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Ecstasy in the Ballpark

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Ecstasy in the Ballpark

by Chaz Repak (Apr 2, 2004)

The 2004 Major League Baseball season began Tuesday morning, with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays defeating the New York Yankees, 8-3.

In Tokyo.

The pairing of the most storied franchise in American sports with a nation that reveres baseball would appear to be worth a trip halfway around the world. And indeed, the Bronx Bombers are the most popular American ball club in Japan. But that isn't because of the team's 39 American League pennants, 26 World Series championships or two dozen Hall of Famers. The reason is the team's unremarkable left fielder, whose 2003 statistics -- including 16 home runs and a weak .435 slugging percentage -- rendered him only the 15th-best left fielder in American baseball last year.

Hideki Matsui's output may have been mediocre, but he is no average Joe in Japan. He is a national obsession. From 1993 to 2002, he patrolled center field for Tokyo's Yomiuri Giants, a team far more beloved in its homeland than the Yankees can claim in the U.S. (Fully half of Japanese baseball fans claim the Giants as their favorite team.) Mr. Matsui, better known as Godzilla, led the team to three Japan Series titles and became the most popular athlete in Japan, if not its most popular citizen.

New Wave

The Godzilla obsession was on display from the moment he stepped off the plane at Narita Airport on Saturday to the cheers of waiting fans. (The plane was not, as it happens, one of several Japan Airlines jumbo jets painted with his 20-foot-high likeness.) The obsession was on display on Sunday, too, when the Yankees played an exhibition game against the Giants ahead of their Devil Rays match. The capacity crowd of 43,000 at the Tokyo Dome thunderously cheered each of Mr. Matsui's three hits, including an ecstasy-inspiring home run in his first at-bat. When he was called out on strikes in the top of the ninth, the crowd started filing out of the park, not even waiting for the home team's final swings. (Just as well; the Giants lost, 6-2.)

Such adulation raises the question of whether U.S. baseball is truly achieving a higher profile in Japan, as Commissioner Bud Selig and other fan-seeking executives would hope, or whether its popularity depends entirely on the fame of the Japanese stars who play Stateside and return for matches like this year's Opening Day.

The answer depends, in part, on just how much baseball in Japan differs from the American version of the game. In "The Meaning of Ichiro" (Warner Books, 318 pages, $25.95), Robert Whiting explores the ethos of Japanese baseball and, purportedly, the transformation of America's own national pastime by the "new wave" of Japanese players like Mr. Matsui. The book serves as a companion to "You Gotta Have Wa" (1989), Mr. Whiting's fascinating look at, yes, the ethos of Japanese baseball and the hardships it places on gaijin (foreign) participants.

In America, baseball is big business, but it is ultimately a sport. In Japan it is something different. Mr. Whiting vividly describes the ways in which Japanese baseball has become bound up with social codes of harmony and sacrifice of self: up to 16 hours of daily practice from Jan. 1 to the start of the regular season in April; three-hour practices on game days; the "1,000-fungo drill," in which ground balls are hit just out of a fielder's reach, one after another, with the express purpose of forcing a player to will his exhausted body forward until he collapses in the dirt.

Pure Blood

Such an approach builds up a team's wa, or harmony, but is foreign to the U.S. version of the game. Indeed, American manager Bobby Valentine was fired after the 1995 season in Japan, in which he led the Chiba Lotte Marines to second place, a big improvement on their 1994 last-place finish. A team spokesman later cited, as a reason for the firing, Mr. Valentine's "emphasis on winning games rather than training and building up the team."

A sport that expresses the Japanese spirit is most acceptable to Japanese fans when practiced by native Japanese. Mr. Whiting notes that some of Japan's biggest stars, including all-time home run champion Sadahuru Oh, who is half-Taiwanese, have faced discrimination if they aren't of pure Japanese blood. Mr. Whiting says several famous Japanese players have Korean blood but fear discrimination if their ancestry becomes known.

Gaijin regularly face an even harder time, ridiculed when they don't perform well and resented when they do. In 2001 and again in 2002, gaijin threatened Mr. Oh's single-season home-run record. In each case, as the challenger drew close to the mark, pitchers on the team Mr. Oh managed refused to throw strikes, in clumsy, unsportsmanlike attempts to keep the record safe from foreign hands. (They succeeded; first Tuffy Rhodes, then Alex Cabrera, could only tie Mr. Oh's 55.)

His First Bat

Ironically, it is Japanese baseball that is being "transformed," as many of Japan's finest players have left to prove themselves at the highest level of competition. Ichiro Suzuki (the book's namesake), Godzilla and Kaz Matsui -- the only active players on Japan's so-called All-Millennium Team -- now play in the U.S. Ichiro has been with the Seattle Mariners since 2001, when he led the American League in batting average and won MVP honors. Kaz Matsui, a 28-year-old switch-hitting shortstop, starts his U.S. career this season, with the New York Mets. Just imagine Major League Baseball with Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez all playing overseas.

Japanese fans have certainly followed the American careers of their heroes. One of Mr. Whiting's biggest heroes is Hideo Nomo, the broad-shouldered forkball pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was Nomo who bucked the Japanese code of wa by refusing to submit to the career-threatening pitching load piled on him by his manager. Oddly, his success in Los Angeles in 1995 inspired Nomomania back in Japan; after a full season of broadcasting his exploits live on TV and radio, a Japanese TV station ran an 11-hour special about him. Ichiro's success in 2001 led to Ichiromania, including a museum displaying everything from his first bat to the retainer he wore as a teenager.

Mr. Whiting doesn't prove his thesis about the Japanese-ization of American baseball, but he doesn't have to. The merit of "The Meaning of Ichiro" is in the anecdotes that pack the book: the dedication that Ichiro showed while practicing with his father for hours a day, from age 3 until high school; Mr. Nomo's efforts to find a legal loophole in Japan's reserve clause so that he could go to the U.S.; the travails of Mike DiMuro, an American umpire who worked in Japan for a month, until a player attacked him (a common fate for Japan's men in blue).

As for Major League Baseball's hopes of expanding its popularity in Japan, the Yankees' 12-1 destruction of the Rays on Wednesday helped a little. Godzilla stroked an RBI single and another ecstasy-producing home run. Afterward, he was named the game's MVP. Naturally, the Japanese voters overlooked catcher Jorge Posada's two three-run homers.

Mr. Repak is editor, Americas operations, for Dow Jones Newswires.

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