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Japan's Passionate Affair with Baseball

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Japan's Passionate Affair with Baseball

by Robert Whiting (Sep 25, 1982)

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley

Asia (magazine) September/October 1982 page 10-15

An aficionado explains why the unique customs of besuboru cause many American ballplayers to strike out.

"This country has got its national flag all wrong," remarked one bemused visitor from New York recently during his brief stay in Japan. "Instead of the Rising Sun in the center, there should be baseball." The multitude of American tourists who annually visit Japan find the same amazing phenomenon: a consuming, nationwide passion for besuboru (baseball).

The Japanese first learned how to play the game in 1873 from an American missionary. It has been played professionally since 1936, and today there are 12 teams in two leagues (the Central and Pacific), over 13 million paying fans each year, and several modern stadiums with electronic video scoreboards and artificial grass. According to a survey made in 1981, the "male symbol of Japan" is a baseball player Tatsunori Hara, the star third baseman of the defending champion Yomiuri Giants, Japan's most popular team. Hara gathered more than twice as many votes as the second-place finisher, Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki.

Baseball, not sumo or judo, is Japan's national sport. What is also apparent at a closer look is an indelible "Made in Japan" stamp on this once imported game: Besuboru and baseball are two different things.

What really sets baseball, Japanese-style, apart is the single-minded dedication with which its participants attack the game. A close look at how they go about it may furnish some interesting insights into how Japan as a trading nation has been able to lambaste the rest of the world. It is the Protestant work ethic to the 10th power.

Consider first how American teams approach the game. They start spring training March 1, allowing themselves five weeks to prepare for the six-month season. They spend three to four hours on the field each day before heading for the nearest golf course.

The Japanese on the other hand, begin "voluntary" training in the freezing cold of the mid-January. This routine of daily workouts is designed to get them ready for the traditional February 1 opening of camp.

Camp itself is a brutal regimen of daily six- to seven-hour outdoor workouts followed by indoor practice in the evening. American players who have been subjected to a Japanese training camp liken it to life in a Georgia chain gang or, at best, United States Marine boot camp.

During the season such hard training continues. Whereas American players curtail their pregame midsummer workouts as a means of conserving energy for the games, the Japanese often step theirs' up believing that extra work is the only way to beat heat fatigue.

The Japanese game is strictly organized around a plethora of rules to ensure that each player is not only well trained physically but also has the right mental attitude: report to practice 15 minutes early, do not engage in private conversation on the field, encourage your teammates in a loud voice, run when moving from place to place. The Seibu Lions, perhaps Japan's most disciple-conscious team, have a season long ban on drinking, smoking, and mahjong.

Clubhouse walls are covered with slogans to spur the players on: without self-sacrifice there can be no real team; your are the master of your own fate; cry in practice, laugh in the games; out of adversity comes happiness; fulfill your destiny – exercise your best efforts; self-reflection is the bread of progress.

To Americans used to the notion that an individual is responsible for himself and that performance on the field is the only thing that matters, the Japanese system seems unduly restrictive. Charlie Manuel, a former Minnesota Twin who played in Japan from 1976 to 1981 (and whose 48 homers, 129 RBI's, and .325 batting average in 1980 constituted the best season ever by an American there), said, "I've never experienced anything like it in all my years of baseball. One manager I had used to call me up at night to make sure I was in bed, then he'd call me in the morning to tell me what to eat for breakfast. He even told me when to change my athletic socks."

For American professionals baseball is a job. For the Japanese it is a way of life. From the younger players who live in the team dormitory year round (and take turns raising the team flag every morning) to the older veterans who may organize impromptu workouts in the brief off season, the story is the same: total commitment. To say the baseball players eat, sleep, and think baseball every day of the year would be no exaggeration.

The attitude of Sadaharu Oh, now the Yomiuri Giant assistant manager and the man who topped Hank Aaron's record with 868 career home runs, is typical. "I achieved what I did because of my coaches and my willingness to work hard," he says. When Oh signs autographs for young fans, he signs doryoku, "effort".

Oh's view of himself strikes a responsive chord in the Japanese psyche. The prevailing view in this cramped and resource-poor land is that nothing in life comes easily, that only through doryoku and the ability to persevere in the face of adversity can one achieve success. Indeed, in a recent survey conducted by NHK, Japan's equivalent of the BBC, the word doryoku was chosen as the "most-liked" word by those polled. The rest of the top 10, in descending order, were patience, thanks, sincerity, endurance, love, harmony, kindness, friendship, and trust.

The capacity for doryoku, Japanese coaches will tell you, must be cultivated through practice. Consequently an integral part of spring training routines are gattsu ("guts") drills designed to push a player to the limits. This year's most noted example was a veteran player to his limits. This year's most noted example was a veteran player who, in two hours and 50 minutes one day in camp, took 900 consecutive ground balls at first base before dropping from exhaustion.

American's who consider such training meaningless are, in the opinion of Japanese sportswriter Kennichi Ishida, overlooking the Zen ramifications of the drills. "They are purely mental," says Ishida. "Yes, they do wear a player out, but that is necessary in order to develop his spirit. Athletics is essentially an act of will. You can always do more than you think you are capable of. It is our philosophy that only by pushing a player to his limits can he discover and develop the power to surpass them. And that is what these drills accomplish."

This system of player development, to which Japanese rightly or wrongly attribute great improvement in the level of their game over the years, does not always work smoothly. Consider the case of one rookie who began his professional career in the mid 70's. He was, his manager believed, a potential star as a pitcher, but, being rather frail of build, he had difficulty keeping up with his teams' torturous spring training. In pitching practice, for example, he was so tired he could barely get the ball over the plate.

To correct the problem, the coaches devised a special routine for him to follow after regular practice every day. First he was forced to run from one stadium foul pole to the other (a distance of approximately 130 meters) 50 times. As an additional test of his resolve, coaches would station themselves at either end of his run to yell bakayaro ("stupid S.O.B.") every time he finished a lap. This was followed by a special pitching practice in which any bad pitch would prompt another flurry of insults. To wrap up his day, he was required, like all rookies, to pick up looser balls and other pieces of equipment and carry them back to the clubhouse.

In the manner of most young Japanese players, he kept a stiff upper lip and gave it all he had. His special training went on at periodic intervals with no visible improvement. During his third season he found himself in a mental institution in Osaka, the victim of a nervous breakdown.

Another area of the game that reflects a clear divergence of cultural values is that of team harmony – wa. Many things Americans tolerate as displays of individualistic spirit – "letting it all hang out," as it were – are anathemas to the Japanese. No long hair or beards are allowed, nor are violent displays of temper in the club house and on the field. There is no place for practical joking or "telling it like it is," and, above all, no contract squabbles or holdouts are tolerated. A player's behavior is considered just as important as his batting average, and untoward behavior is viewed as bad for team morale and detrimental to the organization's image. In addition, it is seen as a sign of character weakness. In Japan a "real" man is one who keeps his emotions to himself and thinks instead of others' feelings.

The lengths to which Japanese baseball organizations will go to preserve the team's wa are, by American standards, extreme. Two players on the 1979 Yakult Swallows, for example, objected to a trade proposal in which their names were mentioned. Although the trade never materialized, their "outspokenness," reasoned the Swallows manager, had upset team spirit. As punishment, he suspended the two for one week to give them time to "reflect sincerely on their wrong thinking."

Then last year there was the Takenori Emoto affair. Emoto, an eight-year veteran pitcher, had an unsavory reputation for being independent-minded. Once, as a Nankai Hawk, he let his hair grow over his ears in defiance of team orders, and it took the threat of dismissal from the team to make him revert to the crew-cut style worn by everyone else.

In 1981, as a Hanshin Tiger, Emoto bridled at the way the team's manager was inconsistently starting and relieving him. In August, after what he considered his premature removal from a game he was pitching, Emoto stalked back to the dugout and was heard to complain angrily, "I can't pitch with this kind of stupid managing."

The next morning the "Emoto Rebellion" was front-page news in all the sports dailies and Emoto himself the target of much editorial wrath for his willful conduct. Two days later Emoto announced his "voluntary retirement" from the team in order to "accept responsibility" for the incident. His retirement revealed itself as not so voluntary when the Tiger front office later refused all trade overtures from other teams. A representative of the essentially powerless players' association could only say, "It's too bad Emoto had to commit suicide like that."

With Japan's increasing exposure to Western ways, baseball executives worry that outside influence may erode the country's time-honored principles. The threat of a players' strike, however, is remote. This is partially because professional baseball teams in Japan are not, as they are in the united States, self-sustaining businesses but public relations vehicles for parent companies. (The Nippon Ham Fighters exist primarily to sell ham, for example.) In addition, a players' strike would be completely out of character for the Japanese athlete, whose first and only concern must be the team – not his bank account.

American players, many of them former major leaguers finishing out their careers, have been part of the Japanese baseball scene since the early 1950's. Two are allowed per varsity team. Yet, since Japanese values are so incompatible with those of many Americans, clashes have been inevitable. More than one gaijin ("outsider" or "foreigner") has worn out his welcome.

Part of the problem has been jealousy over money. Most Americans are paid far more than their Japanese teammates yet quite often find themselves unable to adjust to the breaking-ball pitching style preferred in Japan. In 1981 the Yomiuri Giants signed former San Francisco Giant Gary Thomasson to the highest paying contract in the history of Japanese baseball: three years at a total of $1,200,000, as compared to the $270,000 a year earned by the highest paid Japanese player, Koji Yamamoto of the Hiroshima Carp. As Yamamoto sailed to his third straight home run crown with 44 homers, Thomasson compiled a batting average of .261, hit 20 homers, and struck out 132 times. The Giants benched him the last week of the season probably to spare him the embarrassment of breaking the Central League strikeout record of 133. Thomasson was dubbed "The Giant Human Fan" by Japan's versatile press, which also frequently respelled his name using the Chinese character son, meaning "loss" or "damage."

But it has been differences in cultural attitudes that have caused most of the grief, and it seems that not a year goes by without some controversy involving gaijin. In 1977, for example, the villain was Willie Davis, the former Los Angeles Dodger captain. Davis, in the fashion of so many Americans used to their own individual routines, refused to participate in the Spartan training regimen of his new team, the Chunichi Dragons. "Hey," he would say, to the consternation of the coaches, "you worry about those other players. I'm Willie Davis, and I played in the majors. I have my own system." Although Davis hit a very respectable .300 that year, he was given his walking papers by a disgruntled front office.

Then there was Clyde Wright, a former California Angel pitcher who did not like the quick hook (too early removal of a pitcher) of his manager on the Yomiuri Giants. In his two-and-a-half year stint with the team, he was fined for tearing up his uniform, throwing a Coke bottle through the window of the manager's office, demolishing a water cooler, and breaking a photographer's camera. Wright left the country in mid-1978, claiming he could not understand Japan.

Last year the "bad guy award" went to Pete LaCock, the former Chicago Cub and Kansas City Royal. LaCock got off on the wrong foot by publicly admitting he was not worth the $800,000 over two years that the Taiyo Whales were paying him. He went on to draw the wrath of his manager, fans, and the ever-watchful press for a variety of reasons.

Americans who met LaCock invariably described him as a courteous sort – "a nice guy, really" – but to the Whales he was a troublemaker. His manager was upset because LaCock would not apologize when he made an error. "LaCock always had some excuse," he complained. "He'd never accept responsibility."

Once, after being ordered to sacrifice bunt in an early inning (something many Americans players consider beneath their dignity), LaCock returned to the bench, threw his batting helmet down, and, as Tokyo's Chunichi Sports reported it, "let forth a stream of dirty slang words." Said the Whales manager after the game, "We're not playing baseball for LaCock's benefit. We're playing to win and we won't tolerate that kind of behavior."

Moreover, LaCock, like practically every other American player in the country, complained he was a victim of discrimination on the part of the umpires. Once, after being called out on a third strike, he handed his bat to the arbiter and said, "Here. You're taking the bat out of my hands anyway, so you might as well have it."

These and other acts, combined with his record of .273 and 10 homers, did little to endear LaCock to his hosts and caused the press to dub him with a homonym of gaijin that, in Chinese characters, means "harmful person." They also led to his release at the end of the year, even though the Whales were obligated to pay him off in full. Said one Taiyo official, "He wasn't a bad person, actually. He was just a bit too American for us. He really didn't fit in with Japanese baseball."

Of course, not every American who plays in Japan automatically causes trouble. Former Yankees Roy White and Jim Lyttle, for example, who both have quiet, low-key personalities, have had successful careers in Japan, devoid of controversy. Yet too often the mixing of free-spirited American individualism with Japanese group-consciousness has proved volatile. Combined with the spiraling salary demands made by American players, it has resulted in increasing media calls for a total ban on foreign ball players.

The Japanese hope that their approach to baseball will eventually bring them parity with the American game. After all, hard work and group cooperation helped to make Japan an economic power, despite a decided lack of natural resources. Although the average Japanese player is only 5 feet, 10 inches tall and weighs only 170 pounds, it would seem to follow that, if the same dynamics are applied to baseball, a world championship should eventually result.

Yomiuri Giant owner Toru Shoriki is one who feels the time has already come. His team, which last year easily won its first Japan Championship since 1973, is loaded with young talent, many of major-league level, and appears set to create yet another of many Giant dynasties. Last November, as the Kansas City Royals were struggling to a 9-7-1 record on their good-will tour of Japan, Shoriki met with United States baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn to formally request the establishment in 1984 of a "Real World Series" between the American and Japanese baseball champions. Kuhn replied that he would form a committee to study the question.

Perhaps Shoriki is engaged in wishful thinking. Even the most optimistic of American observers rate the Giants are no better than a mediocre major-league team. "There's just too big a difference in speed, power, and in throwing arms," says Charlie Manuel. "What major league teams do in Japan is irrelevant because those players aren't serious anyway. It's a vacation for them. I just don't see how a 'Real World Series' can be played yet."

Regardless of what eventually happens, one thing at least seems certain. The American and Japanese systems will remain culture-bound. An American manager who tried to use Japanese methods on his baseball team who would most assuredly have a mutiny on his hands; correspondingly, a Japanese manager who adopted the American way would find himself with a group of psychologically frustrated players.

Indeed, when a former major leaguer named Don Blasingame took over as manager of the 1979 Hanshin Tigers and tried, to a certain degree, to Americanize things, he was met with no small amount of opposition. The players complained that they were not getting enough practice, the press complained that Blasingame was not keeping team harmony intact, while the front office complained that he spent too much of the brief off-season back in the United States.

Says Blasingame, who is now managing the Nankai Hawks, "Knowing how and when to make changes in the existing system is probably the hardest thing about managing over here. I see players doing things that I know aren't good for them physically, but if I make them change, then it just makes the situation even worse. It's a completely different world."

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