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The Hot Corner: Japanese ball needs travel upgrade

by Jim Allen (Aug 28, 2008)

Simply having a golden goal was not enough for the Olympic baseball team, whose nonmetallic finish flattened the game's followers here.

Japan's only baseball medal in the last three Olympics came in Athens, when two of the four medal-round teams were Australia and Canada--both good squads but not in Japan's league. Even then, Japan had to settle for bronze after losing to Australia in the semifinals.

After winning the 2006 World Baseball Classic, it seemed Japan had learned its international lessons, but that does not appear to be the case.

Even the brilliant WBC success had its dark shadows. Sure, Japan was robbed in two of its three losses: Lee Jin Young's spectacular diving catch saved three runs in a 3-2 South Korea victory at Tokyo Dome, and American umpire Bob Davidson helped the United States win by a run. Still, Japan finished with two more losses than South Korea.

For all its passion and commitment, the evidence suggests Japan's game does not travel well. It's time to adjust to that reality.

Any form of competition demands adjustments. In the short term, it means learning how to best apply core strengths when confronted with new challenges.

International tournaments pose different challenges from those of a long pro season. Umpires' strike zones are less predictable and the opposition is often unfamiliar. For players from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, where fewer teams means more opportunities to learn opponents' strengths and weaknesses, facing a pitcher for the first time can cause even veteran players to freeze.

When Nippon Professional Baseball introduced interleague play in 2005, some teams rolled over and died. Trey Hillman, then manager of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, was stunned by the difficulty his Pacific League hitters had against Central League pitchers.

"Almost all of them had never played in the Central League," Hillman told The Daily Yomiuri in February 2006. "They'd seen them play on TV but they never played against them. That actually surprised me...how uneasy we were."

The Fighters wrecked their season when they lost 11 straight against CL clubs.

It shouldn't happen but it does.

One possible explanation is the combination of Japan's obsession with preparation and its negative approach to quality control.

People often get ahead in their group pecking order in Japan by not making mistakes when their colleagues trip up.

Spotting mistakes is big business in Japan. If a company's trivial mistake is discovered, the affected customer expects to receive extensive discounts. In baseball, it is only natural that players, managers and coaches address their own shortcomings while learning to exploit their opponents'.

Yet pro yakyu has become preoccupied with the other guys.

So much time is spent analyzing opponents' flaws and tendencies that one wonders how much energy remains for developing positive skills and preparing to react to the unexpected and seize the initiative.

Hall of Fame slugger Futoshi Nakanishi recently told The Hot Corner that the worst thing to happen to Japanese ball has been its use of video: Nakanishi said video is too often used to identify opponents' flaws and steal signs.

The fairly common belief here--that figuring out what pitch is coming next is crucial to success--leads to an obsession with the other guy. The intense preparation of fundamental execution of throws, swings and fielding here is augmented by intense study of the opposition.

When that last element is undermined by unfamiliar circumstances, many players seem to flounder.

When the BayStars traded Hitoshi Tamura to the Pacific League's Hawks, new umpires and pitchers were a vastly tougher challenge than he expected. His skipper, Sadaharu Oh, was fairly matter of fact about Tamura's dilemma.

"A batter has his own strike zone, a pitcher his and the umpire his," Oh said. "You can only concern yourself with yours. If you worry about what the other guy is trying to do to you, you won't get anywhere."

Playing against the same guys for six months and knowing the flaws of the weakest opponents is a big help here, but it doesn't help when you go abroad.

At some point, the people here will have to realize that negativity doesn't travel.


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