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In A Different League

Robert Whiting's Homepage at

In A Different League

by Rachelle Linner (Aug 11, 1989)

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley

Boston's major baseball story this spring was the relationship and pending law suit of Wade Boggs and Margo Adams. Adams's threatened revelations about other players caused such serious dissension and low morale that Red Sox management tried to trade Boggs. Despite his legendary batting average, Boggs's personal difficulties were such liabilities that a trade was unsuccessful. Boggs remarked that, were he not wanted here, he could always go play in Japan "for a lot more money."

If he does still harbor such fantasies, Wade Boggs would do well to read You Gotta Have Wa. Wa – the Japanese word that means unity, harmony, and team spirit – is as important in Japanese baseball as are bats, balls, and strike zones, and it was the wa of the Red Sox that Boggs had disturbed. As Robert Whiting so clearly illustrates, American baseball teams have a far greater tolerance for damaged wa than do the Japanese, for whom baseball is less a recreational sport than a "moral discipline."

Baseball arrived in Japan in 1873 and remained an amateur sport until 1934. Likened to traditional martial arts because it requires "a special harmony of mental and physical strength," baseball has been deemed by the Ministry of Education as "good for the national character" and helpful in "developing purity and self-discipline." The modern legacy of this tradition is the annual summer high school baseball championships held in Koshien Stadium near Osaka. So passionate is the devotion of the Japanese public that writes "wax maudlin" about Koshien as the "ultimate crucible of youth," an "ode to fighting spirit," "a celebration of the purity...of Japanese youth." One television commentator said it was "evidence that old values have not yet been swept away by the wave of internationalization that has hit Japan."

One expression of that wave is that each of Japan's twelve professional teams is allowed to have two foreign players. The experiences of those men, mostly major league veterans, are the core of this well-written anecdotal book. Among those interviewed are Warren Cromartie, Bob Horner, Reggie Smith, Leon Lee, Charlie Manuel, and Don Blasingame. The American big-league game is one of challenge: "You throw me your best stuff. I'll see if I can hit it," a decided contrast to the cautious game played in Japan, "a step-by-step approach that seemed to reflect the conservative bent of Japanese society as a whole...It was designed to avoid unpleasant confrontations and embarrassing mistakes."

American players in Japan face a public that suspects them of being "greedy and disloyal" and lacking "fighting spirit." The local sports press suggests these players are "no longer wanted" in the U.S., and is quick to pounce on their mistakes "like avenging warrior monks." For some Americans, their interpreters are their only cultural teachers. They must deal with managers who are "baseball hypochondriacs" and coaches who insist that all players endure the same rigorous, exhaustive training. They must face the visible and invisible barriers that keep them from "winning titles, breaking records, or otherwise gaining recognition." Most frustrating are the umpires who, Leon Lee reports, "make your strike zone wider the higher your batting average is. The umpires will see to it because you're not supposed to outshine the Japanese." Independent, aggressive, known to fight and curse, few American players return to their homeland with fond memories of Japan.

Whiting writes an interesting and entertaining baseball book, but he purports to do something more: to use baseball, this shared sport, as a metaphor for the cultural differences between Japan and the United States. He provides ample illustration of how Japanese culture influences the type of baseball they play, how the "cookie-cutter approach and fabled 'team spirit' philosophy" that works so well in manufacturing, hampers the way they play baseball. "Japanese-style quality control means that everyone has to do everything the same way," he writes. "No one is allowed to think for himself. Nothing is left to chance or individual need. Managers and coaches demand blind obedience to traditional methods, and the players who don't go along are weeded off the assembly line. The result is a passive approach to playing baseball."

Because the Japanese take the "purity" of baseball so seriously, and because the presence of American players is so problematic to them, the vehemence with which these issues are addressed and the gravity they assume are targets of Whiting's ironic tone, which at points slides into mockery. If he were writing a cultural study he could have elucidated for us why a college professor sees in Reggie Smith's behavior: "American attitudes of superiority toward Japanese in general...The Americans are making fools of the Japanese and baseball is only one example. They think of the Japanese as 'yellow' and as 'acting like monkeys,' so naturally a baseball player like Smith says, 'Sure. Give me two hundred million yen and I'll do a little dance for baseball'...Japanese are being held cheaply all the way from the prime minister's office to the world of baseball.'"

Or why, when former Milwaukee Brewer Dick Davis attacked a pitcher whose fast ball had hit his elbow, one columnist equated Davis's behavior to a national insult: "This is Japan, not America...Foreigners should obey our customs. The ball field should be regarded as sacred and violence on its premises never allowed. Davis is making light of Japan and the Japanese and that is unbearable."

Without descending to such heights of rhetoric, Robert Whiting obviously enjoyed "making light of Japan and the Japanese" insofar as their baseball is concerned. It makes good sports lore but poor cultural analysis.

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