Kochi Uehara-from security guard to stopper
The Red Sox are baseball’s comeback story of the year, and perhaps no player symbolizes the turn around better than Koji Uehara. The 38 year old relief pitcher wasn’t the first option at closer heading into this season. He wasn’t the second option either. The Sox acquired Joel Hanrahan from the Pittsburgh Pirates and they also had Andrew Bailey healthy after missing last season due to injury. Hanrahan and Bailey both went down with different season-ending injuries and along came Koji.
Uehara has been stellar in his new role as the Red Sox closer, but his career path to the big leagues is more unorthodox than most. Most Japanese pitchers gain attention from scouts through Koshien, the national high school baseball tournament which is comparable to March Madness here in the states. Former Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka made his name in Koshien before playing professionally in Japan and the United States. Uehara didn’t participate in Koshien. He wasn’t even a pitcher in high school. He was an outfielder.
Japan’s university testing for incoming students is very demanding. Uehara didn’t pass his initial entrance exam so he spent the entire year studying. He didn’t even play baseball at the time. To pay the bills, he took a job as a security guard. Baseball was the furthest thing from his mind. “I wasn’t even playing at that point,” he said. “My dream was to teach.”
In that year off, Uehara read Nolan Ryan‘s “Pitching Bible”. From it, he learned new weight training techniques that helped him bulk up, which in turn led to an uptick in his pitching velocity. He entered Osaka University of Health and Sports Sciences and picked up baseball again.
“My college was not really a baseball school,” Uehara said, “so the manager told us just choose whatever position you want to play. The last year in high school, I pitched five innings and I thought it was fun. I thought pitching would be fun.”
He began attracting scouts from the U.S. and Japan in his junior year and he eventually signed with the Japanese powerhouse Yomiuri Giants. In 1999, his rookie year, he won 20 games and won the Sawamura Award as Japan’s best pro pitcher, the equivalent of the Cy Young Award. He won his second Sawamura Award in 2002 and was named an All-Star eight times in his 10 years playing in Japan.
Uehara signed with the Baltimore Orioles in 2009 and made it clear that he only wanted to be a starter. He had mediocre numbers as a starter and made two trips to the disabled list. He was moved to the bullpen in 2010 and converted 13 of 15 saves for a 96-loss team.
He was acquired by the Texas Rangers during the 2011 season to bolster their bullpen during their playoff run. Uehara gave up a home run in three consecutive playoff appearances, becoming the only pitcher in MLB history to do so, and was subsequently left off the Rangers’ World Series roster. His brought his numbers down in 2012, posting a 1.75 ERA in just 27 appearances due to a strained lat muscle.
He was signed as a free-agent by the Red Sox this past offseason and has been worth every penny.
“What he’s doing is phenomenal,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “He’s having a historic year.”
The outfielder, turned pitcher, turned security guard, turned bullpen ace is also getting his wish to be a teacher. His lesson is a good one.
“Never give up.”