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Robert Whiting

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Japanese baseball expert explains what awaits Ichiro, Mariners in Japan

by Larry Stone (Mar 17, 2012)

It's coming fast. While other teams are still rounding into shape, the Mariners are staring down the start of their season, less than two weeks away.

The Mariners leave for Japan on Thursday, and will be playing games that count less than a week after that - Wednesday, March 28 and Thursday, March 29 in Tokyo against the Oakland A's.

So what awaits the Mariners on their Asian journey, which includes exhibition games against the Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants at the Tokyo Dome on Saturday, March 24 and Monday, March 26?

To get a better feel for the answer, I contacted Robert Whiting, an American who has lived most of his adult life in Japan, and is a keen observer of Japanese baseball. In fact, his 1989 book, "You Gotta Have Wa," is considered the definitive examination of how Japanese society is reflected in baseball. And in 2004, Whiting wrote "The Meaning of Ichiro," a fascinating look at the influx of Japanese players in Major League Baseball.

I emailed Whiting several questions, and he responded with thoughtful, provocative answers. Here's our exchange:

Q: How would you gauge the anticipation for the Mariners-A's games? Does the fact that this is the fourth set of MLB games in Japan make it less of an "event"?

Whiting: MLB.Japan says the tickets are selling very well, but I personally don't see a great deal of excitement, which is understandable because these are possibly the two worst teams in the big leagues, and (Hideki) Matsui is no longer with the A's. That leaves the three Japanese on Seattle as the attraction - (Hisashi) Iwakuma, (Munenori) Kawasaki and, of course, the BIG DOG Ichiro, which accounts for what interest there is.

MLB in general no longer holds the appeal that it once did in Japan. Japanese sponsors and NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) passed on a proposed tour of Japan by MLB All-Stars last fall. So the MLB All-Stars went to Taiwan instead. However, if it was the Red Sox playing the Yankees in Tokyo, that would be a different story.

Q: Specifically regarding Ichiro, is there excitement for his return? Do you think he'll get rock-star treatment?

Whiting: Yes, there is excitement. Rock-star treatment? Sure. He has some very high-profile media endorsements in Japan. He might be losing his bat speed and leg speed, as has been measured by analysts here, but on the other hand, he is a lock to be the first Japanese player inducted into the U.S. MLB Hall of Fame, which is a huge honor for Japan. So that alone will guarantee him the spotlight. He is still the most popular, most admired, etc., athlete in Japan.

Q: As the author of "The Meaning of Ichiro," has your assessment of his influence evolved since you wrote that book? What is the current mindset of star Japanese players regarding playing in MLB?

Whiting: Well, Ichiro is certainly at the top of the food chain. He hit the roof after the 2001 season in Seattle when he won the MVP and when he broke (George) Sisler's record (for hits in a season). And then there was the 10 consecutive 200-hit seasons, not to mention the winning hit in the 2009 WBC final.

Ichiro has been the #1 ranked athlete in most polls during the 21st century. He is greatly admired and a lot of NPB stars still want to follow in his footsteps and go to MLB. MLB is recognized in Japan as the ultimate challenge, as far as baseball goes. But Japanese expectations of success have been tempered by all the embarrassing high-priced failures of recent years: (Kosuke) Fukudome, (Kenshin) Kawakami, (Kei) Igawa, Kazuo Matsui and (Kenji) Johjima. The players realize that it is more difficult to succeed in MLB than they had previously thought and that the effusive praise of the Japanese game by Bobby Valentine and other Japan cheerleaders should be taken with a grain of salt. I am sure that (Tsuyoshi) Nishioka has revised his opinion of his skills after his first season in Minnesota.

Q: What is the state of Japanese baseball right now - how diluted has it become by so many star players leaving?

Whiting: It is better than you think. There is still a lot of talent in the pro game among players who are not eligible to leave the country, as you may have noticed in the WBC. Put a team of Japanese All-Stars in MLB and they would do quite well. Maybe they wouldn't win the World Series, but they would not embarrass themselves, primarily because the pitching is so good. The Rakuten Golden Eagles have a pitcher named Masahiro Tanaka, 19-5 with a 1.27 ERA, 0.87 WHIP. That was a better set of stats than those put up by Yu Darvish. He is only 24 years old. By the time he will be eligible to the States, his arm may not be attached to his body. Most NPB players who go to MLB have played 8-9 years of pro ball in Japan, on top of playing in grueling high-school and college systems. That's a lot of mileage on their odometers

Q: What sort of a game atmosphere will the Mariners and A's experience? Will it be different for the exhibition games with Japanese teams compared to the games with each other?

Whiting: Color, pomp, circumstance, hoopla. The U.S. Embassy will be involved in the pregame stuff, along with Japanese government officials. There will no doubt be a U.S. military band. Japanese always take their exhibition games seriously, or more seriously than the Americans do, that is. And the adrenaline will be flowing, because of the three Japanese on the team. But, I wonder how many people in the Tokyo Dome will remember Manny Ramirez - as a former teammate of Daisuke Matsuzaka, that is.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @StoneLarry


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