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Where Team Spirit Is No Game

Robert Whiting's Homepage at

Where Team Spirit Is No Game

by Ray Mungo (Jul 2, 1989)

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley

"Wa" is a Japanese term meaning spirit, unity, the concept that a team always comes ahead of the individual player's concerns. Wa is what Japanese baseball is all about. It's the exact opposite of the American variety, with its superstar egos and spoiled-brat millionaires.

When an American player (gaijin) signs with a Japanese team, as some of the best have, there is almost always a problem. U.S. major leaguers aren't used to spending hours a day in relentless practice; in Japan it's a grueling and unending routine.

Americans think it's permissible to be tired, sick or otherwise unable to play for a day; the Japanese grit their teeth and "play through the pain." Worst of all, Americans sometimes argue with the umpire, which no Japanese would even think of doing.

"This isn't baseball," complained former Giant and Dodger star Reggie Smith. "It just looks like it."

And it looks like Robert Whiting has done it again. The author of the 1977 classic "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat," rated the best sports book of the year by Time magazine, has outdone himself. "You Gotta Have Wa" contains a breezy and readable history of baseball in Japan. It's packed with entertaining anecdotes about U.S. players and their tortured adjustments to the Japanese culture, and it uses the noble sport as a metaphor for Japanese-American relations in general. It's hard to imagine a better book on the subject.

He opens with the full story of what happened to Atlanta Braves slugger Bob Horner during his $2 million 1987 season with the Yakult Swallows. As much as we idolize our baseball stars over here, nothing could compare to the deification of Horner in Japan. This island nation that had taken over much of the world's economy felt it had finally landed a genuine baseball superstar.

Horner's 31 home runs in 303 at-bats that year would have been quite respectable in Atlanta, but the Japanese expected at least 50 from him. At his pace, he'd have hit over 40 if he played in every game, but he pulled himself from the rest of the season because of injuries, an attitude nobody in Japan could understand. Another U.S. player, Randy Bass, was actually ostracized for leaving his team for a week to be at the bedside after his son's surgery.

Interpreters often compounded the problems between gaijin and Japanese players by refusing to translate accurately. When Tony Solaita of the Nippon Ham Fighters was almost beaned by a Lotte Orions pitcher, he railed. "If you throw at my head again, I'll f---ing kill you." The interpreter calmly translated, "Mr. Solaita asks that you please not throw at his head anymore. It makes his wife and children worry."

Even those few U.S. players with Asian habits don't seem to find it easy in Japan. Former Dodger captain Willie Davis was a practicing Buddhist who chanted his mantra all day, driving Japanese teammates crazy. They thought they were at a Buddhist funeral," Whiting says, and it threw their wa all out of whack. When Davis was sidelined with a wrist injury, the team went on a winning streak "because their wa had been restored."

To really understand the vast difference in the game as played in Japan, consider that the contest ends in a tie after 12 innings, "so that nobody has to lose." It's unthinkable, a clear violation of baseball morality that says, "It ain't over 'til it's over." No American will ever break Sadaharu Oh's home-run record in Japan; when Randy Bass got close, all opposing pitchers simply walked him – every time.

"You Gotta Have Wa" is the definitive book on Japanese baseball and one of the best written sports books ever. It's a winner.

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