TAMPA, Fla. -- It's early morning in the Yankees' clubhouse, time for coffee and socializing before heading out to the field. Michael Pineda walks by Masahiro Tanaka, two pitchers separated by half a planet and their respective languages. Between Spanish and Japanese, they settle on their limited English.
"Hello," Pineda says with a smile.
"Hello," Tanaka answers with a slight bow of the head.
This is a small triumph, especially for Tanaka, who arrived in the U.S. in February totally dependent on interpreters. He admits he has months, if not years, of studying ahead of him, but the right-hander seems just as determined to master English as he is helping the Yankees win. To help lessen the effect of culture shock, the team has given Tanaka a full-time interpreter and a media liaison, who act as middlemen to the American media.
Any reporter who needs to speak to Tanaka must first go through Yoshiki Sato, the interpreter, or Shingo Horie, the liaison. The pitcher, friendly and outgoing, never says no to interview requests, but realizes he'll someday have to lose his crutches.
What happens, for example, when Tanaka is in trouble during a Red Sox game and needs to be reminded to keep the ball away from David Ortiz? Major league rules now allow interpreters to accompany managers and/or pitching coaches to the mound, but that doesn't account for the one-on-one conversations with catchers.
Brian McCann is grateful he has all of spring training to learn to communicate with Tanaka, but admits, at best, their dialogue will be limited to "pitch selection and location." Indeed, pitching coach Larry Rothschild is already teaching Tanaka a few key phrases so that he won't need an interpreter.
"Mostly, it's things like, 'Stay on top of the ball' or 'Don't try too hard' or 'Stay back' or just a simple question such as, 'How do you feel?' " Rothschild said. "The idea is to get Tanaka to memorize the words now so he'll know what I'm talking about in the middle of the game."
With a little more than a month to go, Tanaka says his progress has been steady but slow. "The last thing I want is to have a miscommunication with (McCann) so I'm trying to learn," he said. The problem, of course, is that the gulf between Japanese and English is so wide, some players never fully succeed.
Hiroki Kuroda, for example, has played in the United States since 2008, but still needs an interpreter and is forced to limit his communication to English-speaking teammates.
"English has been difficult for me, but I'm not a very intelligent person so it's always going to be a problem," the right-hander said. "I think Tanaka will be OK learning baseball and pitching phrases, but the much harder part for any Japanese player is getting used to a new environment."
The Yankees fully sympathize with Tanaka's struggles, including the fact that his wife, pop star Mai Satoda who moved to the States with him last month, doesn't speak English, either.
The couple is learning the food is different, the road signs are unintelligible, and most everything on TV seems like it's been beamed from another planet. And that doesn't even address Tanaka's issues at the ballpark, including having to pitch with less rest -- once every five days instead of every seven in Japan -- and against bigger, more aggressive opponents.
That's one reason Asian players take so long to assimilate, because the challenges of the game are so great. Even so, most foreigners believe it's imperative to learn English, an axiom that became de facto law in the Yankees' clubhouse while Mariano Rivera was in pinstripes. The Panamanian-born reliever used to bristle at Orlando Hernandez's insistence on speaking Spanish for most of his career in New York.
Rivera used the Cuban-born El Duque as an example of how not to assimilate. Instead, as the closer once said, "If you play in this country, you should speak the language." That holds true today for the Japanese players -- so says Hideki Matsui, who played in the majors for 10 seasons, including seven in New York, before retiring in 2012.
Today, Matsui is a guest instructor in the Yankees' camp and has made moderate gains in English. For formal interviews with the press, however, he still requires an interpreter.
"I remember what it was like to be in (Tanaka's) shoes, when all I could do was greet people and say hello," Matsui said. "Any Japanese person will tell you it takes time and effort to learn English, and that's very difficult for a ballplayer whose primary focus is on the field, not a new language. You're here for baseball."
Still, Matsui said he "totally agreed" with Rivera's mandate, that Japanese players, "at least have to make the effort to speak English. If your teammates see you trying, they'll respect that. We always felt that way about Americans who came to Japan to play."
Of course, not every circumstance requires perfect English, or even a working knowledge of it. Sometimes it's better to live in blissful ignorance, especially if you're the Yankees' star pitcher whose crossed into enemy territory in Boston and being showered by insults from the Fenway crowd.
Some players are better than others ignoring the taunts, but no one will be as good at it as Tanaka. "I won't have any idea what the fans will be saying," he said with a chuckle. "So what's there to worry about?"
-- The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)