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Japanese Baseball: The Importance Of Wa

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Japanese Baseball: The Importance Of Wa

by Patrick J. Killen (Jul 16, 1989)

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley

 YOU GOTTA HAVE WA, by Robert Whiting; Macmillan Publishing Co,; 339 pages; $17.95

Bob Horner began to suspect there was something different about Japanese baseball when his new boss, Yakult Swallows owner Hisami Matsuzono, turned out to be an unabashed fan of the Yomiuri Giants. Yakult is the name of a yogurt health drink and Matsuzono knew from experience that when the Giants lost, sales of his product plunged.

The Swallows, the Giants' cross-town rivals in Tokyo, paid Horner $2 million to come to Japan in 1987, after no U.S. team would sign him at that price. He hit a respectable .273 with 27 home runs and 87 RBIs for the Atlanta Braves in 1986.

Horner's debut was sensational. He hit a home run in his first game and three more in his second. Yakult's attendance skyrocketed and Horner became an instant media hero in baseball-whacky Japan.

But then Japanese pitchers stopped giving him anything good to hit. As the walks piled up, Horner's patience dissipated. By June, the Japanese press concluded he was a mere mortal and began blaming him for Swallow setbacks. His frustrations were such that he turned down a $10 million, three-year contract in Japan to play one injury-filled year for the St. Louis Cardinals for $950,000. He is now out of baseball.

The Japanese attributed Horner's problems and that of most of foreign players – each team is allowed two non-Japanese – to their lack of group harmony that is so important to Japanese life and by extension Japanese baseball. The foreign player's individualism, his displays of anger which sometimes included cross-cultural fisticuffs, his unwillingness to play when injured or undergoing a family crisis were regarded by most fans as unforgivable.

Robert Whiting's second book on Japanese baseball, You Gotta Have Wa, tells Horner's story and that of a score of other foreigners who have played in Japan's two major leagues. With few exceptions, the foreigners hit more home runs than the Japanese but never really fit into the close-knit teams where hard work and family-type harmony or wa mean so much.

Whiting, 46, is a Sophia University graduate who writes wherever his Japanese wife, Machiko Kondo, a U.N. resettlement officer, is stationed. This book was crafted in Somalia, and it updates his first one, The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, published in 1977, with more anecdotes and an even more readable insight into Japanese baseball. An overriding conclusion: Americans play baseball; Japanese work very hard at it.

According to Whiting, two American teachers introduced baseball to Japanese students, with the first formal game played in 1873. Early players ran bases wearing geta or wooden sandals. En route to becoming the most popular school sport, baseball became entwined with bushido, the way of the samurai, and adopted some of the asceticism of Zen Buddhism.

One early hero, a high school pitcher named Kotaro Moriyama, was the inspiration for this popular saying: "To be hit by Moriyama's fastball is an honor exceeded only by being crushed to death under the wheels of the imperial carriage."

The tradition of hard work still persists. College and high school students practice year round, major leaguers begin spring training in February with all-day and into-the-night practices, and engage in four-hour practice sessions before games, and it isn't unusual for pitchers to throw 100 or more pitches on their off days.

Gattsu, or guts drills designed to push a player to his limits continued into the 1980s. In 1984, a player named Koichi Tabuchi at age 38 fielded 900 consecutive ground balls in three hours during a spring practice session before slumping to the ground. The outfielder's version of gattsu is called "the 1,000 fungo drill."

Sachio Kinugasa, a third baseman for the Hiroshima Carp, surpassed Lou Gehrig's iron-man record of playing in 2,130 straight games on June 13, 1987. He increased the record to 2,215 straight games before retiring, despite five broken bones during his career, including a shoulder fractured by an errant pitch. His shoulder taped, he played the next day.

Sadaharu Oh, the legendary Yomiuri Giant whose 868 home runs outgunned Babe Ruth, often took 40 minutes of batting practice before games and would swing a sword at a tiny piece of paper suspended from the ceiling at home to practice his dexterity.

Whiting devotes considerable space to what he considers to be slurs and insults managers, coaches, fans and the Japanese media direct at American players.

These included Don Blasingame's long nightmare as manager of the Hanshin Tigers; The falling out Davy Johnson, now manager of the Mets, had with Giants fans and his eventual dismissal; the racial insults and the sake bottles hurled at Giants outfielder Reggie Smith who insisted the strike zone was bigger for foreigners and the treatment dished out to Randy Bass of the Hanshin Tigers, who came within one homer of Oh's single season record of 55, only to have Giants pitchers refuse to throw him a hittable ball in the last game of the 1985 season. Bass was subsequently released by the Tigers when he returned to the United States with his 8-month-old son who was suffering from a brain tumor. When Bass hit .389 to set a new Central League mark in 1986, Whiting says, "The Japanese press tried hard not to pay attention."

Whiting comes up with so many examples of how the Japanese would just as soon squeeze the Americans out of their game that one almost expects Japanese baseball to be the next target of Super 301.

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