Meet the Japanese slugger who could power the Rays' run at the Yankees

Tim Brown
MLB columnist
Yoshitomo Tsutsugo joined the Tampa Bay Rays this offseason after 10 years starring in Japan's Central League, where he hit more than 200 homers. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — “Dimelo,” says the new guy with a smile, a Japanese man in an American baseball clubhouse offering Spanish slang rooted in the Dominican Republic.

Dimelo, Yosh,” comes the friendly reply. “Dimelo.”

The Tampa Bay Rays pursued and signed Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, a 10-year veteran of Japan’s Central League, to hit baseballs into outfield gaps and over outfield fences. Also to help them close in on the New York Yankees, who had finished seven games ahead of them in the AL East. The Rays got him for $12 million over two seasons, plus the posting fee, a reasonable cost unless the stuff about the gaps and fences doesn’t work out. That much is to be determined, though Tsutsugo’s early swings suggest he will time the fastballs that felled many of the Japanese sluggers who preceded him here.

They’ll put the 28-year-old left-handed hitter in the middle of their lineup, play him at third base or left field or designated hitter, hope they’ve been this much smarter than everyone else for another year running and see if that doesn’t get them their first division title in a decade. 

He once hit 44 home runs in a season for the Yokohama Bay Stars. Another season he hit 38. He played with some style and ferocity, and the folks who came to see him in the Olympic stadium that houses the Bay Stars belted out the team captain’s personal song. “Go, go Tsutsugo!” they sang, and he repaid their off-key and full-throated love by becoming the youngest player in league history with 200 home runs.

Dimelo,” he says, and this is the part you’d have to know about, the part where he takes a little of this culture, a little of that culture, a little of another culture and asks, simply, “What’s up?”

He played one winter for Escogido in the Dominican league. Over a decade, his Bay Stars were rich in Latin gaijin. And, so, perhaps, as a teammate, as one day a captain, he could wait for them to learn his language, he could meet them in the middle with English strained in both directions, or he could make his best effort to master theirs, the smallest gesture that seeks to include them all.

Dimelo,” then, is his go-to, that and “Gracias,” which he also says a lot, because he has not yet forgotten to voice appreciation to those who swing a fungo bat or throw a batting practice pitch or scoop up his dirty uniform or hold a door.

“First things first,” said Rodney Linares, third-base coach and infield instructor for the Rays, and a Bronx-born Dominican, “the Japanese culture is really respectful and polite. So you get a lot of that from him. He’s always thanking you for everything. Other than that, he’s just a normal guy. He comes in, he does his work, he has a translator with him that he tries not to use. He wants to learn. So that’s really encouraging. The language barrier, I don’t think is going to be a big problem, because he’s pretty good with Spanish, let’s put it that way. That really surprised me.

“He really understands a lot of Spanish. So I think that opens the door for a lot of dialogue with some of the Latino players and myself.”

On one of the early days of camp, the position players had paired up to warm their arms, leaving two of them. Austin Meadows gestured toward his fellow straggler, Tsutsugo.

“You wanna throw?” he asked.

“Yep.”

They’ve been throwing partners every day since.

“Well, I’ve learned some Japanese,” Meadows said.

One word, actually, he admitted. No one who has come to know Tsutsugo here would be surprised where the lessons began.

“I got the word for thank you,” Meadows said. “It’s arigato. I can’t spell it for you.”

His pride was nevertheless untempered.

The Rays are hoping Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, signed for $12 million over two years, might add significant power to their lineup as they try to track down the New York Yankees in the AL East. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

“When I was with the Bay Stars in Japan, a lot of Latin players, they taught me a lot of phrases,” Tsutsugo said with some amusement. “Not really good phrases. So, yeah, those are my phrases.”

He stood Thursday morning outside the clubhouse against a warm and gathering breeze, a baseball season three weeks from starting. His baseball here, in the United States, includes the 2017 World Baseball Classic (Dodger Stadium hosted the semifinals) and, in recent offseasons, workouts with Nolan Arenado in Southern California. They share an agent, Joel Wolfe. He takes ground balls at third base and fly balls in left field, as many as they’ll give him. He finds a routine in the newness and about every day he sees and tries to solve a pitcher he has never seen or tried to solve before, with a wife and daughter a continent and an ocean away.

The rest is a subtle bow or a handshake and a word here or there. Maybe it’s all as easy as he makes it look, just another game on another patch of grass, and maybe he watched those Latin gaijin in Yokohama and tried to speak their language and they became friends and he is going to be a little better at this as a result.

“I think he’s having a good time here,” said Rays shortstop Willy Adames, who sorts through Tsutsugo’s Spanish for hours every day. “He’s been really funny. The way he talks in Spanish is funny. The things he says. He doesn’t understand everything. Then I change to English.”

And they try that.

So when he is asked how he presented himself, how he walked into a clubhouse and began the process of fitting in after so many years in the comfort of familiarity, he said it did not go that way at all.

“I don’t really need to introduce myself,” Tsutsugo said. “They are all very nice people. They come talk to me. So I was really happy I can be with these guys. I’m really happy I chose the Rays.”

They came to him. In turn, he came to them. By the end, they are somewhere in the middle, where the baseball is played.

Dimelo,” he says.

Dimelo, Yosh,” they say.

It’s all good.

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