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Cubs’ Yu Darvish doesn’t have to prove people wrong; they already were wrong

The Cubs' Yu Darvish throws against the Diamondbacks on Tuesday in Mesa, Ariz. | John Antonoff/For the Sun-Times

Yu Darvish has ditched his interpreter, choosing to do media interviews in English rather than in Japanese, his native tongue.

After all the abuse he took last year, I’m surprised he’s talking to anyone in any language. Critics accused the Cubs pitcher of being soft for not battling through injury and illness. They blamed him for the rotation’s inconsistency, for the team’s unsatisfying finish, for the small return on his big contract and for, I don’t know, the destruction of coral reefs.

He became an easy target, a punch line. People whose biggest obstacle in a life to date was three highway lanes being reduced to one questioned his toughness.

It’s one thing to criticize athletes for how they play. If they’re bad, it’s more than fair to call them out for their badness. But it’s another thing to question an injured player’s spine. Unless you’re in possession of X-rays that show a deficiency of resolve, calling someone soft is about as low it gets.

But in Chicago, “soft’’ and “Darvish’’ are never far apart whenever the conversation turns to the right-hander.

Now he looks healthy, happy and at peace. He threw 96 mph in a spring-training game Tuesday and looked like the most relaxed man in the world while meeting with reporters afterward. It was good to see. He always seemed so alone last season. Even watching him in the Cubs’ clubhouse last season felt isolating. He couldn’t help the team because of triceps tendinitis, and he was left to his rehab while teammates prepared for games.

It’s fun to imagine him healthy and able to finally show what he’s capable of doing. The situation is still very tenuous, of course. It’d be silly to assume his physical issues are gone once and for all. But what if he stayed healthy enough to be the pitcher he was during his four All-Star seasons? Think that would be a boost for the Cubs?

And maybe the biggest question of all: How would all the rabid Cubs fans who ripped Darvish for being injured walk back their comments if he succeeded? I hope it happens. I’d love to behold their flexibility.

For now, many of those same people have their fingers crossed that he’ll be healthy enough to lead the Cubs back to playoff glory. If he does, you can bet that all will be forgiven. I wonder if he’ll be so forgiving.

What happened went beyond criticism. People already were upset that the Cubs had let former Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta walk. They were upset that the Cubs had given Darvish a six-year, $126 million contract. It made them very upset when he missed time with the flu and very, very upset when his triceps started hurting. He ended up starting just eight games.

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What was Darvish supposed to do? Ignore the pain emanating from the same area that had led to Tommy John surgery in 2015?

When he went on the disabled list in May with the flu, it was too much for all the tough guys out there. They had never missed a junior-varsity game with the flu!

The ugliness culminated in July, when ESPN analyst and juicer extraordinaire Alex Rodriguez bashed Darvish during a nationally televised game.

“When you have 25 players coming to the stadium, you’re there to do one thing, and that’s to win a ballgame,’’ he said. “You want all the energy, all the focus, all the analytics, all the stretching [going toward] what are we going to do today to win a ballgame?

“And when you have a guy that signs an enormous contract and he’s sitting down, and you walk in the training room, and he’s got two trainers working on him, you go into the video room, and you have a guy looking at video … he should be in Arizona somewhere getting treated. But don’t get in the way of 25 players going after one mission: to win a ballgame.”

So said A-Rod, national treasure.

It doesn’t take much for reputations to be tarnished in sports. One player whispers something about a teammate, another picks it up and tells it to a broadcaster, who relays it over the air as fact. Readers and talk-show listeners suddenly become experts on a player’s mental makeup. It’s amazing how many people are licensed to diagnose someone as “weak above the shoulders.’’

I hope Darvish has a good year. I hope his health never becomes part of the discussion. I hope he stays as happy as he seems to be now.

Know this, though: He doesn’t have to prove people wrong. They already were wrong.