
"Go late?"Johjima asked.
"Yes, golate," Washburn replied.
"Yes,good," Johjima said, nodding.
Oddly enough, fewMariners yap as much on the field as their new English student. The 6-foot,198-pound Johjima is an athletic catcher who loves to bark encouragement to histeammates. On his first day in camp, while warming up pitchers, Johjima showedoff his English after almost every pitch, usually shouting, "Good!""Nice!" or "Attaboy!"
"I felt like Iwas throwing to my dad," says pitcher Jamie Moyer. "It's great. I triedto see how many times I could get him to say it in a row. Time will tell, but Idon't really think there will be a communication issue."
Hargrove, Moyer andJohjima all agree that Johjima's ability to learn the tendencies of Seattle'spitchers--and, as a hitter, become familiar with opposing pitchers--is muchmore important and difficult than his English education. Johjima tried toshorten that learning curve before spring training by watching videos ofMariners pitchers and by consulting with former Seattle catcher Dan Wilson.
A Japanese PacificLeague MVP and seven-time Gold Glove winner, Johjima averaged .305, 30 homeruns and 87 RBIs over the past five seasons. Says general manager Bill Bavasi,"After what we got out of the position last year, I'm sure whatever he doeswill be an upgrade. But being ordinary is not why he came here."
Seattle used sevencatchers last season, none getting more time than Miguel Olivo's 54 games. Theycombined to hit .216 (worst in the majors) with 10 homers (tied for 24th) and46 RBIs (29th). Johjima, a career .299 hitter, is likely to bat sixth orseventh for the Mariners, though Hargrove said he will also consider him in thetwo hole. Most high-profile Japanese players have hit for a lower average inthe majors than they did in Japan, including Hideki Matsui (.304 in Japan, .297in the U.S.), Kazuo Matsui (.309, .265) and Ichiro Suzuki (.353, .332)."But I am a catcher," says Johjima, the first at his position to jumpfrom Japan to the majors. "There is no one you can compare to me."
Barring a miracle,Seattle will have a hard time staying out of last place in the difficult ALWest. With Johjima around, at least the team may share a few more laughs alongthe way.
Ichiro is the only player with 200 hits in each of his first five major leagueseasons. His 1,130 hits since 2001 are a record for a five-year span (12 morethan Chuck Klein had from 1929-33).
a modest proposal
Statheads argue that Ichiro Suzuki (right) would hit for more power if heworked deep into counts instead of jumping on the first pitch. That may betrue, but it's not an approach that suits his game. In 2004, when he batted.372 and had a major-league-record 262 hits, Ichiro put the first pitch intoplay 114 times, hitting .456 when he did. Last year he put the first pitch intoplay only 65 times and had his lowest batting average (.303) and OBP (.350) infive seasons with Seattle. New hitting coach Jeff Pentland had successpreaching patience to Sammy Sosa with the Cubs, but he should encourage Ichiroto be aggressive.
projected roster with 2005 statistics
fourth in AL West
second season with Seattle
KENJI JOHJIMA ‚Ä† (R) [New acquisition]
JOE BORCHARD* [New acquisition]
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
LH Jamie Moyer
RH Joel Pi√±eiro
LH Jarrod Washburn [New acquisition]
RH Gil Meche
RH Felix Hernandez
LH Eddie Guardado
RH Rafael Soriano
RH J.J. Putz
*Triple A stats
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
‚Ä†Japanese Pacific League stats
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 59)
coming to a ballpark near you this summer...
The Mariners would not have signed Carl Everett to be their DH if ChrisSnelling, a career .327 hitter in the minors (including .370 last year), werehealthy. But Snelling, 24, is recovering from a second tear of his left ACL(suffered last August); it's the ninth time he's been sidelined by one ailmentor another since 2000, requiring multiple surgeries. The lefthanded hittingmachine could be ready sometime in April.
TALKINGBASEBALL - Neither Johjima nor team officials believe the language barrier willaffect his handling of the pitching staff.
SCOTT CLARKE (ICHIRO)
MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (SNELLING)