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A desire to enjoy competing against the very best

Former Major Leaguer Koji Uehara

speaks with Robert Walters Japan Managing Director Jeremy Sampson (Part 1)

Koji Uehara x Jeremy picture1

In 2019, Koji Uehara, who played for the Yomiuri Giants and the Boston Red Sox closed the curtain on his 21-year career as a professional baseball player. In 2013, he became the first Japanese to pitch in the World Series in the major leagues and he continued to be active on the front lines until his retirement at the age of 44. What was the driving force that allowed him to continue to perform well in different environments and evolve until his retirement? Jeremy Sampson, Managing Director at Robert Walters Japan, sat down with Koji Uehara to discuss his work ethic. In the first part of this series, we take a closer look at the professionalism and teamwork that Uehara faced when he switched from being a starting pitcher to a reliever and closer. (2 parts in total)

A desire to enjoy competing against the very best

Sampson kicked off the conversation by asking Uehara if he had any ambitions to become a world-class player when he first started playing baseball.

“No, I didn’t”, admitted Uehara. “To be honest, I didn’t start aiming to be a professional baseball player until I was halfway through my career. I was planning to become a high school teacher. But as my skills improved in college, scouts started approaching me, and I began to seriously think about aiming for a professional career. I didn’t even play in any games during high school, so I think that everyone has a chance.”

In 1999, Uehara joined the Yomiuri Giants as their first draft pick, and with a 20-4 record, he won the Sawamura Award as well as Rookie of the Year, and became one of Japan's top pitchers. In 2009, he joined the Major League Baseball team Baltimore Orioles. Sampson asked if he had any fear or anxiety about facing the best hitters in the major leagues.

“I was really looking forward to it and I didn't feel scared or uncomfortable at all. I went where I wanted to go and thought it might be the first and last time that I could play against them. So I just tried not to let any base on balls to occur and focused on enjoying the game.”

Koji Uehara x Jeremy picture2

“Tomorrow is a new day”

In the major leagues, Uehara was a successful closing pitcher who appeared in the last inning of games and was the pitcher who lifted the Boston Red Sox to the World Championship in 2013. He shared what kind of mindset he had when he took on the role of closer which decides the game in the end.

“Because the closer's role is only to pitch in the last inning, I felt that I had to carry on the efforts of the starting and relay pitchers who went before me to bring the team to victory. That's why I tried to never think that I would get hit.”
“When you were hit and failed to make a save, how did you switch to a different approach?” Sampson asked.

“I was told by another American player, ‘Tomorrow is a new day’,” responded Uehara. “He also told me not to think about it anymore. Tomorrow is a new day, so let's approach it with a renewed spirit and mind. It was a simple statement, but it had a huge impact on me. I had never heard such words in Japan before as we are often told to reflect on what we have done.”

Koji Uehara x Jeremy picture3

The accumulation of small goals leads to big goals

Throughout his career, Uehara has proven himself to be a strong player in international games and big stages. He shared how he prepares himself to perform well on prestigious international stages such as the Olympics, WBC, and World Series.

“Simply put, I thought I would stand out and become a hero if I could make it here,” Uehara explained. “That was the most important thing. Of course I get nervous, but I've been preparing for this, and now it's just a matter of what will happen from now on. I think it's a matter of whether you're properly prepared and I knew that my opponent felt the same way. I told myself that I wasn't the only one, and that everyone here was feeling the same way, so I didn't feel particularly anxious.”

Showcasing one’s abilities on the big stage requires diligent preparation. We asked Uehara what goals he set for his career until he reached the point where he was ready to compete in the world's highest stage.

“Of course I set big goals, but I also set small goals to get there,” said Uehara. “In fact, I believe that the accumulation of small goals will lead to big goals. Small goals are those which you can achieve every day. When people have a sense of accomplishment, they feel a great sense of fulfilment. I believe that every day will be more enjoyable if you get that sense of fulfilment. If you set a big goal of playing in the major leagues in the future, and then you decide to run a 100-meter dash today, I think the accumulation of those small goals will lead you to the large goal that lies ahead.”

Sampson agreed with Uehara’s words and noted that the same could be applied to business professionals. “In the realm of business, successful people have big goals and create a number of small achievable goals. Big goals without small goals end up being just a dream. What's more important is to act, so it’s very important to take concrete small actions for big goals.”

Koji Uehara x Jeremy picture4

Prioritising the goal of pitching in the major leagues

At Robert Walters, we help global professionals bring out the best in themselves. What are Uehara’s thoughts on being a “professional?”

“I believe that everyone is professional in their own fields. In my case, this happened to be baseball. I think what defines a professional is how well someone is prepared to succeed in a situation.”

“I think it's all about how hard you work in the position you're given, how well you produce results, and how much you prepare for it,” Uehara added. “I've always wanted to be a starter, but if the team asks me to be a centre fielder or a closer, I think it's logical to work hard in that role. When I joined the major leagues, I didn't see the point in refusing to be a relief pitcher and going to the second or third team. I think it's important to stay in the first team and play the position if you are asked to do so by the top.”

When Uehara first joined the Baltimore Orioles in 2009, he pitched as a starter, but in 2010, he was assigned as a relief pitcher. He shares how he copes when the work he wants to do is different from the work required by the team or company.

“When I was asked to change my position, I wanted to be a starter. But then I thought about my purpose in going to America and realised that my goal was to pitch in the majors. If I pitch in the minors, there is no point in going to America. So I decided to play where I was told to play. My goal was to play in the majors, not to pitch as a starter.”

Responding to Uehara, Sampson commented, “I think your story makes a very important point about what it means to be a professional. I believe that a true professional is an expert who strives to be the best, no matter what the job. It's the same in business.”

“I think the most important thing to consider is what kind of goal the person has in mind,” Sampson added. “Your [Uehara’s] goal was to continue playing in the major leagues even if your position changed to centre fielder. Some may feel that their position is more important than the company. Others focus more on how much they can contribute. At the end of the day, I think the key to being a professional is to take pride in what you do, to keep striving to be the best, to keep trying to grow and improve yourself, and to try to perform at your best every day.”

True teamwork to achieve a common goal

There’s a common perception that the US is more individualistic than Japan. Uehara shared how he feels about the relationship between teams and individuals.
“Japanese people tend to say ‘for the team’ but I think that's a bit of a cop-out. It’s easy to make excuses such as ‘I did it for the team’ even if you don’t perform well. I think it’s better to think about what you should do for the good of the team.”

Uehara added, “If the team's goal and the individual's goal don't work together, you will be adrift. In the US, I didn't hear the phrase ‘for the team’ often but I don't think that everyone isn’t giving their best effort. It's not so much for the team, but for the same goal. Our goal was to become world champions, so I think each of us knew what we needed to do to achieve that goal.”

Koji Uehara x Jeremy picture3

Alignment of team and personal goals

Sampson relates Uehara's experience in the case of an individual working for a company.

“I think it's very important that the goals of the individual and the goals of the organisation are in the same direction. If these two goals are not aligned, the organisation will fall apart. It’s critical for everyone to give his or her all towards the same big goal."

Sampson asked Uehara how he maintained his motivation in times when the team's performance was not good to be able to win the individual title.

“Do I play for my individual title or for the team to win?” Uehara questioned. “I think the best way is to try to help the team win, and then win the individual title. I'm sure there are people who play because they don't care about the team, but if you play to help the team win, I think the people around you will support you and cooperate with you. Because I had that attitude and the trust of the people around me, I was able to share the joy of every win with everyone as the closer.”

Uehara continued, “When the team won, everyone would gather on the mound and high-five each other, and no one would leave without doing so. I think everyone was working together. I think baseball and business are the same in that sense.”

In the second part of this article, we will discuss how Uehara rose to the top of the world with two different types of pitches, and how he stoically devoted himself to baseball every day to become a true professional.

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