A few hours before playing the Washington Nationals on Friday, the Giants gathered in left field at AT&T Park for their annual team photo. The group included players, coaches, team and clubhouse staff – and a 28-year-old from Japan who stopped playing baseball in elementary school, studied biotechnology at UC Davis and now holds one of the rarest jobs in the majors.
That would be Kosuke Inaji, who’s employed by the Giants as the translator for outfielder Nori Aoki. Inaji has worked as Aoki’s translator since 2012, when he was with the Milwaukee Brewers. And when the Giants signed the Japanese outfielder to a one-year contract last offseason, Inaji accompanied him to San Francisco.
That’s the short version of how Inaji joined the Giants. The longer story of how he came to have a locker in a big-league clubhouse, traveling on trips and inhabiting the same daily routines and workplace as the best players in baseball, involves a bit of serendipity and a career pivot as sharp as a breaking slider.
Born in Japan, Inaji moved to Southern California with his parents when he was 3 and graduated from UC Davis in 2009. After school, he took a temporary job at a Campbell’s Soup facility in Davis that did research and development in seed production. Inaji said he collected data for the company’s pepper and tomato breeders.
Born in Japan, Kosuke Inaji moved to Southern California with his parents when he was 3 and graduated from UC Davis in 2009.
“I didn’t really have a plan,” he said.
And then he got the call. As Inaji tells it, a friend of his had a college professor who had baseball connections and asked the class one day if they knew anyone who spoke both Japanese and English for a possible interpreting job. The friend gave Inaji’s name, and soon Inaji was interviewing with the Atlanta Braves, who had just acquired Japanese pitcher Kenshin Kawakami.
Inaji didn’t get that job. But when Atlanta signed reliever Takashi Saito before the 2010 season, they called Inaji back and asked if he was still interested. He was.
“I’d finished college and was working an R&D facility,” Inaji said. “So I was like, ‘Yeah, sure. I’ll do this for a few years.’ ”
Inaji spent the 2010 season with Saito in Atlanta, then followed the reliever to Milwaukee in 2011. The Brewers parted with Saito after the 2011 season – but that winter they signed Aoki to his first major-league contract. Inaji stayed in Milwaukee to translate for Aoki, and has worked with him since.
Inaji part of Giants’ ‘family’
While Inaji is perhaps most visible when translating Aoki’s interviews with local media, his responsibilities go much further.
“I call him the number one scout,” said Giants outfielder Justin Maxwell, who was also a teammate of Aoki’s last season in Kansas City. “Because he always does Nori’s scouting reports before the game, so he’s always in there watching video.”
The Giants’ scouting reports on opposing pitchers come, naturally, in English. So part of Inaji’s job is to translate them into Japanese for Aoki.
“From time to time I’ll ask him, ‘Hey, Kosuke, what do you got on this guy today?’” said Maxwell. “And he’s like, ‘Are you left-handed (like Aoki) today?’
“He’s pretty cool. He’s very knowledgeable about the game for what his job is. And he’s a great guy in the clubhouse. He’s a lot of fun. He’s not chained to Nori all the time, like following him around. He shoots it with us.”
Often before games, Inaji can be seen shagging balls during batting practice. When Aoki – who is on the disabled list with a concussion – is playing, Inaji is in the dugout ready to help him communicate with coaches or, as was the case when a pitch hit Aoki in the helmet last Sunday in Chicago, to hurry onto the field on the heels of Giants trainer Dave Groeschner.
Because of how much time he spends around the team, Inaji said it’s natural to bond with players and people in the organization. Still, his main responsibility is to Aoki, for whom he is part personal assistant, part companion. While they are not together at all times, Inaji said Aoki sometimes calls him for help away from the ballpark. On the road, they normally go out to eat together. The Giants’ clubhouse has at least one other Japanese speaker in bullpen catcher Taira Uematsu, but it’s not uncommon for Japanese players to experience a language barrier, and the translator also provides somebody to talk to.
“He’s my boss, the guy I work for,” Inaji said of Aoki, 33. “But that’s not to say we don’t get along. The way I view my job is, yeah, you’re going to get close to your player regardless. But you always have to kind of have that respect, know you’re here because of them, not the other way around.”
Inaji credits Saito, who had been in the majors for several years when they met, for showing him the ropes of major-league life. When he started in Atlanta, Inaji said, “I had no idea how anything worked. Even food. I’m like, ‘Is there food after the game? Am I allowed to eat the food?’” As it turned out, he was.
“He does a great job of not really being noticed, and I mean that in a good way,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said of Inaji. “He’s always there; he’s always available. But at the same time, you hardly know he’s around until you need him. He’s very respectful of what these guys are doing.
“(Inaji) does a great job of not really being noticed, and I mean that in a good way. He’s always there, he’s always available. But at the same time you hardly know he’s around until you need him. He’s very respectful of what these guys are doing.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy
“(The players) have fun with him, and so you know, he is part of the club. He travels with us. It becomes a family here, and he’s part of that.”
Enjoying life ‘behind the scenes’
Working in baseball has afforded Inaji experiences he probably wouldn’t have had with Campbell’s. Last season, he watched first-hand as Kansas City rallied around a Royals team that went to the World Series, losing in seven games to the Giants. This year, with Aoki joining the defending champions, Inaji accompanied the team to the White House.
Aoki has played well in his first season with the Giants, batting .302 with a .368 on-base percentage. He also has missed time to injuries, including the concussion and a broken leg suffered in late June. Working so closely with an individual player, Inaji said, “You kind of experience that with them – all the highs and the lows.”
Inaji said he doesn’t know what he would be doing right now if he wasn’t in baseball and enjoys his job. He grew up watching Hideo Nomo pitch for the Dodgers, and when other players such as Kazuo Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki came over from Japan he would “always see their translator (and) always wonder … It’s not something I was working toward, but I always wondered what it was like.”
While the perks are many, there can be drawbacks. There isn’t much room for advancement in the field, and stability can be an issue. In six seasons, Inaji has lived out of four different cities. There’s a good chance the Giants could exercise a team option on Aoki for 2016, but the possibility of a trade always lingers. And fundamentally, Inaji’s own job security is largely dependent on the performance of another person.
“It’s just always in the back of your mind that this is only temporary,” Inaji said. “I guess that’s kind of the toughest part.”
Inaji said he wants to translate for “probably a couple more years,” and then he isn’t sure what he’ll do. He said there’s a family business in Japan, in turf management and landscaping, that has “kind of always been in the back of my mind.” But for now, that can wait.
When asked what the best part of his job is, Inaji said: “Just being able to see what goes on behind the scenes, being able to get to know the people and how much they put in at the same time. Everyone sees what happens on the field and everything. But there’s so much stuff that goes on beyond that.”