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Robert Whiting

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Why the 'Red Devil' Wore Out Welcome

by Dave Kindred (Jun 7, 1989)

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley

Bob Horner's arrival in Tokyo two years ago was considered by the Japanese an act of divine generosity. "It was like the angel of the Lord had descended," said Robert Whiting, whose new book on Japanese baseball, "You Gotta Have Wa," offers a convincing explanation of Horner-san's unhappy Oriental experience.

After hitting six home runs his first week, Horner in fact seemed heaven sent. They called him Akaoni, "the Red Devil," a powerful ogre from Buddhist lore. TV networks cut away for updates of Horner at-bats. Ubiquitous reporters quizzed him as to how a haircut might affect his hitting.

The celebration passed quickly. Horner moved from god to goat, depicted on a magazine cover as a hippopotamus in a Yakult Swallows uniform. One TV talk show host said, "He says he's 6 feet 1 inch, 97 kilograms. Hmmmm...He looks like a pro wrestler if you want to know the truth. He also looks like he likes to drink. We hear he's been hurt a lot...Why is he here? It must be because he's not wanted in the United States."

By season's end, though he hit 31 home runs in 90 games, Horner had had it with Japan. Culture-shocked to the max, he turned down $10 million to stay three more years. For a mere million, he did a double-time backstroke across the Pacific and signed up with the Cardinals in the good ol' U.S. of A. Whiting's book tells us why.

Horner disrupted the wa of the Swallows, an unforgivable transgression. Wa is all but a religious canon. Wa is team spirit. It is unity, harmony. Nothing is more important in Japan than wa, for the national character defines the group's needs as greater than the individual's.

But Horner was given special treatment. Because of his status as a high-priced American, Horner stayed in luxury hotels while other Swallows stayed in communal inns. Instead of working in obsessive training, Horner "would shoot the breeze...in the outfield or go into the trainer's room for a snooze on the massage table," Whiting writes.

Perhaps this was typical American behavior, as Horner assured the Japanese. In Japan it was sacrilege. There the philosophy of life called for total commitment to work. The baseball model was created by Suisha Tobita, known as the god of Japanese baseball before he died in 1965. He instituted shi no renshu, "death training."

American teams have casual spring training, a six-week vacation in the sun. Japanese teams, Whiting writes, begin with training "in the freezing cold of mid-January. Each day they're on the field for a numbing seven hours, and then it's off to the dormitory for an evening of strategy sessions and still more workouts indoors. Players run 10 miles every day, including periodic climbs up and down the stadium steps. Said (former Montreal Expo) Warren Cromartie, who spent five consecutive Februaries in Japan, 'It makes boot camp look like a church social.'"

At 38, a player named Koichi Tabuchi ended a day of workouts by fielding 900 consecutive ground balls. He needed two hours and 50 minutes to do it, after which he collapsed, unable to get up. A prodigy, Tatsunori Hara, thought to have a flaw in his swing, was put through extra drills one spring during which he took 15,000 swings in 2 ½ weeks.

Whiting wrote of the baseball god Tobita: "He would make his players field ground balls until they dropped, or as Tobita himself described it, 'until they were half dead, motionless, and froth was coming out of their mouths. A manager has to love his players, but on the practice field he must treat them as cruelly as possible...If the players do not try so hard as to vomit blood in practice, they can not hope to win games. One must suffer to be good."

Horner suffered, as he had in Atlanta, but not in a fashion admired by the Japanese. He took himself out of a game with a fever and went to a hospital. A headline the next morning: "Shokuba Hoki!" (Horner Deserts Post!) Horner later sprained his back and missed a month, only to have it stiffen up and force him out of a game, causing a sportscaster to cry out, "People paid money to see [Horner] play...What he did was really rude to the fans."

What Horner came to understand, Whiting writes, is that Americans played baseball, and Japanese worked at it. Horner could find no joy in the Japanese game or in a country relentlessly formal, disciplined and grim. As Whiting wrote, "Only in Japan, [Horner] discovered, did both company workers and kindergarten students alike take medicine for stress."

Horner could imagine no reason to put himself through another season of broken wa, let alone three more. The Red Devil said sayonara.

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