Uehara, Tateyama reunited in Texas
Japanese pitchers first crossed paths as high school teammates
ARLINGTON -- They are two strangers from a faraway land, deep in the heart of Texas. Yoshinori Tateyama has been here all season, dealing with the alien surroundings on his own. The shoulder to lean on arrived at the end of July -- Koji Uehara, who was acquired by the Rangers in a trade with Baltimore.
"I was very surprised when I heard he was coming," Tateyama said. "It's a strange feeling. Before, I didn't even have an interpreter with me here in Texas."
Uehara brought that, too, the young man who had been his regular sidekick in Baltimore. But what he mostly brought for Tateyama was companionship and comfort.
"I have somebody to talk pitching with. Somebody to go out to lunch with," said Tateyama.
Obviously, the two men, both in their mid-30s, are among Japan's gifts to the Major Leagues. However, this reunion in a different hemisphere goes way beyond that. It has brought together again -- after a 20-year separation -- long-ago teammates at Osaka's Tokaidai Gyosei High School.
That's not to say they had gone those 20 years without sharing a common goal, if not a common uniform: Uehara and Tateyama had remained offseason workout buddies at home, pushing each other to be best prepared for upcoming seasons.
With the arrival of Uehara, the pushing transitioned to in-season.
"It's just amazing -- to have classmates from Japan now sitting in the same bullpen in the Major Leagues," Tateyama said.
"It's definitely a strange feeling to look to my left and see someone from high school," Uehara said.
In high school, they did not have neighboring lockers. In Rangers Ballpark's home clubhouse, they do.
The right-handers' unlikely reunion peaked in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. Uehara came on in relief of Texas starter Colby Lewis in the sixth inning. Two innings later, Tateyama relieved to pitch the final inning of what became a 5-3 loss to the Detroit Tigers.
Uehara and Tateyama thus became the first set of Japanese pitchers to relieve in the same postseason game, and the second to appear in the same playoff game -- as Boston's Hideki Okajima relieved in starts made by Daisuke Matsuzaka in both 2007 and '08. Now, the Rangers' duo could turn the trick in the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, beginning on Wednesday night at Busch Stadium.
"Forget the Japanese part," protested Tateyama. "How about just two former high school teammates pitching for the same team in the same postseason game?"
Point well taken. And it underscores the fact that both appear to be slightly defensive about being perceived as soul mates, just because of their common nationality.
"We're like any other teammates -- only teammates with a long history between them," Uehara said. "Yoshi has family in Texas, so we don't get to hang out with each other too much. But we're there to support each other."
Their ranks, so to speak, have been reversed since the high school days. Then, Tateyama was the celebrated ace pitcher, while Uehara was, by his own admission, a part-time, spare outfielder.
"He was the super ace and I was a benchwarmer," Uehara said.
After Uehara turned to pitching in college, his star began to shine brighter. With the Yomiuri Giants of Japan's Central League, he twice was awarded the Eiji Sawamura Award, which is equivalent to the Cy Young Award. Meanwhile, Tateyama had a successful, but nondescript, run as a middle reliever for the Nippon Ham Fighters of the Pacific League.
Consequently, Uehara had established himself as a big league reliever with the Orioles -- he even briefly, but successfully, closed for the Birds in 2010 -- by the time the Rangers signed Tateyama as a free agent last winter.
"I'm happy he is here," Tateyama said. "It's a strange feeling. We had a good rivalry in high school. He's a good competitor."
They both are still good competitors -- with each other, as well as against opponents. But the loudest cheers after good outings, and the most comforting words after rough ones, always come from the adjoining locker.