Since arriving in Boston in 2013, Koji Uehara has captured the hearts of Red Sox fans. Whether it was his penchant for high fives, his almost ungodly splitter, or the animated way he’d celebrate the final out, Uehara immediately made himself easy to love. Although his 41st birthday looms this coming April, he doesn’t see retirement in the cards at this point, saying,"If I do terrible and no team wants to take me, I will retire."
This is great news, and not only because he helped the Red Sox win a World Series, but also because it’s been pretty fun having him around these past few years.
One of Uehara’s greatest moments in Boston occurred in Game 4 of the 2013 World Series, when Koji picked off the Cardinals’ Kolten Wong at first base to win the game in St Louis. The play happened so quickly that the cameras barely caught it, but thankfully, they were all over Uehara's subsequent celebration. While other closers might not be able to pull off the "point-and-laugh" move as charmingly as he did, his unadulterated and not exactly sportsmanlike behavior channeled the joy Red Sox fans felt while watching at home.
The schadenfreude was felt by Red Sox Nation when a tearful Wong appeared post-game alleging that he wasn’t even planning on running. "I just got a little off the base," Wong said. "Wanted to go back, and my foot slipped on me. ... I just got too far off and he made a good throw." Uehara’s cat-like reflexes put a quick end to the game, a welcome relief one night after an obstruction call on Mr. Jenny Dell caused a painful and aggravating loss.
Part of the fun of being a modern sports fan is following players on Twitter, and Uehara is no exception. Uehara’s Twitter presence is entirely in Japanese, and while the average Red Sox fan probably won’t understand any of his 140 characters, there is a lot of joy to be found in the garbled and almost unintelligible automatically-generated Bing translations:
"Ladies and gentlemen, good morning. Joined the team practice today, but there were all kinds (^-^)" "Today, I throw 111 balls. Still in the sphere of the latter half of sharp, momentum is lost. (--;) Are still trained I have." "Now the downtown, I was watching? And Oh, not watching the (^^;;" (If anyone wants to offer up a translation of those emoticons crafted entirely out of various punctuation, this author would appreciate it).
Actual text aside, Uehara also shares a lot of pictures, mostly of The Premium Malt’s, a Japanese brewed beer. It can be fun guessing the context of a tweet from the picture, such as when Uehara posted an image of eight Häagen-Dazs containers on top of each other, accompanied by a can of The Premium Malt’s.
噂のアイスクリームをGET p(^_^)q pic.twitter.com/rpLl4dy6H1— KOJI UEHARA (@TeamUehara) December 19, 2015
Listening to the new Adele album, perhaps? Hey, don't judge. She makes people feel things.
Uehara’s passion for high-fives and the seriousness with which he approaches them immediately endeared him to fans and his teammates alike. Unfortunately for him, his returning-to-dugout celebration caused the Red Sox Twitter account to spawn the #HighFiveCity hashtag, which is both dumb and bad and has been their designated Koji hashtag ever since.
While it certainly hasn’t been the worst thing the Red Sox Twitter account has done, for a guy who played such an instrumental role in the 2013 World Series, you’d think they’d give him a better hashtag. Even Gary Striewski’s #kojiismyhomie would be preferable, despite being a bit puzzling in and of itself.
One of Uehara’s best high five-related moments was in May of 2013, when he returned to the dugout after retiring White Sox batters 1-2-3. While everyone else was on their feet and readied themselves for the five-fest, Shane Victorino (hereafter referred to affectionately as "Crazy Eyes") elected to stay seated. Not one to have his momentum disturbed by an unwilling participant or lame enough to ask why Crazy Eyes would "leave him hangin’", Uehara chose to perform a very one-sided high five, also known as smacking an unwitting teammate on the shoulder.
The enthusiasm of his celebration is clearly infectious, as everyone from teammates to coaches to clubhouse attendants eagerly swarms him with smiles and a raised hand or two.
It’s impossible to talk about what Uehara has brought to Boston without mentioning the pitch that made him so unhittable: that splitter, man. Former Red Sox catcher David Ross had this to say about it: "His pitches always look like strikes to me too, even when they're not. Because Koji is so deceptive, you see the ball late. For me, the only time it doesn't look like a strikeout of his hand is when it's up in the zone, but the hitter sees it right in his eyes and they swing at that ball a lot. He gets a lot of really ugly checked swings. Guys will even swing at balls that bounce on the grass sometimes." According to Uehara, the pitch is self made. "I basically taught myself. I get ideas from other players, but basically it comes down to me."
That splitter, along with his high-eighties fastball, lead him to a remarkable 2013 season. His 0.565 WHIP ranks as the best in MLB history among the 23,635 times a pitcher has thrown at least 50 innings, and cemented his place in Red Sox history as a legendary reliever. He might not be the closer anymore, but all that means is more opportunities for in-game high-fives. Hopefully, beyond 2016 as well -- we're not ready for Koji to be terrible and unwanted just yet.