Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley
Sport (Magazine) May 1977 page 84-94
Fading American baseball players receive enormous salaries in Japan, but it is a very different ballgame
Dialogue between a Japanese manager and his American player, with the help of the team interpreter.
The American is just off the injury list:
MGR: Ask him if he can pinch-hit tonight.
INT: Can you pinch-hit tonight?
AMER: Sure. No problem. I can play the whole game.
INT: He says he would be honored if you would allow him to play the whole game.
MGR: No, tonight he must pinch-hit. That is my feeling.
INT: Manager-san says he feels you must pinch-hit tonight.
AMER: Okay. I'll pinch-hit. Anytime he wants me to.
INT: He says that he will do anything you want him to.
(Manager smiles and bows slightly to the American.)
MGR: Tell him that I will only use him in a key situation.
INT: He says he will only use you in a key situation.
AMER: Okay. Don't worry. I'll give it all I have.
INT: He says he will do his best for you and the team when called upon.
MGR: (With serious, thoughtful expression.) Tell him that if he feels he is going to hit into a double play he should strike out instead. That's better for the team.
INT: The manager says that if you have the feeling you are going to hit into a double play, you should try to strike out.
AMER: What! Strike out? He must be crazy. I've never struck out intentionally in my life and I'm not about to start now. If he wants me to strike out, then tell him not to put me in the game. I've never heard anything so stupid.
INT: (Ahem.) He says that he thinks it is very difficult to strike out intentionally. And that perhaps there might be other players on the team who could do it a lot better than him.
MGR: Hmmmm. I see. That is something I will have to think about. I understand his thinking. Tell him to be ready if I need him, at any rate.
INT: The manager says he understands your feeling, and says he will reconsider his request. He appreciates your cooperation and asks you to prepare yourself if he needs you tonight.
AMER: (Calming down) Sure. Anything.
It is easy to understand why many Americans want to play in Japan. The sky-high (tax-free) salaries with "benefits," the inordinate kindness Japanese shower on foreign guests, and the excitement of the Orient are all good reasons why a fading American ballplayer might jump at an offer from a Japanese team.
But the realities of Japanese baseball life can be far from pleasant. The American who wants to "make it" in Japan finds he must contend with lingering expectations that he perform the heroic feats befitting an American major leaguer; he must cope with the language barrier and the intricate rituals of everyday life; and he must face the insular mentality that labels him a gaijin – the Japanese word foreigner, which literally means "outside person." Adjusting to baseball Japanese-style can be an emotionally draining experience.
Consider Jim Lefebrve, the former all-star second baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Leg injuries and Dodger manager Walter Alston's youth movement made Lefebvre's future as a Dodger uncertain. So, in 1973, when the Lotte Orions of Japan's Pacific League wanted to sign him, the Dodgers agreed to let him go. Lefebvre was given a three-year contract for $90,000 a year.
Freshman Lotte Orion manager Masaiichi Kaneda, Japan's high-strung "god of pitching," was ecstatic about Lefebvre, at 30, the youngest active major leaguer ever signed. Kaneda proudly announced his new American would hit 50 home runs and bat .350.
Lefebvre started out fairly well, but he could not produce the magic Kaneda had guaranteed. Kaneda, who was extremely "face-conscious," complained to the press, "He's hitting home runs, but he comes late to practice and his overall play is not that of a $90,000 player."
In the early innings of a game in late August, Lefebvre muffed an easy grounder. Kaneda yanked him out and after the game he declared angrily: "I apologize to my players for the error Lefebvre made. Lefebvre should quit." Lefebvre replied, "Nobody likes to make a bad play or do poorly in a big game. I'm a major leaguer. I always go out there and give it all I've got. I can understand Kaneda's position. He's upset because I'm not winning the triple crown, but when he said what he did ... that hurts."
Two days later before pre-game practice, Lefebvre complained of a headache. The team trainer and physician examined him, diagnosed a case of the flu, and advised him to rest. Lefebvre did. Kaneda suspended him.
"What was I supposed to do?" Lefebvre said, "go out there and throw up?" The press was only interested in Kaneda's strong stand against the "Lefebvre Sabotage." It made better copy and took Kaneda off a very uncomfortable hook.
The next day, after the morning papers were out, Kaneda calmed down and lifted the suspension. Lefebvre returned and finished the season with 29 home runs and .265 batting average.
However, his troubles with Kaneda continued into May of Lefebvre's third year. He was batting .250 with five home runs when Kaneda "requested" his American to voluntarily resign and become an Orion farm team coach, to make room for another gaijin import. Lefebvre reluctantly agreed.
The Lefebvre affair, although extreme (the quick-tempered Kaneda has upon occasion been described as a "madman"), illustrates the problems the highly touted, highly paid American star faces. As Lefebvre said after three years in Japan: "I give this advice to any player who comes here. Leave your major-league pride in the States. Pretend you're a rookie at a minor-league camp. Try to learn the Japanese way. If you don't think you can make this adjustment, you better stay home."
On a purely practical level, succeeding in Japan involves many difficult adjustments. Training camp is "like being in prison," as one American described it. Japanese pitching is also different. Not only do pitchers throw with unfamiliar sidearm and "submarine" motions, but they also "think backwards." Whereas an American pitcher will usually throw a fast-ball on a 2-0 or 3-1 count, the Japanese will throw a breaking pitch.
But these differences are not all the American has to worry about. Inevitably the cultural barrier begins to rise before him, and it seems to grow with each day of the season. The American who gets off to a bad start, for example, is in trouble. Unlike most U.S. Managers, who give a player time to work things out for himself, the Japanese manager wants immediate results. If his gaijin goes zero for ten, the odds are that he will be benched.
The American who has a good start will be left alone, but it isn't long before he runs up against choshi – a player's "pitch" or "tune" on a given day. Japanese managers will often make out their starting lineups after carefully assessing the choshi of their charges in pre-game practice. Even if an American has been playing well and feels he deserves to start, he might not if he "looks" bad in pre-game practice. Daryl Spencer once showed teammate Gordon Windhorn how choshi work.
"Windhorn didn't believe the manager decided his lineup on the basis of pre-game practice," said Spencer. "So to prove a point, I had a 'poor' average batting practice. The manager and the batting coach were watching me like hawks. When I stepped out of the cage, they pulled me aside and told me my choshi was no good and that I should sit out that night, despite the fact that I had a couple hits the day before. The next night, I did well in the batting practice and the manager put me back in the starting lineup."
Embarrassing the manager can be costly. During one game, for example, Nagoya Atom manager of Osamu Mihara decided to replace first baseman Dave Roberts with a pinch-hitter. Roberts, who was the team's leading hitter for six years, told Mihara in fluent Japanese, "I'm certain I can get a hit."
Mihara gave in. Roberts then went to bat and promptly sent a line shot over the center-field wall. Though good for the team and good for Roberts, this proved an embarrassment to Mihara. Roberts was released shortly thereafter.
One of the most difficult things for the American to cope with is the realization that his Japanese club does not really want him to succeed. If he can help his team win a pennant, fine. But trouble comes when he does too well. If he is the top ball player on the team, it bothers some of his teammates who feel uncomfortable being led by a foreigner. Other stars on the team may be upset at being outdone by a gaijin. It even agitates league officials who do not want the record books cluttered with katakana – a form of writing reserved for foreign names and words. According to one league commissioner: "It's a funny situation when a foreigner is the ace pitcher of the team or the home-run leader. Foreigners, at best, should bolster Japanese teams, but not be front-line starters."
Americans in contention for a batting crown have often complained of a subtle conspiracy to prevent them from succeeding: Scorers who call a bullet off an infielder's knee an error instead of a hit, umpires who signal a neck-high fast ball a strike, and opposing pitchers who "work around" the gaijin yet "come in" to his Japanese teammates.
Rumblings of this nature were made in 1969 when Dave Roberts was threatening to win the Central League triple crown, and in 1971 when George Altman was in a Pacific League battling race with Orion teammate Shinichi Eto. Roberts, who was leading the league in the three big departments in early August, suffered a shoulder seperation when the opposing Yomiuri Giant pitcher ran into him on a play at first base. The accident effectively eliminated Roberts from the race, and Giant stars Oh and Nagashima went on to share league battling honors that year.
Altman describes his batting race: "Late August that year I was leading Eto .340 to .326 and I guess the opposition figured they ought to start doing something about it. So in one game, against the Hawks, for example, their manager moved his second and first baseman farther apart when Eto came to bat. Eto who likes to hit to right anyway, hit nothing but ground balls all night – right where the second baseman normally plays – into the outfield. He went four for four. Right then I figured my chances of winning the batting titles were almost nonexistent."
Altman finished with .320 and lost the batting to Eto, who hit .337.
Perhaps the most bizarre episode involving a Japanese manager and his American player featured Kaneda and Altman. It all began in August, 1974. Altman, at 41, was having the best year of his career. He was leading the league in batting at .351, leading his team in home runs, and was the primary reason the Orions were in the pennant race. But Altman was a sick man. He had developed lumps in his abdomen and the pain was growing more and more acute each day. Finally, Altman went to see a doctor. The diagnosis was cancer.
Altman underwent surgery. The Lotte club was shocked. (Kaneda, with unquestionable taste, pronounced Altman "a dead man with only hours to live.") Although Altman returned to Chicago, his illness became a rallying point for the Orions. They went on to win their pennant and the Japan Series.
At the team victory celebration in late October, there was a special surprise on hand: George Altman. He had just flown in from the U.S. and, although 20 pounds lighter, looked as healthy as ever. The operation had been a success. In fact, he was running every day to get in shape for the 1975 season.
Altman's return was a touching event; no American player in Japan was better liked or respected. The Lotte officials welcomed him back. Perhaps he could be the team's designated hitter. Kaneda injected a note of caution: "Altman's achievements as a key player on Lotte are noteworthy and we cannot treat him roughly. We have to think seriously about the danger to his life. If he can't play, I am thinking about using him to coach the younger players on the farm team.
But Altman didn't want to coach. The trouble began when he sat down with Kaneda to discuss his contract. Lotte wanted to cut his salary by an estimated 15 percent. Altman refused and asked about a bonus he'd been promised if he hit over .310 for the '74 season (his final figure was .351) Kaneda was perturbed. After all, Altman had missed 45 games. His fielding was not what it had once been. And what if the illness recurred?
Contract negotiations ceased and Altman returned to Chicago. Shortly thereafter, Kaneda found a Japanese doctor who told him what he wanted to hear: Lotte might be endangering Altman's life if he were to play. Altman's was released and advised to retire "for his own good."
Convinced he could still play, Altman returned to Japan in January. Back at his old weight and in perfect condition, he tried out with the Hanshin Tigers. He passed another checkup and was so impressive in workouts that the Tigers were ready to offer him the first base position, fifth slot in the batting order, and contact calling for a substantial increase over what he had earned with the Orions.
But Kaneda indignantly declared, "To let Altman play when there's a chance his illness will recur is an act of inhumanity on the part of Hanshin I cannot forgive. What is Hanshin doing?
It had been with "tears rolling down my cheeks." Kaneda explained, that he released Altman. "I was thinking only of George's welfare," he said, "that's why I made him quit. I lost two relatives through cancer and I know what a terrible thing it is." Kaneda went on to suggest that the doctors who examined Altman were reluctant to tell him the truth and opened warned Tiger manager Yoshio Yoshida not to use Altman. "If he does," Kaneda vowed, "I'll never speak to him again."
Hanshin officials were stunned by Kaneda's attack. Anxious to avoid an open conflict with the "god of pitching," they decided to delay their decision on Altman. A Tiger executive announced that the team wanted to be absolutely certain there wasn't even "one chance in a million" that Altman would get sick again. For if so, Hanshin would be shamed in the eyes of the nation.
Altman, who was working harder than any rookie in training, could not believe what was happening. "I'm in perfect health," he protested. "Kaneda's remarks are a disgrace. If I thought my life was in danger, I wouldn't be here now. I wish Kaneda would stop interfering in my life."
Finally, after hours of discussion and consultation, the Tigers president reached a decision. Altman could play for the Tigers, providing he made a formal statement telling Kaneda to "mind his own business." Altman readily complied and signed the contract.
Kaneda responded bitterly: "We at Lotte did Altman a favor by not giving him a contract. It was an act of good will. In that spirit, I'd like to say I hope Altman plays well, if he wants to so much. Rather, I should say I hope he lives well."
"I don't think Kaneda wanted me back on the Orions," Altman said later. "And he didn't want me to play with another team, because if I did well, it would embarrass him.
"I saw him once after moving to the Tigers, during a spring exhibition game when a photographer asked me to shake hands with Kaneda for a picture. I was willing, but Kaneda wasn't. When I approached him, he turned and opened his mouth in mock surprise – as if he couldn't believe I was still alive."
Altman proceeded to show that a 42-year-old baseball player who had licked cancer could still swing a bat. He hit .274 with 12 home runes in 1975, then retired from Japanese baseball.