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THE HOT CORNER: The ump who made the jump

by Jim Allen (Dec 24, 2009)

In a nation that prizes prevention of mistakes, one would expect Japan' s umpires here to be among the world's best. But it isn't that simple, says Triple-A umpire Takeshi Hirabayashi.

"Japanese umpires are good at making the correct decision, or rather that is the one aspect that is considered important," said Hirabayashi, who began his pro career in the United States and returned there after experiencing nine seasons with the Pacific League.

"For umpires in America, correct calls are also important but in addition to that--or even more important than that--is the ability to control the game. That is the big difference.

"What's considered important is completely different. In Japan, the style is called 'winning baseball'; American baseball is fun baseball. That one difference makes the games different throughout."

His comment reminds one of a 1993 feud between managers Keiji Osawa of the Fighters and Masaaki Mori of the Lions. Osawa labled Seibu's boring, predictable play an insult to fans. Mori, who managed the Lions to eight league pennants, ripped back that good baseball had nothing to do with entertainment.

"You have to behave like that here, as if the only thing that matters is winning," Hirabayashi said. "With everyone only focused on winning, making a decision in order to control the game is huge trouble. That's why we're where we are."

Where we are is the kingdom of long games: where every count seems destined to go 3-2, with countless pick-throws and enthusiasm-sapping sacrifice bunts and meaningless pitching changes.

As a middle schooler who didn't see himself as a potental pro ballplayer, Hirabayashi turned to the idea of umpiring. After failing to find work with the Central and Pacific leagues, he took one last shot at the U.S.

Upon graduating from umpire school, Hirabayashi somehow got work and his pro career in 1992 working games without fans, in extended spring training for rookies and in rookie-league ball. In 1993, he moved up to the Northwest League, but being in the States in the days before the Internet revolution was a grind and he came home.

Hirabayashi started working for the PL in 1994, but from the beginning he kept looking over his shoulder at the career that might have been, making comparisons between the game here and the one he left behind. Finally, he had to go back.

"Winning is important [in America], but just as big is how the players succeed, how well they hit, how well they can throw," Hirabayashi said.

"Of course, [American] managers care about winning, too. But they recognize that decisions, correct or not, are made and they get on with it. I think you can say they understand [poor] decisions are an element of the game. Japanese managers won't permit that."

Hirabayashi said that while he has good days and bad days, he only ever got into slumps in Japan. Because the leagues don't protect umpires very well, a string of poor calls can put an umpire under unbearable pressure.

"There were times, when I'd just think, 'I just don't want to see another close play,'" he said. "If it's big [your mistake] gets in the papers. At elementary school the next day, my child's schoolmates would say: 'Your dad made us lose last night.'"

The knowledge that his ideal lay on the other side of the Pacific led Hirabayashi to quit the PL in 2002. The first Asian umpire to work Triple-A games, he still dreams of reaching the majors.

With 22 Triple-A umps selected each year for temporary work in the bigs, he could be very close to that goal now. If he makes it, he believes he will finally have some voice, in Japan.

"I've always thought that if I can do well over there, then I could come back and tell the Japanese baseball world how it should change," he said. "You can't say that as an insider. When I quit the Pacific League I thought that if I made it to the majors, I might have some influence.

"How come Japanese are so weak in that respect? If a major league umpire says something, they'll go: 'Oh yes, I see!'

"If I say it now, they'll say: 'He was a Pacific League umpire and now he's in the minors?' Nobody would listen. I want to have that influence for the sake of the umps here."


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