‘Same page’: Cubs’ Seiya Suzuki, interpreter Toy Matsushita face rookie MLB seasons together

There’s another story hidden behind Seiya Suzuki’s viral “Mike Trout, I love you,” moment in his introductory press conference.

The press conference, in a packed media room at the Cubs’ spring training complex in Mesa, Arizona was also the first public appearance Suzuki had shared with his interpreter Toy Matsushita.

Joel Wolfe, Suzuki’s agent, was there with them and could tell how nervous Matsushita was.

“We were winding him up a little bit, like, ‘Toy, don’t don’t screw up,'” Wolfe said.

That playful ribbing didn’t quite put him at ease. But Suzuki found a way to break the tension. When asked why he chose No. 27, he pulled the microphone in front of him, stared into a TV camera and switched from Japanese to English: “Mike Trout I love you.”

Laughter flitted around the room, and Matsushita’s focussed expression unfurled into a wide smile.

The player-interpreter relationship goes far beyond interviews and press conferences. For an MlB rookie like Suzuki, who is living and working in the United States for the first time, an interpreter not only bridges the language barrier between the player and his teammates and coaches, but also serves as a de facto guide through an unfamiliar league and country.

So, how is it spending all that time together?

“A lot of stuff is new for both of us,” Suzuki said through Matsushita. “… I feel that this year is really important as a stepping stone. I’m trying to learn things here, and he’s trying to learn things, too. So, we’re both on the same page.”

Matsushita stood out in his initial interview with Suzuki and his representation. Matsushita already was familiar to Wolfe and his agency, Wasserman. Matsushita was lined up to serve as Tomoyuki Sugano’s interpreter when he posted for MLB teams in 2021, but Sugano decided to return to Nippon Professional baseball. That left Matsushita in a sort of limbo.

He interviewed with Suzuki twice over Zoom and then a couple more times in Japan.

Suzuki said that his first impression of Matsushita was that he was young. At 25 years old, he’s not that much younger than Suzuki, who turned 28 a couple weeks ago.

Matsushitathought Suzuki seemed nice and laid back.

“It was like love at first sight,” Wolfe said.

They quickly developed an almost brotherly dynamic, which was clear to see when they set up at UCLA this spring for a couple weeks of workouts, as Suzuki navigated free agency.

Suzuki would get Matsushita to lift weights with him. More than once, while spotting Matsushita on the pull-up bar, Suzuki walked away and left him hanging there, with a long way to the ground.

“He just wants me to get stronger,” Matsushita said with a smile.

Suzuki agreed: “He was a little too skinny back then, so I wanted him a little bit bigger.”

Did his methods work?

“No,” Suzuki said. “No change.”

The first day that Wolfe came to UCLA to meet up with Suzuki, he walked up to see Suzuki and Matsushita playing catch – a skill that would come in handy when Suzuki sprained his left ring finger in late May and needed someone to catch the ball for him while he was recovering.

Wolfe sent retired second baseman Chase Utley, another one of Wolfe’s clients, out from the batting cages to work with Matsushita. Utley told Matsushita to think of a bow and arrow as he pulls his hand back, and then let it loose.

Suzuki was a tough critic in that department, too: “Zero” improvement. With a dry delivery, he’d later rate Matsushita’s baseball talents as “worse than a child.”

Matsushita’s ability to speak in, and translate, baseball vernacular has impressed Wolfe. It’s a specialized skill that isn’t easy to find. And it’s necessary for a player’s development. If an English-speaking coach has identified a swing adjustment, for example, that information has to effectively pass through the interpreter.

“So, just knowing the language is not enough,” Wolfe said. “And Toy has picked that up very quickly, and he’s worked at it really hard.”

Now, during batting practice, Matsushita might be spotted on the outside of the rollaway backstop taking video on his phone for Suzuki to analyze after.

Cubs manager David Ross also gave Matsushita a vote of confidence and brought up his feel for different situations – in the dugout during the game versus in Ross’ office for more serious conversations.

“He’s got a good energy about him,” Ross said. “He’s always in a good mood, he’s smiling, he’s able to communicate baseball terminology, and he understands the environment.”

Matsushita never played baseball, but his late grandfather, Yoji Suzuki, passed on his love for the sport. Born in Tokyo and raised in Guam, Matsushita would watch the Yankees with his grandfather, who would teach him the ins and outs of the game.

Now, he has his dream job, at the same time that Suzuki is fulfilling a longtime dream of his own: establishing himself in MLB.

“Straight off, when I met him, I knew he was a really nice guy,” Matsushita said. “And he was really determined to come over here, so that really motivated me to make sure I did my part helping him. He’s really dedicated in what he does, and he puts his all every single day into the game. … I’m just learning from him.”

The finger injury disrupted Suzuki’s adjustment to the league. But now, to go along with his red-hot start to the season, Suzuki has finished August strong.

Suzuki joked early in the year that he’d have to learn English quickly so he could fire Matsushita. But he’s been too focussed on baseball lately.

Does that mean they’re stuck together?

Suzuki responded in Japanese, prompting an incredulous smile from Matsushita, who repeated Suzuki’s answer back to him. Suzuki wasn’t budging.

“He said if I’m like this next year, then I’m done,” Matsushita said.

Suzuki nodded. He always knows how to break the tension.

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