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Samurai baseball and other oddities

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Samurai baseball and other oddities

by Jim Miller (Sep 4, 1977)


The Baltimore Sun

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley

Reggie Jackson stands at the plate, anxiously waving his bat. There are two outs in the ninth, the count is three balls, two strikes and the bases are full in this, the seventh game of the World Series. The pitcher take a full windup and sends a letter high fastball speeding plate ward as the runners take off Jackson coils and as the pitch comes into the cross-hairs of his bat sight, takes a vicious swing- but cuts only air.

As the opposing catcher holds the ball high, rushing out to greet his victorious teammates, Jackson smiles, looks to the crowd and politely bows. In the dressing room later, he apologizes for letting his teammates down and for not showing enough fighting spirit during the Series. He says he is sorry for disgracing himself and his family, but especially for disappointing his manager, who gave him the opportunity to play, and the club owner, whose faith and respect he knows he has surely lost.

Jackson pledges to spend the winter at an unspecified retreat in meditation and reflection in order to purify his spirit so that next season he will have the proper attitude and self-discipline to dedicate himself to the task of regaining the respect of his teammates, managers and the entire Yankee organization.

Now let us leave those wistful wanderings of never-year and return to live action:

While it is unlikely Sir Reginald ever would star in a drama similar to the tale woven above, similar incidents and some even stranger are common in the complex and oh-so -different world of Japanese baseball.

Robert Whiting, in his book, "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat," pictures the Japanese variation of America's pastime as a strict, almost religious rite streaked with strong doses of good old military discipline.

Indeed, the title itself – which is not explained anywhere in the book – comes from a study by Ruth Benedict, an anthropologist commissioned by the U.S. government during World War II to analyze the Japanese character and spirit, to learn what makes the enemy tick. The tile of her resulting book, "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword," symbolized the extreme inherent in Japanese nature.

Whiting applies this premise to baseball and the result is a game built around the ancient samurai code of bushido, a strict system that stresses honor, duty, and the value of cooperation. The code allows no room for the player who in any way stands out from the crowd, either by an abnormal batting style, or – even more importantly – an erratic life-style.

The Japanese emphasis on seniority, hard work, and the good of the team – at the expense of the individual – It's difficult for us to imagine when exposed daily to American baseball's world of free agents, in-house squabbles and the persistent "I'm for me" attitude.

Yet Whiting maintains that the code so dominates the Japanese system that only about one-third of the American players who attempt to play in Japan can make the adjustment.

To an American observer, the system often appears to border on insanity. For instance, a manager facing an important three-game series may force his star pitcher to hurl the first and third games. Over the course of the season, if such an overworked pitcher, understandably, loses his effectiveness, the question directed to the manager is not "Why don't you rest him?," but more likely "Why has he lost his fighting spirit?"

And the code forces abandonment of standard American pieces of strategy – the intentional walk, the bunt hit, junk pitches – because each one prevents the most reverent act in Japanese baseball, the shobu, the confrontation between pitcher and batter. The code dictates that avoiding shobu is worse than defeat itself.

The book bobbles the ball in a few areas, among them Whiting's sweeping generalizations about American fans ("all are loud and boisterous") and sportscasters, whom he blames for the American fans' lack of appreciation for the finer points. And when some of his themes appear in conflict, there is no effort made to reconcile the discrepancies. But the overall effort is not damaged.

The Japanese major leagues had their genesis in 1936, sparked by a series of successful tours by visiting American stars. Sotaro Suzuki, considered the father of Japanese professional baseball, credits one of those tours, in 1934, as paving the way for the world's greatest copiers to form a league of their own.

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