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Robert Whiting

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In Japan, Baseball's Played by the Code of the Samurai

by Ed Hinton (May 17, 1989)

The great gaijin Robert Whiting is at it again, reminding us that American baseball players have it even easier – by far – than we thought.

To read Whiting-san's work is to see that baseball as we play it and follow it here is more than laid back – it is one big frontal lobotomy of a game. And it is of course fraught with kojinshugi, "individualism," about the sorriest trait a person can have, by Japanese reckoning.

Whiting-san's new book has me raiding the ethnic-foods shelves at the supermarket for Oriental noodles again. At the moment you open the seasoning packet, you can smell a Japanese ballpark. And if you have been a gaijin, a foreigner, in the streets of Tokyo or Yokohama or Nagoya on baseball evenings you can hear again the drumbeats splitting the air like gunshots. You can hear the relentless chanting of the Hanshin Tigers fans – Osaka's bleacher bums who make Chicago's seem like sissies – as they wait in ticket lines that stretch for blocks and blocks by 3 in the afternoon.

You can feel the oneness, can recall why the Japanese have a much quicker way of saying "harmony" than we do: wa. They need their word more than we do ours, and live by it infinitely more.

And so Whiting-san has entitled his latest book, "You Gotta Have Wa." It will be out in June. An excerpt appeared in last week's Sports Illustrated. He does not criticize American baseball. He merely portrays a version of the game so intense that simple comparison will make you see American players as bigger crybabies and hypochondriacs than you already thought.

Whiting-san has spent the better part of a quarter-century unraveling the maddeningly subtle and complex Japanese culture so that Americans can understand it. He didn't have to take the David Halberstam route, mining the minds of industrialists, to let us see why they're kicking our butts in business. Neither did he have to fathom centuries of shogun lore.

All he ever needed was baseball.

To understand Japanese baseball is to understand Japan, period. The Samurai Code applies as surely to besuboru as it does to business, and as it did to militarism.

"Spring" training starts in January in the frozen mountains, and "makes boot camp look like a church social," Warren Cromartie, the former Montreal Expo gone to the Yomiuri Giants, once said.

Injured players live by ki, the power of the spirit over the body. Ki has caused pitchers to pitch their arms to shreds, fielders to run their legs to ruin. And from 1970 through 1987, ki kept Saohio Kinugasa in 2,215 consecutive games, blowing away Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130. Kinugasa played several stints with broken bones.

So you can imagine the Japanese newspaper headlines two years ago, when Bob Horner, formerly of the Atlanta Braves and then of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, tore a fingernail on his throwing hand and was so troubled by it that he had to be moved from third base to first. Then he dumbfounded a nation, sitting out weeks with a strained back.

Games are "fought," not played.

One evening, while serving as a guest commentator for Fuji Television at a Swallows game, I told the female announcer that the pitcher was nibbling at Horner, refusing to challenge him.

"I see," she said. "The pitcher does not want to fight with Horner. The pitcher is running away from him."

Her words would have dumbfounded me had I not spent the 15-hour flight consumed with Whiting-san's classic, "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat." As it was. I replied to her without hesitation, "Exactly."

Now, "You Gotta Have Wa" updates Japanese ball/society to include more American expatriate players' perspectives on it.

If you're ever among the daily flocks of business people bound out of Hartsfield for Narita airport, "You Gotta Have Wa" is both entertainment to help you pass the flight, and invaluable general education for when you get there.

If you're just a stay-at-home baseball fan, here's a chance to see the games as you've never seen it – as besuboru, a tale told by a gaijin, full of wa and ki, signifying everything.

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