As camera shutters clicked in unison, Koji Uehara signed his major league contract, buttoned his new uniform jersey and started what he described as the second stage of his professional baseball career.
For the Orioles, it was a day of firsts as they introduced Uehara as the newest member of their pitching staff and as the organization's first Japanese-born player.
"This is a historic occasion for the Baltimore Orioles franchise," club president Andy MacPhail said before signing Uehara's incentive-laden, two-year, $10 million contract. "I think when you are the first of anything, there is a special burden that follows. We're very fortunate as an organization to have a pitcher who is as celebrated and as accomplished as Koji Uehara is."
Uehara, a right-hander, 33, was an eight-time All-Star in Japan and twice won the Sawamura Award given to Japan's best pitcher. He spent 10 seasons with the celebrated Yomiuri Giants, Japan's version of the New York Yankees, becoming one of the country's best and most popular pitchers.
Yesterday's news conference at Camden Yards, which was moved to another room and floor at the warehouse to accommodate a bigger media presence, attracted 50 reporters, split evenly between Japanese and local media outlets. Twelve Japanese outlets, five television stations and the Embassy of Japan were also represented.
"He's one of the most famous pitchers in Japan, maybe in the top five," said Hideki Okuda, a reporter for Sports Nippon Newspaper in Tokyo who has covered American baseball for more than two decades. "This is a big story. The name of the Orioles has been in the headlines" in Japan.
Wearing a white dress shirt and dark tie and flanked by MacPhail and translator Kenta Yagi, Uehara appeared very much at ease during the news conference, displaying an easygoing nature and a dry sense of humor. When asked about the media attention he's expected to receive, Uehara, who has been followed by a pack of reporters since he arrived Sunday in the United States, said: "As long as you don't come to my house, it's OK."
Later misunderstanding a question about potential communication issues - the pitcher doesn't speak English - Uehara said: "I'm going to use body language, but I like girls."
Jokes aside, Uehara said he knew little about the Orioles before the process, except that Cal Ripken Jr. played for them, but he ultimately decided to sign with the club because of the consistent interest it showed and the opportunity to start.
"I didn't have so much information about the Orioles. I heard that they have good young talent on the team," Uehara said. "Baltimore downtown is really a nice place, a more beautiful place than I expected. I'm so excited and looking forward to being here during the regular season."
Uehara later walked out to the mound at Camden Yards and threw a pitch as more cameras clicked. He then walked to the home dugout. In a little more than four weeks, the pitcher will get to meet his new teammates when pitchers and catchers report to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for the start of spring training.
"I think I'm going to be nervous because of that," Uehara said when asked about being the Orioles' first Japanese player. "I would like to open the door for the Orioles that will allow them to welcome other Japanese players. I'm going to be the one who is the first."
The Orioles have been busy preparing for Uehara's addition and the stir it has already created. The team's public relations department has been deluged by media requests from Japanese outlets, along with e-mails from Yomiuri Giants fans.
"We hope he has success during the season so that the hype going on now continues," Orioles director of communications Greg Bader said. "Anytime there is a situation where your brand can get international exposure, it can only help. It's a neat thought to know that there are some Japanese baseball fans who have become Oriole fans because of Koji."
Okuda said he expects about 30 or 40 Japanese reporters to be at Fort Lauderdale Stadium next month for Uehara's spring arrival. He anticipated that number to thin out considerably, but said Uehara's first start, which will likely come against the New York Yankees and Japanese star Hideki Matsui, will be a "big event."
Bader said the club is still working on plans to accommodate the presence of the Japanese media and could rent a trailer to house reporters during spring training.
Either way, it will be an adjustment, not just for team officials, but also for the players. One Oriole who can relate is All-Star closer George Sherrill, who was a Seattle Mariners teammate of Ichiro Suzuki and Kenji Johjima for several seasons.
"It's just going to be something that spring training gives you a feel for," Sherrill said. "Give it three or four weeks and you'll get used to it."
In the team's effort to create a comfortable environment for Uehara, MacPhail said team officials have been in contact with several major league teams that have Japanese players. The Orioles are also in the process of hiring a trainer for Uehara and an interpreter for the pitcher and his family.
"We understand what is involved here, and we have a pretty good road map to follow," MacPhail said. "We have a vested self-interest that we give the player every opportunity to succeed. You can't just bring him here, make this investment, throw him in the deep end and say, 'Good luck.' You have to do your part to push the odds in your favor."
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