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In Japan, umpires even get hits – in the head

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In Japan, umpires even get hits – in the head

by Abe C. Ravitz (Jul 14, 1977)

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley.

An easy ground ball is booted by the shortstop as the winning run scores. The offending player looks at the crowd and smiles. An error doesn't bother him, it's perfectly human. That's baseball Samurai style.

A popular .350 hitter speaks disrespectfully to his manager and is subsequently fired. Fans heartily approve. That, too, is baseball Japanese style.

A team in the throes of a losing streak gathers together around the infield and remorsefully bows in apology to loyal fans who appreciate and applaud the ritual. Attendance wanes a little and the players voluntarily accept 30% salary cuts. A hitter chews gum at the plate and splits: his irate manager chastises such gross, inappropriate behavior. Again, that's all baseball, the code of chivalry combined with Kabuki theater in Japan.

Americans find it difficult to understand the wisdom of Bushido with its established procedures for fighting spirit, sameness, compulsion about time schedules and respect for hierarchy. They will think it strange for a manager to bring the team's bats and gloves to the Shinto priest to be blessed. And while hard slides into a base and brushback pitches are strategic plays in our major league parks, in Japan such aggressive action, such "hustle," as we call it, is not admired at all.

Baseball is family. The manager is father to a group of dedicated athletes who live together (unless married) and work together virtually the year round. The home life and the sports life are one; the emotional bond is fierce.

To be regarded a hero by young fans is the player's greatest honor; he will work hard to show he has "guts," leads an exemplary life and recognize authority. He will endorse only acceptable products like health foods. No beer.

The Japanese fans, though, are a little different. "Kill the umpire" is never taken literally over here, but in Tokyo Stadium it's another story. Japan is a nation of besuboru fanatics; with hotto dogu and some sake sloshing in their stomachs, bleacherites have frequently stormed onto the field to assault a poor arbiter who, in the opinion of the mob, called a bad third strike against the home team.

But the real snake pit, apparently, is Hiroshima, where the local Carps are darlings of a town that does not take any defeat lightly. Lights have been known to go out at Citizen's Park during a crucial play that could defeat the locals. Rocks regularly fly through the air and sake spills on opponents.

Indeed without question baseball is Japan's favorite sport and the Land of the Rising Sun is baseball fan's paradise. Diamond addicts can purchase any of five daily sports newspapers. The game analyses are exhaustive. Radio and TV announcers use computers to study plays, players, and statistics in such detail that all game intricacies are revealed in scientific proportions. Pitch predictions are part of the entertainment. Average length of game: three hours. Season length: 130 games for the two six-team leagues.

You can be sure of one thing: the fondest dream of the Japanese sport fan is that some day in the not-too-distant future there will be a true World Series, an international besuboru sweepstakes – maybe between the Cleveland Indians and the Kintetsu Buffaloes.

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