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THE HOT CORNER: Little hope for Japan's dog days

by Jim Allen (Jul 1, 2010)

Perhaps the only phrase as grating to foreigners as "Oh you know how to use chopsticks" is the persistent reminder that Japan has four distinct seasons. It may seem obvious, but newcomers are informed of this meteorological wonder until their ears bleed.

"Four seasons? Well I'll be. Who would have thought?"

It is ironic that while many Japanese will bombard foreigners with this crucial "information," those in position to act on the knowledge that one of the seasons is a particularly hot and humid summer often fail to do so. Whoever coined the phrase, "Everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it," probably played baseball in Japan.

Teams here are intimately familiar with the stress induced by the heat and humidity. But do they limit practice? Do they take obvious steps to conserve players' energy for games?

Not very often.

Former Hanshin Tigers manager Senichi Hoshino allowed his players to opt out of batting practice in the summer of 2003. The Tigers had a big lead in the Central League pennant race and clinched in the middle of September--despite practicing less than their competition.

It wasn't publicized at the time, because excessive practice is an essential element of Japan's baseball doctrine.

This started in the late 19th century, when players from the First Higher School of Tokyo became national heroes by repeatedly beating teams of foreigners. The students' spartan training became as famous as their victories, and the act of preparation was elevated to a goal unto itself.

Japanese baseball men will tell you their game is all about winning. Gamesmanship, bullying umpires, the ubiquitous sacrifice bunts and prolonged game delays for treatment of injuries are all justified by the belief that winning is all fans care about.

Yet, if winning were really all that mattered, shouldn't teams abandon the slavish devotion to what Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles manager Marty Brown calls "practice for the sake of practice."

They probably would if they knew how.

Baseball men here cannot easily review the relationship between practice and game performance because doctrine tells them both are integral elements of what they know as Japanese baseball.

Now and then, a Japanese manager will say training is subordinate to winning, but few make a fuss of it. Hiroshi Gondo did when he was manager of the Yokohama BayStars a decade ago. Despite managing the Stars to a Japan Series victory and consecutive third-place finishes, Gondo was not asked back for a fourth season.

When asked this spring about Hanshin's Matt Murton, one of the first things Tigers skipper Akinobu Mayumi said was: "We'll have to wait and see how he holds up in the hot summer here."

Murton, who has played in Chicago, Georgia and Florida, understands how to deal with the heat.

"People worry about the heat and the humidity," Murton said. "I'm used to it, but you still have to prepare for it.

"One hundred forty four games here might be more difficult than 162 in the States, because there's practice every day. There's always something all the time.

"We [foreign players] don't have it figured out by any means, but at times we can scale back in practice."

If major leaguers maintain their energy better as the season progresses than Japanese players, where might that show up in the data? One answer might be in the frequency of triples. Isn't it rational to think that exhausted players are less likely to try for three bases?

In the majors, the frequency of triples increases by about 8 percent in the second half of the season. In Japan, triples decrease by about the same amount.

That's not evidence that Japanese players slow down. However, if they are slowing down, it is exactly what one would expect to see.

Of course, Japan's passion for practice is not all pain and suffering. It shows up in strong fundamental play while running the bases and playing defense. Former Chunichi Dragon infielder Tomas De La Rosa believes the practice makes the game here "the most perfect baseball."

He's not the only one who likes what he sees on the field. One just wishes the players didn't have to run themselves ragged off the field.


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