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The Samurai of Summer

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The Samurai of Summer

by Robert J. Collins (Jun 11, 1989)

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley

A hot summer afternoon, man on first, score tied, two out, bottom of the ninth. The batter pulls a 3-2 pitch over the second baseman's head. The ball goes to the wall. The runner rounds third and digs for home. Ball, runner and all attention focus on the plate. The simple but classically beautiful geometry of the game is demonstrated yet again for all to see. The crowd, hushed for but a second, erupts as the umpire makes his call.

Between the tracks and a tannery in rural Alabama? Could be. Triple A ball in the heart of Iowa? It's happened before. The friendly confines of Wrigley Field? Yankee Stadium? Kawasaki Stadium, between Tokyo and Yokohama, in a game featuring the Lotte Orions and the Nippon Ham Fighters? You bet. The standards of baseball are universal? Not so fast. There's a whole lot more here than meet the eye.

Put down the heavy tomes on United States-Japan trade policies. Put the reports from the research department back into the IN basket. Stay out of all arguments about how to handle or react to "the Japan thing." Run, or at least jog, to the nearest bookstore and buy "You Gotta Have Wa."

Robert Whiting has hit upon a brilliant way of demonstrating the very different psyche of our major trading partner across the Pacific. One can study the different approaches to making Toyotas or Chevrolets, color television sets or teeny tiny computer chips, but the varying needs of consumers, governmental support or neglect and particularly the availability of raw materials always cloud the attempts to make valid comparisons between the two countries.

But Mr. Whiting, a former columnist for The Tokyo Daily Sports and other Japanese publications, has chosen baseball – a game both countries have been playing since the mid-19th century. The rules, goals and basic dimensions are pretty much the same in both places. Yet the approach to the game in each country, as a reflection of society, is as different as the mind-set of samurai on Fuji and of the Indians around Cleveland.

"Wa" means harmony, unity, the linking of a circle, the wholeness of two plus three equals five, the internal angles of a triangle added together making two right angles. It is a societal phenomenon that was as important to survival in the necessarily cooperative milieu of rice farming as it is today in maintaining sanity while rubbing elbows with the equivalent of half the people of the United States in a populated area not much larger than southern California. Oddballs, loners and spectacular individualists are worse than burrs under the saddle – they can bring the delicately tuned structure down about the ears.

What about competition? You ask. Teamwork, Mr. Whiting answers. Team bloody work. If everybody's putting out to the maximum, wa is not destroyed. Suishi Tobita (1886-1965), considered by many to be the god of Japanese baseball, had, by the turn of the century, "crystallized his theories of managing," Mr. Whiting writes. "He compared baseball to Bushido, the way of the samurai, in which only morally correct athletes could excel, and saw Zen ramifications in the sport." Mr. Whiting quotes Japan's Connie Mack as having written: "A manager has to love his players, but on the practice field he must treat them as cruelly as possible, even though he may be crying about it inside. That is the key to winning baseball. If the players do not try so hard as to vomit blood in practice, then they cannot hope to win games. One must suffer to be good." Hear that, you guys on the benches? We're talking, as Tobita prescribed, players "half dead, motionless, and froth...coming out of their mouths."

Can that kind of thing be happening today? Well, in a way, yes. "Voluntary" practice starts in Japan in the ice and snow of mid-January. Those not "volunteering" don't make the squad. What about the big kid from the farm with a rifle for an arm, or the youngster with good eyes and quick wrists? What about him? Unless he's out there with the rest of them throwing 200 or 300 pitches a day, or socking the ball until his eyes cross, he's no good to the team. Wa, man, wa. Pitchers over 30 years old are exceedingly rare in Japan. The concept of baseball as a game doesn't exist, Mr. Whiting says. Baseball there is a way-of-life work ethic.

Now, imagine the tragicomedy involved with introducing American heroes, past or present, to Japanese baseball. The former New York Yankee Joe Pepitone lasted 14 games. Bob Horner, a former Atlanta Brave, was paid $2 million and had hit six homers by the end of his first week. It therefore took longer for the impact of wa's demands to sink in. His departure at the end of the year was accompanied by an earnest vow never to return.

Some American players do pick up elements of the wa act after a fashion. In 1976, Chuck Manuel, who rose in the professional ranks through the Minnesota Twins' farm chain, found himself at age 32 playing ball in Japan. One awful, late afternoon, as shadows crept across the infield, he took a fastball in the face. It took several hours for surgeons to wire and nail his shattered jaw together.

UNFORTUNATE accidents, those high inside pitches, and the Japanese press paid little attention. What caught everyone's attention, however, was Manuel's insistence after six weeks in the hospital that he get back into the game. He did, finished the season with the home run title and led his mediocre team to a pennant. Manuel's undoing occurred the following year, however. He made the colossal mistake of taking a week off in the middle of the season to go to his son's high school graduation in Virginia. A year later, he was gone.

Or take the case of Randy Bass, who, the author says, "warmed the bench" for several American teams. Mr. Whiting calls him one of the best players ever to take the field in Japanese baseball, and the statistics bear him out. His .389 batting average is still a record, and he won the Triple Crown twice. His stoic composure as Sadaharu Oh's Tokyo Giants walked him seven times during the last two games of the 1985 season was classic wa. Bass was one homer away from Oh's 1964 Japanese record of 55, and the stoicism almost made up for the time when he deserted the team in 1981 to be at his father's deathbed. But Bass really blew it in 1988. He again left the team on "compassionate leave" without pay to be with his 8-year-old son during brain surgery. He was in San Francisco when he learned he had been dumped. As Mr. Whiting writes: "No Japanese player would every have left his team for such a reason. In the corporate nation that is Japan, the company always comes first, even before a family crisis."

Whew. Still thinking about gathering odds and ends from the warehouse and competing with them on the world market? Rethinking that strategy might be a good idea. We're playing hardball here.

Robert Whiting, already on base with his first book, "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat," beats the throw home by inches with "You Gotta Have Wa." But that's as good as a mile in the old ball game.

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