Why is it in a country where everything is ostensibly about sacrificing for the sake of the group that an unselfish act is big news?
Every player knows the drill. When receiving some individual honor or achieving some milestone, the odds are good you will hear something along the lines of "It's not about me, it's about the team."
On Sunday, Tomoaki Kanemoto took himself out of the lineup after playing in every inning for 1,492 consecutive games. When a streak of that magnitude ends, it is newsworthy. Kanemoto's decision was famous because he was still healthy enough to walk out to left field without assistance and keep his streak alive by standing there for nine innings.
Anaheim Angels outfielder Hideki Matsui played in 1,768 consecutive games until breaking his wrist on May 11, 2006. Although Matsui is a great player, his streak should have ended in 1999.
That summer, when Matsui was the Yomiuri Giants center fielder, he hurt his shoulder and was unable to bat or throw for a week. Had he been playing in the majors at the time, the streak would have ended because the expression "the team comes first" means something different in America than it does in Japan.
In Japan, it is acceptable for a manager to sacrifice wins to help an individual achieve a goal. That's what then-Giants manager Shigeo Nagashima did. From July 30, 1999, to Aug. 8, Nagashima kept his star's streak alive by artificial means, using Matsui as a defensive replacement and pinch-hitter.
People made a big deal about Kanemoto taking himself out of the lineup because it would have been acceptable for him to keep playing.
Hall of Fame outfielder Tsutomu Wakamatsu was quoted in Sankei Sports' online edition as saying he once kept playing despite a ruptured tendon in his shoulder.
"My manager at the time said, 'It doesn't matter if you can't throw' but he looked down when he said it," Wakamatsu said.
Had Kanemoto carried on to the detriment of his club, he would have been applauded for his guts. That's how it was with Kazuhiro Kiyohara, who battled injury to play on as long as he could despite being dead weight at the end of his career.
Kiyohara was able to continue because the Giants were happy to market his 2,000th hit and 500th home run in an effort to salvage a tiny fraction of the money they had spent on him.
This is not a criticism of Kiyohara. His job was to play as well as he could and as long as he could as long as someone was willing to employ him. The Giants, and later the Orix Buffaloes, were responsible because they were the ones who signed him, put him on the field and said it was for the purpose of winning when less expensive players were available who could do more.
Yet, no one criticized either club for keeping Kiyohara on the roster simply because he was a good gate attraction, just as no one would ever have taken the Tigers to task for Kanemoto in the lineup when he couldn't play.
In Japan, playing for the team does not mean playing only for the team to win. It also means supporting your teammates in the pursuit of individual honors that have nothing to do with winning.
After the news about Kanemoto broke Katsuya Nomura did what he does so well, point an accusing finger.
The Tigers, he suggested in the Sankei Sports, are in trouble because no one on the team has the real authority to force Kanemoto out of the lineup.
"[Akinobu] Mayumi has not been managing very long, and this player is the player who contributes the most and endures the most," Nomura was reported as saying. "As a result, it's a decision that is left up to Kanemoto himself.
"Because a human being's own desires enter into the equation, one cannot expect someone to evaluate themselves properly. That is why it's necessary for a manager or coach to tell it like it is."
Nomura is spot-on when it comes to a manager's duty, but he is off base when he says the problem is exclusive to the Tigers. It's Japanese baseball's problem.
So the next time a manager says, "It's all about winning," remember that what he really means is that it's all about winning--except when it isn't.