Shintaro Fujinami and interpreter Issei Kamada were getting ready to enjoy an evening off after the A’s beat the Red Sox on July 19 when they were unexpectedly called into manager Mark Kotsay’s office.
“Are we in trouble?” Fujinami said to Kamada, attempting to seem like he was joking but showing a noticeable concern in his voice.
When they entered Kotsay’s office, they were met with pitching coach Scott Emerson and an A’s assistant general manager.
And whiskey shots.
They turned to Kamada first, explaining to him that Fujinami had been traded to the Orioles. Kamada’s life was about to be uprooted — he, too, was about to move across the country on no notice, his contract also picked up by the Orioles — and he thought immediately of his family waiting at a nearby hotel for him. But he had to stay stoic, relaying the message to Fujinami, who speaks only limited English, exactly as he was told.
“I tried to just repeat what he said,” Kamada said. “I tried to be as calm as possible.”
They were expecting to be traded. Just not then, two weeks before the deadline, and not to Baltimore, a city across the country and even farther away from their native Japan.
And they certainly didn’t expect to be sent out with whiskey.
The two, still shocked, drank their shots, the A’s congratulating them on joining a contender. Then the pitcher and interpreter left the stadium to start plotting their new adventure.
Fujinami and Kamada are a package deal, Kamada serving as not only Fujinami’s interpreter, but also his personal trainer, throwing partner and guide to living in the United States. It was a big transition — Fujinami deciding to play in MLB after being a star for the Hanshin Tigers in the Nippon Baseball League — and Kamada has been the confidant helping him get through it.
“We’re good friends,” Kamada said. “We feel comfortable working together.”
Kamada grew up in Osaka, Japan, and dreamed of being a professional baseball player. He was too injured to continue playing after high school though, so he shifted his focus. He moved across the world, attending the University of Northern Colorado as an undergrad and Oregon State for grad school, where he was certified in athletic training and strength and conditioning.
He worked for the Guardians organization for three years before moving back to Japan, where he worked for two NPB teams before landing with Hanshin as a strength coach. That’s where he started working with Fujinami, who was then a top prospect.
When Fujinami told those close to him that he wanted to be posted — meaning he was expressing interest in an MLB contract — Kamada’s wife encouraged him to consider going with him as a translator and personal trainer. Fujinami was initially hesitant when Kamada asked him if could join him, since Kamada had a family and a good job with Hanshin; the pitcher didn’t want him to give it all up to move across the world. Kamada, and his family, though, were fully on board.
The pieces started to fall into place in January, a month after Fujinami was posted. He signed with Oakland on a one-year, $3.25 million deal. Soon after, Kamada formed his own contract with the team and obtained his visa to join Fujinami in the United States (the Orioles now have a contract with him, according to a team spokesperson). Kamada’s wife and two children opted to stay in Japan, but planned on making frequent visits.
Spring training was an adjustment for both of them. There was some homesickness, of course, but FaceTime calls and trips to Japanese restaurants could help ease that — at least temporarily.
Fujinami was in a new country with a new team in a new league, faced with a clubhouse where he was suddenly an outcast for not speaking the language. Kamada, meanwhile, was learning a new job on the fly, his focus on interpreting, not coaching, as in his previous roles.
“My main job is for him,” he said. “It’s weird not to work with other guys. I get to work with them only when they want to talk to him. That feels weird and different.”
They have a rhythm now, Kamada serving as Fujinami’s strength coach and catching partner, in addition to interpreting when needed. Kamada sits in the bullpen with Fujinami, retreating to the dugout when Fujinami goes into the game in case he’s needed during a mound visit.
Now in Baltimore, Kamada’s services are needed less and less as Fujinami picks up English, thanks in part to a daily ritual he’s developed with reliever Danny Coulombe. Kamada has watched with pride as Fujinami has formed bonds within the clubhouse, the Orioles not only welcoming him but wanting him to be a part of the team.
“He needs to speak with other players, that’s the key to get along with teammates,” Kamada said. “It’s hard for a Japanese player to get along with other players since they don’t talk at all. ... The guys over here do an excellent job talking to him. I think they have a good relationship right now.”