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The Umpire Strikes Out

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The Umpire Strikes Out

by Robert Whiting (Jun 23, 1997)

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley.

In these days of "borderless" nations, few Americans blink at the idea of a Japanese baseball player like Hideki Irabu crossing the Pacific to pitch for the New York Yankees. But another transoceanic story is a reminder that globalization of the baseball diamond hasn't ended national antics in the game.

Mike Di Muro, a 29-year-old umpire from American Triple A ball, went to Japan this year to ply his trade. A season in that baseball-crazed country, he thought, working before huge crowds, in domed stadiums with giant replay screens, would be good preparation for umping in the big leagues here.

Three months into his stint, however, after a violent run-in with a gang of angry Chunichi Dragons, Di Muro was ordered home by American Major League officials who feared for his safety. The incident that caused his departure took place in early June in the city of Gifu, in a game between the Dragons and the Yokohama Bay Stars. Di Muro ejected a batter for arguing too vociferously a called second strike and found himself confronted by the Dragons╒ screaming manager and several irate coaches. With fans raining debris on the field, there was a lot of pushing and shoving. The aggrieved batter, a beefy slugger named Yasuaki Taiho, slugged Di Muro in the chest.

<b>Japan's game.</b> It would be hard to imagine such a scene in America, where the umpire╒s power is absolute and physical assaults on him are not tolerated (even if they come in the form of saliva). Shoving an ump can mean a year╒s suspension. Yet in Di Muro's case, the stiffest penalty was a letter of reprimand to Taiho. That's when Di Muro was called home.

This is the sports news from Japan, where the game of baseball, like every other import, has been changed to suit local tastes. Japanese have been playing "yakyu," or field ball, for over a century (professionally since 1934) and have turned it into a type of modern feudal warfare in which the corporate bosses in the front office and field managers are like almighty feudal lords, and the umpires occupy such a lowly position that they can be intimidated into changing their rulings.

Last May, in a game between the Seibu Lions and the Nippon Ham Fighters, a Lion outfielder hit a drive to right center field that cleared the fence but popped back onto the field after striking a railing. When he second-base umpire signaled a home run, the Ham Fighter's manager came running out of the dugout and heatedly argued - also manhandling the umpire - that the ball had hit the top of the fence. Partly because this manager had once pulled his team off the field for an hour to protest an umpire's call, all four umpires decided to change the home run to a double, bringing the Lions' manager out to do some protesting of his own - like with a forearm to the chief ump's throat.

Eventually - after considering which manager had more stature, who had argued the hardest, and what the odds were that the hometown fans would go crazy if they didn't like the ruling, according to the Japanese concept of wa, or harmony - a compromise was struck: The hit was judged the world's first "ground-rule triple." No ejections, no fines, no suspensions handed down. The accuracy of the call never came into play.

It's no wonder that Di Muro, as a foreigner the ultimate outsider in "homogeneous Japan," had the trouble he did. He was ostensibly brought in to raise the level of Japan's umpiring, as part of an effort to "globalize" their game. Yet they neglected even to brief him on differences in Japanese ball: that the strike zone was higher and wider; that the phrase "Kill the umpire" is taken far more seriously than it is in the United States. The Di Muro experiment seems to parallel other efforts toward kokusaika, or internationalizing the culture of Japan. When the Japanese say they want to change, they aren't sure they mean it.

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