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CHICAGO—One of the first Yokoso! messages of welcome Nori Aoki received as a freshly traded and freshly minted Blue Jay on Monday came from . . . Munenori Kawasaki.
Who, of course, hasn’t been a Blue Jay since late 2015, but will always be a Jay to his legion of fans in Toronto, which included all of his teammates in the clubhouse.
“I’m really good friends with Kawasaki,” the just-arrived Aoki was telling reporters here Tuesday, having just changed into the uniform of his sixth Major League Baseball club. “When I got traded here, he sent me a text message saying, ‘Welcome to Toronto’.”
And then Aoki flashed a grin at least as wide as the Kawasaki version.
He’s an extra outfielder — Toronto now has five of them — and not the key attraction in the deal that sent Francisco Liriano to Houston. Young prospect Teoscar Hernandez was the “get” from Toronto management’s perspective. But we’ll likely not be seeing anything of the kid until September call-ups. Aoki, however, is here and ready for service, if not in the line-up for Tuesday’s game at Guaranteed Rate Field, though his presence required a roster move — a quickie return-to-sender trip back to Triple-A Buffalo for left-handed pitcher Brett Oberholtzer.
Aoki admitted he was quite shocked to find himself part of the trade deadline action, not having anticipated being jettisoned by a team miles ahead in the American League West division and attached to a team with a filament-thin chance of making the post-season in 2017.
“Of course,” Aoki conceded, if the trade jolted him. “Until this year I was always on the outside looking in. Like, ‘Oh, this guy got traded, that guy got traded.’ And I guess I’m experiencing it now.”
Aoki put his best gracious face forward, going from first to worst. “I’ve already turned the page. Just looking forward to contributing here and becoming part of the team here and just a new feeling for me,” he said through his own personal translator, the same fellow he has head at his side through these past six years in the North American majors.
The 36-year-old from Hyuga, Japan, is in the final months of a one-year, $ 5.5 million deal he signed with Houston last December, weeks after he was claimed off waivers from Seattle. He appeared in 71 games this season, batting .272 with two home runs and 19 runs batted in over 202 at-bats.
Asked his view of the short-term opportunity provided by the Jays, Aoki shrugged philosophically. “I never really thought about it yet. Everything’s been king of hectic the last day. But my feeling is I just want to contribute here and try to go for a wild card and become part of the team.”
Interpreter at his side, Aoki went through the now familiar motions of introducing himself to his new teammates.
“I don’t feel isolated at all,” he claimed, of his cultural and linguistic solitariness in a clubhouse. “This is my sixth year in the big leagues and I try to reach out to American guys, Latin guys, and try to get along with them. I don’t feel any stress of not being able to speak their language.”
Aoki noted, as well, that he’d played against Toronto in a Houston series just before the all-star break. “It kind of makes you feel like I’ve been here all along.”
And hey, Nori, what do you know about Canada?