TORONTO — Danny Coulombe saw an opportunity to further Shintaro Fujinami’s English development.
The pair of Orioles relief pitchers have gone back and forth since Fujinami arrived in a trade last month from the Oakland Athletics, exchanging one English word for one Japanese word. But while Fujinami often gives Coulombe the basics — konnichiwa, for instance — Coulombe has opted for a more unusual education of the English language.
So, when coach Tim Cossins worked on his forearm strength with an exercise band in the bullpen, Coulombe gave Fujinami special instructions.
“Danny told me to tell him, go up to him and tell him, ‘You’re yoked,’” Fujinami recalled, speaking through interpreter Issei Kamada, referencing a slang term for muscular.
Cossins looked up, surprised.
“Where’d you learn that?”
Coulombe started to laugh, the teacher caught in the act.
In that manner, Fujinami has been welcomed to Baltimore with open arms. He and Coulombe trade words each day, sharing parts of their culture, in an attempt to help Fujinami settle during his first season in Major League Baseball.
Fujinami isn’t entirely new to speaking English. He went to a conversational English school when he was young, and when the right-hander decided to leave Nippon Professional Baseball, Japan’s top league, to try his craft in the United States, Fujinami brushed up on important phrases.
But, as he finds his footing on the mound, Fujinami is also passionate about grasping English and connecting with his teammates.
“Language and culture, you’ve got to learn,” Fujinami said. “You come to the States, so you have to learn American culture and American language. I want to communicate with my teammates, too, so it’s not: ‘Hey, I’m Japanese, I don’t speak English. Here’s my translator. Translate everything.’ That’s not what I want. I want to learn to communicate with the team by myself, too, in the range that I can. I want to respect that. That’s how I feel about learning the language.”
And, by learning bits of Japanese, Coulombe hopes to meet Fujinami in the middle.
“I want him to know we’re invested in him,” Coulombe said. “He’s just one of the guys. And one way to do it is to learn his culture, his language, and just, honestly, get to know the guy.”
Fujinami excelled for the Hanshin Tigers, but his results for the Athletics when he arrived in MLB were more hit and miss. He improved with a switch from starting to relieving, and his final month with Oakland showed major improvement.
That led him to Baltimore as one of two trade acquisitions this summer, and he’s immediately entered in high-leverage situations for the best team in the American League. Those outings, though, have been sporadic.
Fujinami allowed three runs in his first two appearances, then struck out seven batters with one hit against him over his next 4 2/3 innings. On Wednesday, entering with two runners on in a tie game, Fujinami walked one and hit two batters.
But his teammates and manager, Brandon Hyde, know Fujinami at his best could lift an already strong bullpen to another level.
“We really need him,” Hyde said. “His last few times out, he was really, really good, and hopefully he can get back to that.”
Fujinami, who shares an honest assessment of his feelings after outings, mentioned Wednesday the pressure he placed on himself to try to limit the damage in the sixth inning. That pressure may always be there in a major league game, but in the clubhouse his new teammates have sought to alleviate much of it.
Coulombe has already learned a few Japanese phrases, yet few of them are actually helpful in carrying on a conversation. With the Minnesota Twins, his locker stood next to right-hander Kenta Maeda’s, and he became close friends with Maeda and Maeda’s translator.
“We would just joke around all the time,” Coulombe said. “We’d call each other ugly, or very ugly, in Japanese. Just silly things.”
He’s taken to the same act with Fujinami and Kamada, although most of the words they say they opted against having printed for the public to read.
“None of them, actually,” Coulombe said.
When Fujinami left the mound last week against the Philadelphia Phillies, having struck out three in two perfect innings, his new Orioles teammates chanted a Japanese word as Fujinami returned to the dugout.
The first two outings with his new club were difficult to swallow, and he’s bound to have more missteps as he settles in. Having Coulombe and his new Orioles teammates embrace him in that way, though, made Fujinami feel at home away from home.
But what, exactly, were they chanting?
“That’s the word that we can’t say,” Fujinami laughed.
It’s their own secret, a bond among teammates shared one word at a time.