Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley
It has been a good year for baseball books, and one of the best – No. 1 on my humble list – is “You Gotta Have Wa,” by Robert Whiting. Born in New Jersey and raised in California, Whiting is a graduate of Sophia University in Tokyo and for the last two decades has been chronicling Japanese baseball, mostly as a columnist for the Tokyo Daily Sports.
“Wa,” Whiting explains, is absolutely crucial to a Japanese team. It means “unity, harmony and team spirit.” And as Whiting demonstrates, the most effective way to upset a team's wa is to bring in an American player, a so-called gaijin, a derisive term for a foreigner.
“Goat” would be more appropriate because, essentially, that's what 90 percent of the American players are in Japan. If an American appears to be on his way to a .400 season or approaches Sadaharu Oh's sacred one-season home run record, the fans, who had been cheering, suddenly become uncomfortable. Worse, the pitchers stop throwing strikes.
That's what happened in 1987, when Bob Horner hit six home runs in his first seven games. Two years earlier, Randy Bass had 54 going into the final game, one short of Oh's record. Oh was then manager of the opposing team and reportedly threatened his pitcher with a $1,000 fine if he threw a strike. Bass drew four walks in five appearances. Of the 20 pitches thrown to him, 19 were balls. The one he swung at was reachable but also out of the strike zone.
Horner, who hit 215 home runs in nine seasons with the Atlanta Braves, was the first American of All-Star proportions to play in Japan at what seemed to be a career peak. He was given a record $2 million by the Yakult Swallows of Japan's Central League and finished the season with 31 homers. He refused to return despite a $10 million offer for three more years.
When he departed, Horner told of the injustices: “These are the most face-conscious people I've ever seen. It's a big loss for a pitcher to give up a home run to a gaijin. The umpires feel they have to equalize things because gaijin are bigger. An umpire once told me that since my arms were longer than those of the Japanese batter, I had to have a wider strike zone, if you can believe that. Another one told me that my strike zone should always be a certain distance from my body, so it didn't matter whether I stood close to the plate or far away from it. The strike zone moved with me, so to speak.
“You can turn around and fuss at the umpires and kick your helmet thinking you're going to intimidate these guys. Every time you complain, they are going to squeeze you that much harder. You just have to adjust and try to get a hit before you get two strikes. You have to learn to hit bad balls.”
It is an unsettling book, with chapter and verse demonstrating the absence of what we consider routine sportsmanship. It also reveals, as nothing before, that the basic incompatibility between American and Japanese baseball (and probably other enterprises as well) is the result of the deep-seated differences in the culture and philosophy of the two countries.
Here, in the good old USA, individualism and personal achievement are glorified. In Japan, it's the opposite. The Japanese coaches and managers are primarily concerned with endless pregame training. The idea of athletics for fun appears to be alien. Like all Japanese sports, baseball is a moral discipline with the emphasis on courage, spirit and self-denial.
The Japanese, according to Whiting, are perfectionists. They believe that with constant work and an iron will, one can accomplish anything: overcome injury and pain, defeat a more powerful foe in battle and even win a batting title. “Making the effort” is what counts. Winning is secondary.
The centerpiece of the training routines are gattsu (guts) drills designed to push a player to his limits. The record for the 1980s was held by Koichi Tabushi. In 1984, the year of his retirement at the age of 38, he capped off a day of workouts by fielding 900 consecutive groundballs. It took 2 hours 50 minutes before he slumped to the ground, unable to get up.
Whiting cites the case of a rookie pitcher, a potential star. Frail of build, he had difficulty keeping up with the torturous training. By the time his turn for pitching practice came around, he was so tired he could barely throw the ball over the plate.
To correct the problem, his manager and coaches devised a special routine for him. First, he was forced to run from one stadium foul pole to the other (about 150 yards) 50 times. As an additional test of his resolve, coaches stood at both ends cursing him. Then came a special pitching practice in which every bad pitch prompted another flurry of insults.
In the manner of most Japanese players, he kept a stiff upper lip and gave it all he had. This regimen continued at periodic intervals with no visible improvement in the rookie's performance. During his third season, he was admitted to a mental institution in Osaka, the victim of a nervous breakdown.
Temper tantrums, practical joking, bickering and complaining – norms in American baseball – are unwelcome incursions into the Japanese team's collective peace of mind. When Hiroshima Carp All-Star shortstop Yoshihiko Takahashi threw down his glove in anger and disgust after committing an error, his manager stopped the game and, in full view of the crowd, slapped Takahashi's face.
The next day, a Japanese journalist offered the acceptable explanation: “A player's glove is hit most important possession. He should treat it with respect as a samurai would his sword.”
The language barrier is, of course, another disadvantage for the Americans. They are given interpreters but never know what the interpreters are saying.
Tony Solaita, an American slugger who played for the Nippon Ham Fighters, was angry over brushback pitches in a game against the Lotte Orions. He used his interpreter, Toshi Shimada, to raise the issue with the Orions' catcher during pregame practice the following day.
“Listen, you no-good SOB,” said Solaita, who is built like an armored truck and has a temper to match, “if you have a pitcher throw at my head again, I'll [deleted] you.”
Shimada did not bat an eyelash as he translated: “Mr. Solaita asks that you please not throw at his head anymore. It makes his wife and children worry.”