Okajima caught in culture clash
Red Sox reliever talks about lack of communication with media, teammates
His wife, Yuka, was a sports broadcaster for the Japanese network NHK and met her future husband while covering the Japan Series in 2000, when Okajima was pitching for the legendary Yomiuri Giants.
Especially in the bullpen, I'm kind of alone in there. It's hard to maintain a strong mentality, especially when you've been hit hard the previous day. There's too much time to think in the bullpen.” -- Red Sox reliever Hideki Okajima
"She understands the good and the bad," Okajima said Tuesday through his interpreter, Ryo Shinkawa. "And she knows baseball. I can talk to her about the technical part of pitching."
But it was Okajima's refusal to talk to the media, non-related division, after a loss Sunday in Seattle in which he figured prominently that created considerable backlash. Numerous reporters covering the Red Sox faulted Okajima afterward for a lack of accountability in refusing to field questions after the game, which undoubtedly would have centered on how he mishandled two bunts in the course of allowing five straight hits in a 4-2 loss to the Mariners.
Some reporters accused Okajima of rarely making himself available after a bad outing, an accusation grounded in fact and one not disputed by Okajima. But after agreeing to an interview here Tuesday afternoon, which came in the aftermath of a meeting he had with Isao Hirooka, who has long worked with Hideki Matsui, Okajima provided a context in which his behavior is perhaps better understood.
He also described an environment in which he admitted to homesickness for his native land and a language-driven loneliness in which he says he has only two real confidants, his wife and his interpreter.
"Especially in the bullpen," he said, "I'm kind of alone in there. There's time to think too much, especially inside the bullpen. It's hard to maintain a strong mentality, especially when you've been hit hard the previous day. There's too much time to think in the bullpen. It would be easier to maintain if there was someone who spoke the same language and you could talk to, but that's not the reality right now."
Before signing in 2007 with the Red Sox, Okajima pitched a dozen years in Japan, 11 with Yomiuri, where he was teammates with Matsui until the Japanese home run king signed with the Yankees before the 2003 season.
The protocol of dealing with reporters in Japan after a game bore little resemblance to his experience here, he said.
"It's hard to say what exactly is different," he said. "In Japan, there are times where you don't have to talk, you're not forced to talk. The PR person would be in the middle, would be in between, look at the situation and say, 'The player will not leave a comment.'
"In Japan, that's accepted as a comment. And when you don't perform, the player understands the media will write negative stuff."
In Japan, Okajima said, reporters are not allowed in the clubhouse. Reporters make their requests to speak to a player through the team's publicist. "The PR person will say, 'Sorry, we have no comment today,'" Okajima said.
"From the players' standpoint, rather than try to put it in words in that moment, it would be better to get a fresh mind and talk about how you really felt in that situation, but not on that day."
That is not the expectation here, where clubhouse doors are required to be flung open 10 minutes after the end of a game and reporters seek out stars and goats alike. But on Sunday, despite repeated requests from the Sox PR staff, Okajima declined to speak. Asked about the criticism he received, he said:
"I could not talk about the game," he said. "Mentally, I was down after the loss. I felt it was better to have some time in between to talk, not immediately."
Okajima said when a similar situation occurred earlier in his time with the Sox, he was told by his agent and the club that he would not be forced to talk.
Of far greater urgency to the Sox than Okajima improving his communication skills is getting people out. Okajima's 5.81 ERA is third-worst among AL lefty relievers with at least 20 innings; his OPS by opposing batters is .947, second-worst in the league; and his opponents' slugging percentage is .537, built on five home runs and 14 extra-base hits, the highest in the AL.
In his last nine appearances in little over a month (since June 22), Okajima has a 10.57 ERA, allowing nine earned runs in just 7 2/3 innings. Opponents are batting a staggering .500 (21-for-42) against him in that span.
"Mentally, it's been tough for me so far this season," Okajima said. "Mentally, it's been hard to maintain day in and day out my strong mentality."
Part of that, he says, stems from having so few people to talk to when he does struggle.
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"I have that feeling, especially in the bullpen," he said. "I've been keeping that to myself the last three years, and that's what's making my life tougher this season."
His world can seem very small, he acknowledged, when he feels that he has only his wife and interpreter to talk to. It also speaks to his lack of anything but a professional relationship with fellow Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.
"The stress would be better if there was a Japanese guy in the bullpen," he said. "There is a team rule that doesn't allow it. Some teams allow it. The reality is, Boston doesn't, and I can't change it."
Okajima was shut down last month for a few days because of a stiff back.
"There have been nagging injuries," he said. "Even though I feel perfect physically, it might not be that way."
Okajima nodded slightly when a reporter pointed to his back. "It's hard to say what it is," he said. "I can't really say. I had some issues with my lower body in spring training, and some wrist discomfort. It hasn't been perfect."
Still, he says, he hopes that he can turn around what has been a wretched performance in the season's last two months.
"If I didn't have confidence," he said, "it would be an issue for the team too. I'd like to keep my confidence up the next two months and not regret my performance."
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.
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