Baseball not Igawa's only game
Yankees lefty brings mastery of shogi from Japan to America
TAMPA, Fla. -- Kei Igawa studied his opponent fastidiously.
The Japanese left-hander carefully analyzed every step his challenger made. Moving his eyes back and forth, Igawa appeared to be gauging what the best option should be.
And then, with the expertise of a master, Igawa attacked and scored a winning move.
No, it wasn't a preview of the newest Yankee defeating David Ortiz on a 3-2 count with a nasty breaking ball.
It was an intriguing scene on Friday in front of Igawa's locker when the Japanese pitcher played the game shogi against a Japanese reporter. It was a scene similar to one in which Latin players compete against each other in dominoes.
But what is shogi?
Shogi is a Japanese version of chess that is popular in Igawa's homeland and is seen as often in clubhouses there as dominoes and playing cards are here in the United States.
It is played on a board like chess and has similar game pieces, with the object being to capture an opponent's king.
As fun as it is, though, the game is revered because it builds the minds of its players, which is why Igawa appreciates it so much.
"It is good for concentration and reading opponents," Igawa said when asked how shogi compares to pitching. "It is like reading other hitters."
According to Igawa and many Japanese reporters, the 27-year-old left-hander is considered to be a master, comparable to a black belt in martial arts. Igawa, who also likes to compete in role-playing games on Xbox and Playstation, has reached his current skill level after many years of playing the game.
Igawa has heard that Hideki Matsui plays the game as well, and he anticipates challenging the Yankees left fielder to a game. While he admits that he wasn't the best back home while with the Hanshin Tigers, Igawa can't stand to lose.
"No, never," he said. "I just want to play again right away."
Igawa's ability as a master was apparent in December, when he held a press conference to announce his five-year, $20 million contract with the Yankees. He immediately impressed everyone in attendance, including the Yankees brass.
"It was very revealing, because he read off a script and spoke in English, without using a translator," said Yankees director of media relations Jason Zillo. "A lot of people did a double take. You talk about speaking volumes in regard to bridging a gap and quickly understanding the culture."
Igawa has also shown the ability to quickly grasp how to drive in America.
In Japan, traffic moves on the left side of the road, and the driver's seat and steering wheel are on the right side of cars. But Igawa has managed to perfect the art of driving here already.
After practicing with his translator, Yumitaro Watanabe, for a few hours on Wednesday, Igawa aced the computer and driving portions of his test, then cautiously made his way back to Legends Field.
"I made a mistake at first, turning on the wipers instead of flipping the turn signal," Igawa joked through Watanabe. "But then I figured it out. It's the same as in Japan, just a different side of road."
Igawa seems to be picking up English as well. When asked what new words he's learned, Igawa quickly answered, "Thank you for breakfast."
Igawa, who was named MVP of the Japanese Central League in 2003, has showcased his ability to adapt in many ways already, most notably by being able to navigate the streets of Tampa in his car and understand questions and answer them in English.
But Igawa has also showcased his quiet yet bold demeanor.
On the first day of camp, the 6-foot-1 lefty impressed his skipper, already a giant first step.
"He didn't hold back, which is a sign he wasn't nervous to show what he's got," Yankees manager Joe Torre said.
And now, on his second day, he's already revealed numerous things about his approach to competition.
While his shogi game on Friday ended early before he was able to actually claim a victory, Igawa had positioned himself to win the contest.
"I always like to win," Igawa said following his game.
That's an approach the Yankees hope translates to the mound.
In a masterful way.
Chris Girandola is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.