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THE HOT CORNER: Why Japan's style is doomed

by Jim Allen (May 20, 2010)

Baseball has a strong grip on Japan, but how long the dominant domestic style survives is anybody's guess. Inevitably, Japan's dogma that demands predictable sacrifice bunts will go silently to its grave.

Elements of the Japanese game will live on, but the belief in building victories one run at a time by advancing runners with outs early in the game is doomed. Somehow, Japan's style will eventually collide with the way baseball is played in the United States and the results will not be pretty.

But didn't Japan win two World Baseball Classics? That must count for something, right?

The WBC has cemented Japan's reputation as having the world's best baseball in March. So far, however, the tournament's organizers, Major League Baseball and its players union, have produced it as a sideshow, something still not worth playing in prime time.

Play the WBC in July and it would be informative to see Japan compete against the United States and Dominican Republic when those nations' players are in mid-season form. A Japanese team can always scratch out runs, but facing so many batters who really drive the ball would be a formidable challenge.

One pitcher who has seen the best of both worlds said there is a difference between major leaguers' swings in the WBC and in the regular season.

"It's an eye opener," the Chiba Lotte Marines' Yasuhiko Yabuta told The Hot Corner on Wednesday. "The swings are completely different."

Yabuta, who pitched in the 2006 WBC and then played for the Kansas City Royals, however, was unwilling to concede that playing in March conferred any advantage to Japan.

"Physically, we are close to 100 percent in March because we start working out in December, but nobody here or there has played enough to be at the top of their game in March. They [major leaguers] could be as ready as we are if they wanted to be."

The day is not yet here when Japanese teams take on major leaguers in the summer in competition meaningful for both sides, but it is going to come. And when it does, the notion that Japan's best chances of success are with Japanese-style little ball will be crushed like a fat fastball to Alex Rodriguez.

In soccer, global competition has forced one nation after another to realize that the cost of preserving its unique national style is international humiliation. In their book "Soccernomics," Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski describe how Turkey, Greece and Russia all learned to field quality teams by abandoning their uniqueness and learning from the best in Europe.

"Globalization saved Turkish soccer," they wrote. "In soccer, national styles don't work [internationally]. You have to have all the elements."

Soccer is globalized because Britain's economic empire spread the game in a way the United States was disinclined to do with baseball after the Americans emerged as a fledgling world power.

Kuper and Szymanski discuss how being near the center of information-sharing networks is essential to being competitive. They believe being on Europe's fringe has caused soccer in England to fall behind its major European rivals. The realization that tactics and techniques have advanced more rapidly on the continent has sparked the rapid increase in the number of foreign coaches in England.

The argument goes that the more isolated a nation is, the more difficult its challenge in achieving international success. And among nations seeking a part of the global action, none were more isolated than Japan was from 1633 and 1853.

Even today, few nations can match Japan's fondness for citing the uniqueness of its culture and institutions. Sports federations here yearn for international recognition while occasionally shunning the organization and techniques required to succeed in the world, saying they are unsuited for Japan.

Some sports leaders may believe it would be disrespectful to fans to cast aside uniquely Japanese ways of doing things.

The cure for that kind of backward thinking is for Japan's national teams to play the toughest opponents in the world over and over until the faith in Japan's unique qualities is beaten out of them on the field.


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