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Robert Whiting

Robert Whiting's Homepage at JapaneseBaseball.com

1984

by Warren Cromartie and Robert Whiting (1991)

The Messiah

Tokyo was a long way from Montreal. Fourteen hours, ten thousand miles, half the world away. My Japan Air Lines flight had just landed, and I was waiting, as ordered, to be the last one off. I was exhausted from the long haul.

A stewardess finally approached me in the first class section. "You can deplane now, Mr. Cromartie," she chirped, beaming down at me. She looked happy enough for both of us.

I picked up my flight bag, straightened my tie, and stepped out of the plane and into the terminal at Narita Airport. Although it was a freezing cold February night, a huge crowd had shown up. There was an instant of quiet, and then the flashes started going off like crazy.

I stood there blinking, disoriented, feeling slightly embarrassed. Then a man stepped forward and introduced himself as the general manager of the Tokyo Giants, the team I had recently signed to play for. He shook my hand vigorously, at the same time bowing from the waist.

"Welcome to Japan, Mr. Cromartie," he said. "You are our messiah."

In a daze, I mumbled, "Hello" -- and bowed back.

Then it dawned on me what he had just said.

The flashes kept going off every second. I forced a smile, bowed some more, and followed my new GM through immigration and customs, to a hastily assembled press conference. There, in front of more reporters than I'd ever seen in any one place in my life -- more even than at a White House press conference, it seemed -- I fielded questions through an interpreter.

How did I like Japan? How many home runs would I smack? Could I eat Japanese food? Could I guarantee the Giants a pennant?

I was beginning to feel a little silly.

I'd been called a lot of things in my life -- some good, some not, some downright nasty. But the last time I was called a messiah was never. Then again, I'd never played for a Japanese baseball team before. For eight years, I'd been a Montreal Expo, and I'd had a pretty decent career. I'd been a .300 hitter on a team of superstars that included Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, Steve Rogers, and Tim Raines. When I became eligible for free agency in the winter of 1983, I put myself out for the highest bidder -- like everyone else. Little did I expect the Tokyo Giants to outbid the San Francisco Giants and make me an offer I couldn't refuse. It was a three-year contract to the tune of $600,000 per. I would be the first starting level major-leaguer to play in Japan while still in his prime.

Japan wasn't the States. But as a 29-year-old black dude from Miami who'd been playing in a white city like Montreal while married to a French-Canadian woman, I was used to doing things differently. I talked it over with my wife, Carole, the mother of my two children, and when she said oui, I signed.

The Tokyo Giants were a Japanese institution. Owned by the Yomiuri Shimbun -- the largest newspaper in the world with a circulation several times that of USA Today or the New York Times. They were Japan's premier team, with thirty-three league pennants and a stack of Japan Series championships to their credit. They were like the Yankees, and the Dodgers, and the Mets -- all put together. And then some.

Nineteen eighty-four was the fiftieth anniversary of the Giants and big things were expected. Sadaharu Oh, the team's former great batting star -- the man who had hit 868 home runs in a long, spectacular career -- was the new manager. The Yomiuri Shimbun, on a gamble, had invited the Baltimore Orioles, winner of the 1983 World Series, to play the Japan Series champion at the end of the season, fully expecting, of course, that the Tokyo Giants would be doing the honors.

I, Warren Cromartie, had been hired to make certain that would happen, which explained the reception accorded me that chilly evening at Narita.

"Will you win the triple crown?" a reporter was now asking me.

I was careful how I phrased my answers. I hadn't walked on water lately. Besides, I'd been warned about the Japanese press: Another American, upon his arrival in Japan, said in answer to a similar question that he would hit anywhere between five and fifty home runs. Safe enough, one would think. The next morning, many of Japan's sports dailies, which have huge readerships, headlined the new American's vow to hit fifty out of the park.

With that kind of reporting, I wondered, why have a press conference?

So I just kept repeating that I would do my best to help the team win until the thing was finally over and I was ushered into a limousine for the long ride into town.

The apartment that was to be my new home was an ordinary three-bedroom unit on the twelfth floor of a fifteen-floor apartment building in the center of Tokyo. It wasn't bad. There was a balcony, sliding glass doors, a washer and dryer, a toilet I could sit down on. But it was nothing that would appear in House Beautiful, which should have been the case given the five-thousand-dollar rent per month the Giants were paying for it. You could walk across the living room in four steps. I later discovered, though, it was a palace compared to what the average Japanese lives in.

I walked out on the balcony and looked out at the winking lights of the city, then stared down at the street below. A detachment of press cars had camped there after following me in from the airport. Now, to be perfectly honest, I didn't mind a little bit of attention. In fact, I didn't even mind a lot of attention. The more the better I'd always thought. But already I was beginning to have my doubts about the Japanese media. With a security guard downstairs, I felt as if I had some privacy. But how much, I asked myself, as a photographer below pointed his zoom lens camera up at me.


I awoke at 5:00 A.M. Jet lag. I was dying for a cup of coffee. I padded to the kitchen and flicked on the light. No such luck. The cupboards were bare. The refrigerator was empty. I had to settle for a glass of watch. Then I took a long hot bath and stepped out onto the balcony to watch the winter sun come up. The morning was cold, and I shivered as I took in my new surroundings.

A couple of press cars were still there, parked next to a row of spindly trees, propped up by sticks. Beyond them lay a vast ocean of gray concrete buildings and telephone lines. It extended into the distance as far as I could see. Haze hung over the city.

It was grim. Soulless. Possibly the most depressing sight I had ever seen in my life. I groaned. What had I gotten myself into? What had I left behind?


Two days later -- lonely, depressed, in a Japanese daze -- I received a phone call from my wife in Miami. The news was not good: my grandmother, whom I loved a lot, had just died at age 66. I'd seen her the day before I came to Japan, and she looked well enough even though her health was failing. She suffered from bad blood circulation and had had a leg amputated, but I never thought she'd die.

She was my mother's mother, and we'd been very close all my life. She understood me, and she was like me -- or rather, I was like her. I was left with the emptiest feeling -- like there was a hold inside me. With her dying and me half the world away from everyone who was family, I really felt isolated.


The View from Miyazaki

I had heard of the famed Japanese work ethic -- company men and factory workers going twelve to fourteen hours every day, hardly ever taking vacations. And I had heard that the same philosophy carried over to baseball.

Bump Wills, an old friend of mine who'd played the previous year for the Hankyu Braves of Osaka, had filled me in. He hated it. He'd had bad vibes right off the bat. He didn't like his manager, who was known for being very strict. He didn't like the hard work, and he didn't like the long hours. In fact, he didn't like anything about Japanese baseball except the money they were paying him -- which was considerable.

I had also talked to Reggie Smith, the other American on the Tokyo Giants that year. League rules allowed two foreigners -- the word is gaijin -- per team. Reggie wasn't too encouraging either. "Camp is going to be hell," he told me over the phone before I arrived, "pure hell."

With all this good news, what I did was to go out and get into the best shape of my life. I had vowed to myself that the Japanese weren't going to show me up. So there I was, 6', 185 pounds of rock hard muscle, ready to play. But I still wasn't emotionally prepared for the scene that greeted me at the Giants' training facility in Miyazaki, on the southern coast of Kyushu.

Although it was only the middle of February, my teammates had already been practicing for a month. They had started after New Year's with "voluntary" group training. Then, at the end of January, they had gone to Guam for two weeks of tough workouts. now it was time to get serious, and the guys already looked in better shape than any group of athletes I'd ever seen.

Their schedule was baseball all their waking hours, literally -- from stretching exercises in the morning to shadow swings in the evening. By comparison, it made major league camp -- with its leisurely 10-2 routine beginning in March in sunny Florida or Arizona -- seem like a vacation.

All the teams in Japan trained like the Giants. Management wanted you to concentrate on baseball constantly, to think about baseball all the while you were awake, and to dream about it when you weren't. But one the Giants, it was especially bad. Of course, everybody wants to win, but here the pressure was intense and unrelenting. I found that out the first time I met the Giants' manager, the legendary Sadaharu Oh.

Oh was a dignified man in his forties, of medium weight and build, but with the biggest calves I'd ever seen on anyone in baseball. They were the result, I was told, of all the running he had once done. Oh was half-Chinese, half-Japanese, and well-educated; you could see right off that he was a bright man. But already he was experiencing the strain of his job. There were small worry lines on his brow and his hair had traces of gray.

"Hello," he said, greeting me in English, "how are you? Welcome to Japan." Then he smiled and said, "We must win."

"We must win?"

He nodded and repeated more firmly this time: "We must win."

Speaking through the interpreter assigned to me, Oh made it clear how vital it was that the Giants capture the pennant that year and how important my role was. Then, as he posed with me for the photographers who had surrounded us, he spoke again in English.

"We must win, Cromartie-san. We must win."

It was a phrase I would hear over and over in the following months.

Despite all my preparation, I found I still had to bust my ass to keep up with the regimen in Miyazaki. We awoke at 7:30 every day for a "morning walk" and other exercises on the beach behind our hotel. Although the sun was usually shining, there was an icy wind that whipped in off the Pacific Ocean, and it was always freezing cold. After breakfast, we put on our uniforms, took a fifteen-minute ride to our seaside practice stadium -- a small, rusting structure with a grassless infield and seats for about 12,000 -- and began work in earnest.

Starting at 10:00, we did forty-five minutes of jogging and calisthenics -- leapfrog drills, agility drills, carrying a guy on your back, stretching, and a lot of other excruciating stuff that didn't have anything to do with baseball. Then we worked on cutoff and relay plays.

At 11:00, we changed shirts. Outfielders would chase fly balls for half an hour, then hit until noon, when it was time to break for lunch -- which usually consisted of rice balls, sandwiches, and green tea, served right there on the field. We'd stand huddled around the dugout hibachi, the smell of burning coal in the air, wolfing down our food. We had fifteen minutes. To the second.

After lunch, we did what the Japanese call "sheet batting," which was to hit in a simulated game versus different pitchers, and work on running the bases in different situations -- first to second, first to third, first to home. Then it was time for a practice game. When that was over, we ran laps around a nearby track. We did this until we couldn't see straight.

Some of the players -- usually the pitchers -- also ran the several miles back to the hotel.

When I saw the work the pitchers had to do, I couldn't believe my eyes. They'd have to throw 200 to 300 pitches every day, even the pitchers with sore arms, and they had to run 50-meter sprints twenty-five times on the day they were scheduled to pitch in a practice game. It was nuts!

Then there was the thousand-fungo drill. The coaches would take a guy out and hit ground balls to him until he collapsed. Every day it was a different guy. One coach, two buckets of balls, and an hour and a half. And when it was all over, the guy would be flat on his back, and the coaches would praise him for his fighting spirit. "Naisu gattsu," they would say, nice guts. Then the trainer would come out and give the poor bastard a massage.

It was a conditioning drill and a mental drill rolled into one, they told me. The Japanese believe that if you don't have the proper spirit, then you can't be a good baseball player. One way to develop the proper spirit is to go through exercises like the thousand-fungo drill. Getting through it makes you tough, or so they said.

Back at the hotel, in the evening, we still weren't finished. We had after-dinner lectures and night practice indoors until lights out at 10:00. Then the next morning we had to get up and do it all over again.

Our routine went on like this for twenty straight days, with minor variations. You could compare it to marine basic training at Parris Island, I guess, except there you don't have to train as hard and you also don't have several hundred reporters and photographers monitoring your every move.

Our hotel, the Miyazaki Grand, was known as a Western-style hotel, but the only thing Western about it was that we didn't have to sleep on the floor. We stayed in tiny rooms that weren't much bigger than jail cells. You could lie in bed and touch both walls, turn on the TV, and write a letter on the desk next to it without ever getting up.

The food was fish and rice and bean curd soup, with an occasional steak. It wasn't great but it was OK. My teammates preferred to eat out, on the rare evening off, in nearby Miyazaki City -- a little metropolis of narrow streets, shops selling tofu and fish, old wooden houses with sliding doors, and rice fields on the outskirts.

But from the time they stepped out of the hotel, they were hounded by fans. That was more celebrity than I liked. As a result, most of the Giants hung around the hotel and spent time in the bar in the lobby, which was always packed with reporters.

I spent a lot of time each evening alone -- in my little cell, lying on an undersized bed, feet sticking off the end, watching television in a language I couldn't understand. I did a lot of talking on the phone to my wife and the people back home in Florida. I also did a lot of thinking. And what I was thinking was, I'm not going to go through this for three years in a row.

"It will be a miracle if I last through this season," I said to Carole one bleak night.

Reggie Smith did not make life any easier. On our first day on the field, the press wanted Reggie and me to pose for photos. Just the two of us. I said sure, nice idea, but Reggie flat out refused. He walked off without a word, and I was left standing there -- alone and not a little embarrassed.

Negative vibes flowed from him all the time. During practice, Reggie kept his distance. He had his own routine, and he didn't have to train the way everyone else did. At one stretch, Reggie wouldn't even eat with the rest of us. he holed up in his room and ate peanuts for a week, losing five pounds in the process.

At first, I couldn't figure it out. Reggie was a big, powerful guy who had had a fantastic major league career. He was a switch hitter, and hit over 300 home runs, and he'd been one of the best defensive outfielders of his time. He had led the Los Angeles Dodgers to the World Series more than once. The year before, his first in Japan, Reggie hit 28 homers for the Tokyo Giants and had helped take them all the way to the seventh game of the Japan Series, before they lost to the Seibu Lions.

He was a proud man -- and he ahd reason to be -- but I couldn't understand his moodiness and his negativity. So one night I asked him, "What's going on, Reggie? Why are you pissed off all the time?"

There was a moment of silence, and the, in a rare burst of communication, he blurted out: "Because I can't hit the fucking fastball anymore, Cro."

Ah, so that was it.

The injuries he had suffered over the years had worn him down, he said. His body wouldn't work like he wanted it to. He couldn't run or throw like he used to. He couldn't get around on the fastball. He was losing it, facing the end of his career, and he was having a very hard time dealing with it, which is why he didn't feel like talking -- to anybody.

I sympathized. And I stayed away. The day would come when I couldn't hit the fucking fastball anymore either.

Reggie's aloofness was pretty much the start of my trying to mingle with the other players -- in bits and pieces, step by step -- out of sheer loneliness.

The guy who broke the ice for me was a rail-thin, sleep-eyed second baseman named Shinozuka. A lifetime .300 hitter and one hell of a nice guy, he was the first one to come up and introduce himself to me at Miyazaki. All the guys had introduced themselves in the beginning, but Shinozuka had been the first and he'd one it in English, too.

"My name is Shinozuka," he'd said, removing his cap, bowing, and shaking my hand. "Nice to meet you."

I'm sure he had practice saying that before he approached me, because the guy was not exactly bilingual. It made me appreciate him all the more. But whereas Shinozuka made me feel comfortable, it took a while with the rest.

In time, I got the feeling that the Giant front office didn't want their guys to mix with the gaijin too much. I think they were afraid the players would learn bad habits from us. Perhaps it was paranoia. Perhaps it wasn't. That was one of the things about Japan I was beginning to discover. You never really knew where you stood, because the Japanese were reluctant to tell you. It was easy to be paranoid in that environment. Culture shock was setting in.

If we were pursued like rock stars outside camp, we were treated like prisoners of war inside. On the team, there was no such thing as a star, with the exception of Reggie, and his was fading. Everyone, from our most popular player, third baseman and cleanup hitter Tatsunori Hara, down to the rawest rookie, went through the same hard schedule. No one was exempt, because team harmony was of utmost importance. So in good Japanese fashion, I tried to do everything that everyone else did. Almost everything, that is.

I caught fly balls until I couldn't stand up, and I ran until my tongue hung out. Fortunately, the coaches in their wisdom did not demand my participation in the thousand-fungo drill and the ten-mile marathon that everyone else was required to run one day. And than god for that. But otherwise, I did the work and I made it through. And when I finished, I felt as if I deserved a medal -- or at least a stripe on my sleeve.


The Road to Korakuen

...To be continued...

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