After six months and 162 games, the major league playoffs began last night in Atlanta. Yes, the road to the World Series is long, but the road to the Japan Series -- the Asian version of the fall classic, which will begin next week -- is far more arduous. A trip down it might offer Americans certain lessons in the art of dedication.
American players simply don't know how easy they have it. They start spring training in March, spending three or four hours on the field each day before heading for the golf course. Some complain that even that is too much.
The 12 teams of Japan's Central and Pacific Leagues begin in the freezing cold of early January with "voluntary training" -- daily conditioning sessions that last several hours. Continuing through February, camp involves numbing all-day workouts followed by indoor drills and baseball lectures in the evening. American players who have gone through the experience compare it to hard labor in prison.
During the 130-game Japanese season, the hard training continues. Whereas American players curtail midsummer workouts to conserve energy for the game, the Japanese step up their training in the belief that extra work helps combat heat fatigue. On travel days, "off days" for Americans, Japanese players will fly into a city, board a bus and head straight for a four-hour workout.
Each game is sandwiched between a pre-game meeting and a postgame "self-reflection conference," in which those who played badly are fined, criticized and often ordered to the park early the next day for pre-pre-game practice.
The two pennant winners normally spend the week before the Japan Series sequestered in hotels, away from their families, devoting every waking hour to practice and study of the opposition. Careful attention is paid to each opposing player's blood type, in the belief that it affects performance. Type A are said to be nervous and easily intimidated; type AB tend to lose their concentration, etc. Lest that not be enough, the dugouts are sprinkled with salt to drive out evil spirits.
When the season is finally over, unlike the Americans who go home and rest for the winter, the Japanese head for autumn camp and another grueling month of training. The rules of the Tokyo Giants camp last November called for a 7 A.M. to 9 P.M. workday, a 10 P.M. curfew and a ban on drinking and playing mah-jongg. What's more, each player was required to submit an essay titled "An examination of the flaws in my play during the past season."
The Japanese approach to baseball dates to the 19th century. The game was introduced by an American missionary in 1871 and was transformed into a martial art by Japanese managers who stressed an ethic of endless training. "Practice until you die" was the motto of Waseda University, an early powerhouse. "Bloody urine" was the motto of another top school.
When the professional game was established in 1935, the Tokyo Giants did their first preseason drills with heavy dictionaries strapped to their backs. The "1,000 fungo drill," which requires players to field ground balls until they catch 1,000 or collapse, is another legacy from those days, although no modern-day player has stayed on his feet past 900.
There are those who say the Japanese go too far. As Warren Cromartie, a former Montreal Expo who spent seven successful years in Japan, put it: "Japanese players are in terrific shape in April but they overdo it in practice. They wear themselves out . . . and run out of gas by mid-season."
Japanese pitchers pay a heavier price. Many starters throw hard on the sidelines every day, in contrast to Americans who rest three or four days between starts. The result, all too often, is shoulder or elbow damage and an aborted career -- Japanese baseball's version of karoshi, or death from overwork, the notorious affliction of the Japanese salaryman.
But the extra practice makes Japanese players, in some respects, more finished players than their major league counterparts. They make fewer errors and are better bunters. Although they are smaller and have less power and speed, Japanese batters in general are better contact hitters and pitchers possess control that would turn many American hurlers green with envy.
As for abbreviated careers, few Japanese pitchers complain. To them, that's the price of excellence. A brief but wondrous career -- like the short but glorious burst of the cherry blossoms each spring -- is better than a long mediocre one.
If there is one area where the Japanese have the most to teach Americans it is teamwork. There are nearly three times more sacrifice bunts in the Japanese leagues than in the U.S. Even home run hitters will give themselves up without complaining if so ordered, and then trot back to the bench with a broad smile, happy to have done their part -- something it is hard to envision Jose Canseco or Darryl Strawberry doing.
Sadaharu Oh, the famed slugger who hit 868 career home runs, summed up the Japanese philosophy when he said, "The real man in Japan is the one who keeps his feelings to himself, so as not to disturb the harmony of others."
The emphasis on Wa, or harmony, has made the Japanese game more civil than the American version. There are fewer beanballs and on-field brawls. It also translates into a refreshing lack of greed at the negotiating table. Despite attendance figures and TV ratings that compare favorably with those in the U.S., the highest paid player in Japan makes $2.5 million a year and only a handful make more than a million. There are no free agents or player agents, and nearly all players sign their standard one-year contracts by Dec. 31.
To Americans, the behavior of the Japanese can seem surreal. The only Japanese player ever to file for salary arbitration, the Chunichi Dragons's three-time triple-crown winner, Hiromitsu Ochiai, was bombarded with criticism by the press, fans and teammates. Few were disappointed when he lost his case. And when a professional baseball players' union was established in 1986, the union chief was quick to declare: "We will never strike like the Americans do. It wouldn't be fair to the fans."
Japanese habits are not easily exported, but I wish that American baseball -- which has seen two player strikes, two umpire strikes and one lockout over the past two decades -- were so peaceful.
Japanese baseball may not be everyone's cup of ocha. The overall level of play is still a notch below that of the big leagues, and the games are marked by caution and a snail-like pace. Ties are allowed. There are more full counts, more player changes and far more on-field meetings. The contests can be, in the words of Phil Bradley, who played the 1991 season in Japan before returning to America in disgust, "incredibly boring."
But the best thing about the Japanese game, perhaps, is that come opening day next year, the cry of "Pure boru!" is guaranteed to ring out across the land. With the possibility of another lockout and a summer of no baseball looming next year in the U.S., that's something American fans can't say about their national pastime.