Pitcher Kuwata announces retirement

Pitcher Kuwata announces retirement

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Knowing that he was out of the running for a spot on the team's Opening Day roster, 40-year-old Japanese right-hander Masumi Kuwata announced his retirement after the Pirates' game against the Tigers on Wednesday.

"Yeah, this [is a] very difficult decision to make," Kuwata said, late Wednesday afternoon. "But my heart told me."

News of Kuwata's decision to retire first surfaced in his native country of Japan on Tuesday, though Kuwata had asked that the official announcement come postgame on Wednesday. He had told Pirates management of his intentions to retire earlier in the week.

As the hours passed on Wednesday, Kuwata handled what was the final day of his professional career with the same class that he carried himself with during his time with the organization. He had once been a superstar in Japan, a high-class gentleman from the start when he arrived in the United States.

When manager John Russell offered to give Kuwata one final inning of work to close out his 21-year professional career, Kuwata respectfully declined.

"I've thrown thousands of innings," Kuwata told Russell. "We need to get our guys ready."

He then accommodated every media request, answered every question and posed for every photograph, the last of which was of Kuwata on the mound at McKechnie Field. Wearing black pants and a pink dress shirt, Kuwata then walked off the hill and bowed.

"He's been an unbelievable class act -- a true professional in every sense," Russell said. "He's a great human being, and I'm sure that whatever he does, he's going to be great at it."

Though Kuwata's time with the organization was limited to just over a year, the veteran right-hander made a lasting impression.

Younger pitchers took notice of how Kuwata went about his daily routine. They watched, hoping to see how someone who had been so successful in his career carried himself. When Kuwata talked, they listened.

Kuwata will likely be a mentor down the road again. He said plans to leave Bradenton and return to Japan to be with his family. While he added that he has not determined what the immediate future holds for him, Kuwata admitted that his passion for the game of baseball will make it hard for him to stay away for long.

"I love baseball," said Kuwata, who made his professional debut back in 1986 for the Yomiuri Giants. "So definitely I [could] become a pitching coach or a manager."

He also left open the possibility of one day working with the Pirates as a coach or scout, saying that he hopes to keep in touch with the organization moving forward.

While the official announcement didn't come until Wednesday, Kuwata said that he made up his mind before coming to Spring Training that he would retire if he did not make the Opening Day roster.

Despite some remaining discomfort in his right ankle, on which he had surgery back in September, Kuwata put up impressive results for the Pirates this spring. The right-hander made five appearances, allowing just one run, and appeared to have more velocity on his fastball than he had showcased during his time in the Majors last season.

Still, Kuwata was pushed out of contention for one of the final 'pen spots because of the number of additional pitchers that have made impressive spring showings. As the month went on, it became clearer that no matter how good Kuwata looked, he wouldn't make the final cut.

"I was pitching very good and with results," Kuwata said. "But my heart tells me it's time to retire."

Kuwata ends his career knowing that he was able to reach his dream of playing in the Major Leagues. After accumulating superstar status during his 20 years starting for the Yomiuri Giants, Kuwata signed a Minor League contract with the Pirates prior to the 2007 season.

A sprained ankle during Spring Training last year set him back, though Kuwata worked his way back, and eventually joined the Pirates last June. His debut marked the first time a Japanese-born player wore a Pittsburgh uniform.

When asked what his best memories of his two months in the Majors were, Kuwata paused for a second.

"First of all, I can't believe that I made Major League debut at Yankee Stadium," said Kuwata, who allowed two runs in two innings in that June 10 appearance. "[And I was] very excited to get [uniform] No. 18."

That was the number that Kuwata wore back in Japan.

He spent just over two months with the Pirates before being designated for assignment last August following a series of rocky outings. Instead of finishing the season at Triple-A Indianapolis, Kuwata decided to return to Japan and mull over whether or not to return to the U.S. for one more try.

He agreed to give it one last chance when the Pirates offered him a Minor League contract in December.

So, just after Japan stole the spotlight during Major League Baseball's season opener, the country now learns that one of its biggest names in baseball over the past two decades will no longer put on a uniform.

While Kuwata's name would likely not be recognized among many here in the U.S., he will be remembered for many years to come in Japan. One Japanese reporter who covered Kuwata's career in the U.S. explained Kuwata's status in Japan in the simplest way: "It's Dice-K No. 1," she said. "Then Kuwata."

He finishes his overall 21-year career with a combined 173-142 record and a 3.93 ERA.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.