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Robert Whiting

Robert Whiting's Homepage at JapaneseBaseball.com

Readers Should have Yen for Baseball Book

by James Rowen (Jun 15, 1989)

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley.

There are basically two ways to grasp the essential truths in the clash between American and Japanese cultures.

One way is to plod through those little charts in The Wall Street Journal to decipher the Yen-Dollar relationship. Have fun.

A more entertaining way is to read Robert Whiting's book about Japanese baseball, a book blessed with a surplus of witty anecdotes and an absolutely great title: "You Gotta Have Wa."

Wa is a Japanese word for group harmony, but in Japan, the search for perfect wa is a broad social custom for a mere word.

The push for wa forces individuals to submerge personal behavior and aspirations for the good of the group's success.

The group's success can be auto company production quotas, a high school science fair project, or, as Whiting shows, Japan's professional baseball teams.

With colorful names, like Carp, Swallows, and Nippon Ham Fighters, 12 teams play 130-game schedules in the country's national pastime.

With team wa as the principle guiding a search for a championship, Japanese baseball players are rigidly molded into teams that practice with military diligence. Managers and coaches have total authority.

Into this sporting environment are recruited a small number of highly-paid American professional baseball players, like former Atlanta Braves home run hitter Bob Horner or former Milwaukee Brewers Don Money and Ben Oglivie.

The Americans who journey to Japan to play baseball are usually over-the-hill sluggers who Japanese team owners hope will add enough power to win a championship.

Whiting says the US players are often initially idolized by Japanese fans for their skills, but end up despised or ignored for their individuality – their inability to put wa above all else.

Horner had great success early in the 1987 season for the Yakult Swallows, but the umpires arbitrarily widened the strike zone when he batted. This prevented Horner from hitting too many home runs and embarrassing Japanese pitchers.

Horner turned down a reported $2 million to play a second season in 1988 with the Swallows, preferring to sign with the St. Louis Cardinals for a far smaller sum.

Money was 37 years old when the Kintetsu Buffaloes paid him $900,000 for a two-year contract in 1984. But after little more than a month there Money left his cramped surroundings and fled for home.

Whiting recounts the plaintive story of Leron Lee, a journeyman player in the US who rose to stardom in an 11-year career in Japan. Lee married a Japanese woman, raised his children in Japan, encouraged his brother Leon Lee to play in Japan when his illustrious Japanese career was over.

But an American manager, even a star like Lee, would too greatly disturb the wa of Japanese baseball. If he were to succeed, the Japanese way would lose face to the American. If he failed, those who hired him would lose face, too.

So his team, the Lotte Orions, quietly released him in 1987, ending his career and his dream.

A quote from Lee sums up the gulf between Japanese and US baseball. He could just as well be making a broader sociological statement.

"The Japanese and American games are running on parallel tracks," Lee said. "And they'll never ever cross."

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