TAMPA, Fla. -- Recently, outside of the bullpen area at Steinbrenner Field, a group of reporters had gathered to try to peek at Masahiro Tanaka's latest throwing session. The Yankees can often act like certain things are a matter of national security, and Tanaka's bullpen session on that particular morning was one of those.
Who knows what secrets could be uncovered by watching Tanaka throw inside that covered area where he was receiving advice from a handful of coaches?
The only people allowed inside the restricted area were the coaches, CC Sabathia, who was also throwing a bullpen session, and an unrecognizable smallish man with floppy hair, skinny legs and large shorts that loosely clung to him like oversized drapes on a window.
This man was in the middle of all of the action. When coaches approached Tanaka, the man was also asked to approach. While coaches gave instructions, the man hunched over to hear, and then spoke in Tanaka's direction.
In what will certainly be a year of transition for Tanaka, a year of uncertainties and learning foreign customs, not to mention adjusting to life on the field in the American major leagues, this smallish unrecognizable man might turn out be the most important person in his life.
He's Shingo Horie, a 39-year-old former television network employee who, as a translator, is tasked with turning everything strange in Tanaka's life into something normal. He is asked to be a friend, sometimes a press agent, and also Tanaka's liaison to his Yankee teammates.
No one in the Yankee organization will get to know Tanaka quite as well as Horie.
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On the day in February when he was being introduced to the New York media, Tanaka was not the only one making a high-profile debut. It was also an introduction of sorts for the rookie translator Horie as well.
Horie first met Tanaka on the day of the press conference, an unusual arrangement that only made Horie's job more difficult. A seasoned translator knows having a personal relationship with a player is imperative.
"I'm a firm believer that you need to get to know the person and know how he feels," said Allen Turner, Ichiro Suzuki's 37-year-old translator. "I just don't translate the words, I make sure what he's trying to say in his feelings are translated into English. A lot of times, it's not word for word translation because it wouldn't make sense in the other language. If you really didn't know that person and you really didn't know what he was trying to say or what the feeling is that he's having at that time, it's tough to translate. It's hard to translate for someone that you don't know."
For that reason, it's custom for each Japanese player on a team to have their own translator. The Yankees have three Japanese players who are likely to be on the active roster: Tanaka, Ichiro and Hiroki Kuroda, and each of them has their own personal translator.
For two weeks, the former Yankee Hideki Matsui was in spring training camp as an instructor, and his longtime translator Roger Kahlon was also in attendance. The Yankees almost had enough Japanese translators to fill out a starting rotation.
Former Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen had a point when he complained several years ago that teams go out of their way to please Japanese players while ignoring Latino players who don't speak English fluently. The Yankees don't have anyone on staff as an official Spanish translator. Sometimes that task falls on a coach or a teammate, or if the team is lucky, a bilingual media relations employee.
Technically, translators are employed by the team, in this case the Yankees, although most high-profile Japanese players have it written into their contract that the team will provide someone to translate for them. This may somewhat explain the disparity as to why Japanese players have translators while Spanish speaking players don't. Most Japanese players are signed as high-profile established free agents, while most Latinos are signed as underage amateurs with little or no bargaining power to ask for a translator.
A $155 million investment -- what the Yankees paid Tanaka -- requires the utmost care.
"As a team you want that player to be as comfortable as possible," said Jiwon Bang, Kuroda's translator. "Pitchers, as opposed to position players, have a different schedule. Starting pitchers they all each have different schedules, too. In a sense, you can't oversee everyone at the same time."
Hiring a translator for a rookie is a must.
Veteran players who are accustomed to life in the major leagues may have less of a need for one, but they usually still ask for a translator to make sure there is no miscommunication. Baseball translators require no certification, so the team or the player can essentially choose whomever they want.
"When you first come here you don't know what to expect with a new environment," Kuroda said. "I think it's important for a translator to be around on the field and off the field. Each person is different. For me it's important that the person who interprets knows what type of person I am and my personality."
Veteran players usually have a greater knowledge of which translator might suit them best. When Kuroda's longtime translator Kenji Nimura took a job with the Texas Rangers to translate for Yu Darvish -- "I don't know exactly what happened, but because I only have a one year contract that makes his future a little bit unstable," Kuroda said -- Kuroda quickly turned to Bong, who previously had translated for Koji Uehara in Baltimore.
But a rookie like Tanaka, who had no experience with translators, simply accepted who the team selected for him: Horie.
Moments before Tanaka's introductory conference began, Horie finally began to feel nerves. It occurred to him that he had a rather large role in how Tanaka would be portrayed by the more than 200 media members who had gathered at Yankee Stadium.
"I don't remember ever being that nervous," Horie said.
Tanaka began the press conference with a short prepared sentence in English: "Hello. My name is Masahiro Tanaka. I am very happy to be a Yankee."
But after that, it fell on Horie -- seated at the same table as such Yankee luminaries as Hal Steinbrenner, Brian Cashman, and Joe Girardi, among others -- to translate questions and answers for almost 10 minutes. Despite his inexperience, Horie finished the day without any major mistakes. Tanaka should hope to do as well on the field.
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Horie never knew that he would end up with such an important role in the major leagues. He was born in Tokyo and had grown up having gone to school in both the United States and Japan. His language skills were extraordinary, but he had used those skills to land a job in media.
After graduating from a Japanese high school, he had gotten a job as an editor at a newspaper. Then in 2001, an opportunity arose for him to move to the United States to work for the NHK network, the large media empire that owned the Japanese television rights for Major League Baseball.
Horie lived several years in Los Angeles before moving to work for NHK in New York in 2008. He had not thought of doing anything else for a living until Tanaka finalized his contract with the Yankees. At the suggestion of his friend Kahlon, Matsui's longtime translator, Horie applied to be Tanaka's translator even though he had no experience with translation. But the job seemed interesting and it would allow him the opportunity to officially work in the majors.
After an interview with the Yankees, Horie was offered the job.
"I never thought I would be doing this," Horie said. "Luckily, [with] my background, I had education in Japan and here. I was fortunate to build my language skills, not the best, not perfect, to a level where I could communicate well enough in both languages."
For the moment, Horie's greatest task is to spend as much time as possible with Tanaka so the two can bond. Horie will follow him to the clubhouse, the bullpen and the trainer's room or wherever else the pitcher goes.
The two almost always ride to and from the Yankees spring training facility together. On an average day, the two will spend between six and eight hours together, often side-by-side.
Also, Horie takes any opportunity available to spend time with Tanaka off the field. Since the press conference, Horie has shared several meals with Tanaka.
Horie's presence might seem intrusive, but Tanaka says he realizes the importance of establishing a good relationship. Horie must learn all of Tanaka's mannerisms, slang terms and diction. This can only happen with time.
"I have to speak in good tempo, but basically I'm being helped here," said Tanaka, through Horie's translation.
So far, Tanaka has not proven to be a challenge to translate. His answers are fairly straightforward, and he speaks with the lack of eloquence of the 25-year-old that he is. Tanaka is not, for example, like the philosophic Ichiro, whose quotes -- he once famously said of facing Daisuke Matsuzaka: "I hope he arouses the fire that's dormant in the innermost recesses of my soul" -- require not only translation, but also interpretation.
"Leaving translation aside, it's difficult for us to really express what we're thinking in our own language let alone trying to speak another language or to explain ourselves or to explain how we're feeling," Ichiro said. "That's what difficult, translating that over to another language."
At times, Horie can still hardly believe he's in a major league clubhouse, and not getting overwhelmed by the environment is also part of the challenge. As a boy he had always hoped to find a career in sports, but he never quite imagined he'd get to work for one of the most storied sports franchises in the world.
He is still getting accustomed to some of the logistics: where to go, what time to show up, what he's supposed to wear.
"This is Major League Baseball, this is the Yankees, you get to see first-hand what organizations do and how this organization is run," Horie said.
Horie was surprised a reporter had asked to interview him. He hardly considered himself worthy of being profiled. But his role will likely make him a celebrity in his home country. Each press conference, each media session where he stands alongside Tanaka, will be seen by millions in Japan.
After he had finished the interview, Horie was summoned by Tanaka. The rookie pitcher needed something translated.