It took Masumi Kuwata a baseball lifetime to reach the Major Leagues, longer in fact than any rookie since 1960. Now he wants to make the journey pay off for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
When the Japanese right-hander joined the Pirates pitching staff this summer at age 39, he was the oldest Major League rookie since 41-year-old pitcher Diomedes Olivo joined the Pirates on Sept. 9, 1960, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Now a pitcher that old might raise suspicions. But not with Pirates manager Jim Tracy, not the way Kuwata has pitched.
"He's a professional, a terrific competitor," Tracy said. "He knows what he's doing and he knows how to compete. The shame is we just got him at 39. It's too bad we didn't have him four or five years ago."
In his first 16 appearances, Kuwata has had mixed results. He allowed 16 runs -- seven of them in one nightmare inning against Milwaukee -- over 19 1/3 innings while walking 12 batters and striking out 11.
Kuwata's signature pitch is a tantalizing slow serve that drifts up to the plate at about 65 mph and has hitters flailing out in front. The pitch looks like a modified slider but Kuwata says it's nothing more than an old fashioned curveball, a very slow curveball.
"I use many pitches," he said. "This is the one that goes slowest."
Tracy likes Kuwata's makeup.
"His command is impeccable," the manager said. "He is showing it is not necessary to throw 93-94 miles per hour to be successful."
There was a time when Kuwata was a power pitcher.
"I used to throw very hard," he said.
An elbow injury in 1995, suffered in the most innocent way as he was trying to catch a pop fly, changed all that.
Kuwata missed the rest of that season and all of 1996 rehabbing from the injury. When he came back, he found the pop was gone from his fastball. He adjusted and became a productive pitcher again, winning 26 games in his first two seasons back.
By 2001, it seemed Kuwata was done. But the Giants convinced him to stick with it and the next year, he led the league with a 2.22 ERA.
Kuwata signed with the Yomiuri Giants right out of high school in 1986 and a year later he won the Sawamura Award, Japan's equivalent of the Cy Young Award. In nine of his first 11 pro seasons, he had 10 or more victories, and in 1994, he was the Central League MVP.
Kuwata spent 21 seasons at Yomiuri, winning 173 games with 118 complete games. In the back of his mind, though, he always wondered what it would be like to pitch in the Majors.
"Playing in America became a dream of mine when I was 20 years old," Kuwata said.
After all those years with the Giants, he finally got that opportunity. When the Giants agreed to release Kuwata last winter, the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers expressed interest, along with Pittsburgh. He chose the Pirates, figuring they offered the best opportunity for a fast track to the Majors.
He was on target in Spring Training when he collided with umpire Wally Bell and severely sprained his right ankle. The injury sidelined him for two months. When he came back, he threw 4 1/3 scoreless innings for the Pirates' farm club at Indianapolis and was called up in June.
His first outing was in Yankee Stadium. After a 1-2-3 first inning, "I was very nervous," he said. He was tagged for a home run by Alex Rodriguez.
Kuwata held opponents scoreless in seven of his first nine appearances before that one poor inning against Milwaukee. He had another rough outing when he walked three and gave up three earned runs against the Phillies last week. But the Pirates remain impressed with their 39-year-old rookie.
"He knows how to pitch," Tracy said.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York City.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.