Baseball in Japan

Soccer is not Japan's most popular sport. That accolade belongs to the weird world of Japanese baseball.

Japanese baseball: Nik Yasko takes the plate to explain why you should check out Japan's rough diamond.

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The batter hits a slow roller toward third. The third-baseman charges, picks up the ball, and fires accurately toward first - just in time to nip the runner, who, for some reason, has decided to dive headfirst into the bag. OUT! the umpire cries, prompting one of the team's managers to sprint onto the field to protest, a protest that does not follow the usual profanity laced diatribe favored by North American managers, but may instead take the form of pushes, shoves, and perhaps even a kick or two. Amazingly, the manager is not ejected.

Japanese baseball, Nagoya Dome.
Japanese baseball, Nagoya Dome.

How is Japanese & American baseball different?

So why do so many Japanese players insist on diving into first base? And why aren't more managers, and players, ejected for clearly unsportsmanlike behavior? The answer to the second question is that Japanese baseball has evolved in such a way here that the manager, more than his players, represents the team and the team spirit. Media focus is directed toward the manager, who, unlike his North American counterparts, is almost always a former star.

Baseball big in Korea too!

Spoiled and fawned upon during his playing days, the Japanese manager gets even more star treatment after he is allowed to run his own team. So, unless the man is an exceptional gentleman - Sadahara Oh of the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks comes to mind - a manager in this country is allowed to, perhaps even encouraged to, indulge himself in childish behavior.

As for the first question, coaches in the U.S. will say that there is no reason to dive headfirst into first base unless the runner is trying to beat an errant throw. A runner who sprints through the bag is faster than the one trying to reach it through the air. As former Chicago Cub color analyst Steve Stone frequently pointed out, Olympic sprinters don't dive toward the goal as they draw near it because it is faster to be propelled by one's feet.

Yet Japanese ballplayers love to dive into the bag on close plays. Why? Because it looks good. Diving into the bag makes it seem as if the player is trying extra hard. A player who dives into first is showing his coaches, teammates and fans that he has the proper spiritual approach to the game. Diving gets the uniform dirty, shows the coach and the rest of the team that the runner is trying hard, and fits in with the salaryman work ethic that still dominates Japanese baseball.

Japanese baseball, Nagoya Dome.
Japanese baseball, Nagoya Dome.

Japanese baseball work ethic

Soccer is gaining in popularity with Japanese youngsters.

This work ethic demands constant practice and a belief that if one tries hard enough, no goal is unattainable. All this is learned early on. Junior and senior high school baseball teams practice almost every day throughout the year, both morning and night, in the dead of winter and in the grueling heat of the Japanese summer. The teams grind their molded or metal cleats into the ground, sprinting hard no matter what season it is. Even the most liberal of high school baseball coaches still uses training methods that would be condemned in other baseball-playing nations.

Young boys routinely sacrifice their studies in order to channel their energy into baseball drills, where they are often required to run while dragging a heavy tire attached to their waists with a rope, all the while suffering a steady stream of verbal and sometimes physical abuse from the coach. During a game, young batters look to the coach after every pitch, even when there is no one on base. Independence is not encouraged. Players are not taught to enjoy the game, although, in spite of everything, some obviously do.

Young players are trained to wait and be patient, to not think and to sacrifice. This demand for sacrifice has probably taken its toll on baseball's popularity. Certainly, the current popularity of soccer can be seen, at least in part, as a reaction to the demand for self-sacrifice common in Japanese sports such as sumo, judo, and, of course, baseball. These games are to be lived, not just played. The majority of middle-aged and older sports fans in this country seem to prefer baseball to soccer, but soccer commands a growing allegiance from Japanese youth. While it is still common to see boys, and even grown men, at the local park playing catch these days, one is just as likely to spot kids kicking a soccer ball around after school.

But it is a little early to start tolling Japanese baseball's death knell. Being a deeply embedded part of modern Japanese culture may give baseball a conservative, dowdy image, but it also gives the sport certain advantages. Media attention, of course, is one such advantage. Japanese professional baseball has been around since before the war, and has been the main focus of the Japanese sports scene since the Occupation. Just as in English, a plethora of baseball terms has permanently entered the language here, and the nation-wide high school tournament at Koshien stadium is the Japanese equivalent of American football's biggest bowl games. A player who stars in this tournament, even if he fails as a pro, need do nothing else in life to prove his worth: he has already made it.

A steady diet of Japanese professional baseball may not be to the average baseball fan's taste, but if one has even a smidgen of interest as to how one game can evolve in different directions, at least one trip to a Japanese baseball park is certainly in order. It might seem strange that this quintessentially American game plays such an integral role in Japanese sport, but, as Japanese baseball commentators are fond of pointing out, there is little in common between Japanese yakyu and American baseball.

Japanese Pacific & Central Leagues

As in the Major Leagues, Japanese professional baseball is separated into two leagues, the Pacific and the Central. The Pacific League is less popular, and is constantly trying to come up with promotions to compete with its rival league. This season, for example, the Pacific League is scheduling games on Monday nights, formerly a traditional off day. The Pa League, as it is called, includes traditionally strong clubs such as the Seibu Lions, as well as perennial doormats like the Chiba Lotte Marines and Kintetsu Buffaloes. The biggest star in the Pacific League was hit king Ichiro Suzuki, but now that he is gone the most recognizable Japanese name is probably Seibu Lion fireballer Daisuke Matsuzaka.

The Central League is the home of the Yomiuri Giants who are, in the words of former major leaguer and Giant star Warren Cromartie, the "Mets, Yankees, and Dodgers all rolled into one." They are to baseball what the Liberal Democratic Party is to politics: they have been in power forever and aim to keep it that way.

The Giants always seem to sign up the best players, garner the most attention, and have the most say in revenue-sharing disputes. Giants fans can be found anywhere in Japan. North of Tokyo, especially, where there is no local team to cut into the Giant fan base, most people are Giants fans. The Giants have won more championships than any other team, but only one in recent years, which is part of the reason why Giant legend Shigeo Nagashima retired from the post of manager last fall after a disappointing 2001 campaign. The traditional doormat in the Central League is the hapless Hanshin Tigers. They also probably have the most crazed and enthusiastic fans, however, so, like their American counterpart the Chicago Cubs, management has little incentive to put a winning team on the field.

The biggest and best Japanese star in the Central League is probably Hideki Matsui, an outfielder for the Giants who could probably star in the major leagues. A Matsui exit from the major leagues would create a lot of interest because he is a true slugger, a totally different type of player than the speedy, banjo-hitting Ichiro. Unlike Ichiro, Matsui also receives a lot of bases and balls and so has a high on-base percentage, which, combined with his power and ability to hit tough left-handers, might make him one of the top-flight hitters in the North American game.

Japanese Baseball Culture

In the States, a lot of people are attracted to baseball because of its leisurely pace. A trip to the ballpark with a friend usually means lots of time for conversation between pitches, bitching about work, and so on. In Japan, one goes to the game to cheer on and support one's team. Fans seem to get a kick out of this, but, from a Westerner's point of view, the constant cheering and noise making may seem like a lot of work.

Left field is the base for the support section for the visiting team. The right field bleachers is the center of support for the home team. As a neutral fan, it might be best to avoid the outfield altogether, pay the price for a higher ticket, and sit in relative peace elsewhere in the park. The season before last, the Yomiuri Giants had an experimental game in which the oendan (support section) was not allowed to cheer, shout, and make a lot of noise in support of the game. The idea of the promotion was to let the fans hear the natural sounds of the game, the crack of the bat, the pop of the ball as it hits the catcher's mitt, and so on. The campaign met with mixed to negative reviews.

One is better off going to a game than watching it on TV, however, because broadcasts are often taken up midway through the game, and, even more annoyingly, cut off at a pre-specified time. No matter what the game situation might be - bases loaded, two outs in the bottom of the ninth - the broadcast is ended. (However, NHK, the public television network, and certain satellite or cable networks, do broadcast games in their entirety). Moreover, Japanese baseball broadcasts often become sideshows for visiting celebrities, or soap boxes for old-guard commentators who feel they are doing fans a disservice if they do not fill every available second of air time with talk about the new mental approach by this team or that player.

Western spectators at Japanese parks might recognize a face or two on the field: 'So this is where that guy ended up! Almost every Japanese team includes at least one foreign player on its roster every season. In the 2001 season, a whopping 70 non-Japanese players appeared on a Japanese pro roster at one time or another. Who are they? Many are Koreans, where professional baseball is also very popular, but most are Western cast-offs, has-beens and players who have never received a proper chance to play in the big leagues.

American players in Japanese baseball

Take the case of Ozzie Timmons, one of the gaikokujin senshu (foreign players) for the Chunichi (Nagoya) Dragons during the 2001 season. As a young player for the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds, Timmons was clearly overmatched by big league pitching. Still, he had power and managed to hang around as a fringe roster player for several years.

In recent seasons, he put together very respectable numbers in the minor leagues, and had a fine pinch-hitting record to show for his time with major league clubs as well. Still, at thirty, most clubs consider a player like Timmons too old to take a risk on. Thus he was able to find a spot in Japan, where he was, if not respected, at least given a chance to play every day and earn some pretty decent money. Timmons hit 12 home runs, batted only .228, suffered the indignity of being sent to play for the farm team, and was let go after the season.

Most foreign players are expected to perform well immediately, and if they do not, they are quickly shown the door. In fact, they are often discarded even if their numbers are superb. One famous example is that of current Detroit Tiger manager Larry Parrish who once hit 42 home runs but was fired the following season. What is interesting is that a team which fires a .300 hitter or a man who has hit forty homers will receive almost no bad press. The sports tabloids here will go along with the team and bad-mouth the player that was let go. Foreign players are often referred to as suketto, or "helpers," even though they may be the most powerful player on the team.

Bobby Rose, for example, was the second baseman for the Yokohama Bay Stars from 1993 to 2000. During that time he was arguably the best all around player in Japan, yet he was never regarded as a true star by either the fans or the media. When Rose retired after a series of contract disputes with the Bay Stars, former Chunichi Dragons manager Senichi Hoshino disparaged Rose and his ilk by saying, "these foreigners, they have no sense of loyalty."

American-born slugger Tuffy Rhodes, who led the Kintetsu to a Japan Series appearance last year, is statistically the best active player in the Pacific League. Rhodes, like Randy Bass before him, challenged Sadahara Oh's single-season home run record last season, but was denied a fair shot at the mark when Oh's team, the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, refused to pitch to him during several head-to-head contests last season.

Oh denied giving orders to walk Rhodes, but even if that is true, he took no steps to prevent his team from not pitching to Rhodes with the record on the line. Imagine the uproar if pitchers in America had refused to pitch to Barry Bonds last season when he was chasing Mark McGuire's single season home run record. What is ironic is that Oh himself is technically a non-Japanese.

He still carries a Chinese passport and has himself suffered for it. Recently retired Yomiuri Giant manager Shigeo Nagashima was Oh's teammate during the glory years of the Giants in the 60's and 70's. Oh's statistics dwarf those of Nagashima, yet it is Nagashima and not Oh who is loved and revered as the symbol of Japanese baseball. Nagashima's nickname is in fact "Mr. Baseball." To say that Nagashima was a better player than Oh is, given a look at their statistics, like saying that Brooks Robinson was a better player than Hank Aaron. Both are Hall-of-Famers perhaps, but one just barely, the other one of the better players of all time.

You Gotta Have Wa.

Current rules allow for each team to have four non-Japanese players on the first-team roster, usually two pitchers and two position players. Thus, some foreign imports find themselves playing for the farm team because the parent club has signed too many non-Japanese that year. Most teams do not sign that many foreigners, however.

Some, notably the Yomiuri Giants and the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, take pride in not relying on outsiders and sign as few non-Japanese as possible. Other teams, such as the Hiroshima Carps, sign few foreigners because their budget does not allow it. It was former Hanshin Tigers manager Katsura Nomura who was quoted as saying that he considered foreign players as "helpers," or "hole-fillers," and that teams such as the Giants and the Hawks that abstained from signing foreigners had his respect.

Foreign players are seen as disposable quantities, and are given short shrift by Japanese baseball brass and the media. But even the poorest of these players are paid well, so no one really feels sorry for them. Anti-foreign bias has been well-documented in books such as Robert Whiting's You Gotta Have Wa, and former major leaguer and Yomiuri Giant Warren Cromartie's Slugging It Out In Japan.

Foreign players often have difficulty because they don't fit in with the mystique of Japanese baseball. Non-Japanese players who have big years are sometimes awarded the Most Valuable Player Award, but most are released after a few years, or offered contracts that are far less than their actual market value. When the player turns down the offer, then, his team can call him greedy or disloyal, a call that is usually take up by the press.

Former Orix Blue Wave outfielder George Arias hit 38 home runs last year for the Orix Blue Wave, but was allowed to leave with little fanfare. He was finally able to sign a contract with the Hanshin Tigers, but it is hard to imagine a second-year, native-born Japanese player hitting 38 home runs and then being told to ply his trade elsewhere.

But letting a strong player go is wrong only if the action is seen from a logical point of view. It seems that the game here is not approached logically, but spiritually. There are really not that many differences in strategy (employing the sacrifice bunt in the early innings is the most famous example), but Japanese claim that their brand of the game is somehow unique. To Americans, Japanese baseball managers, with all their talk of the proper spiritual and moral approach to the game, might bring to mind pompous speeches given by American football coaches.

Whenever there is a managerial change, the sports dailies print with all seriousness long speeches about how the new manager is going to change everything with his new approach. When Katsura Nomura was hired by the Hanshin Tigers, there was much rejoicing in the Kansai area. Fans believed that at long last a manager had been found whose fiery approach would transform the lovable loser Tigers into a powerhouse.

The sports dailies raved about the "Nomura magic" that he had brought to his previous teams. The only problem was that the team itself did not invest in big name players, and squandered the money it did spend. Foreigners were hired and fired at dizzying speed, with Nomura, the fans and the sports press all despairing because none of the current round of players would ever become the "next Randy Bass." After three consecutive last-place finishes, Nomura was forced to resign when his celebrity wife was convicted of tax evasion. It seems that the only "Nomura magic" was in how fast he was able to disappear from the Kansai scene.

This year, the Tigers hired another big-name manager in Senichi Hoshino, who is something of a thug even by Japanese standards. He has been suspended many times for attacking umpires and opposing players. Given the inactivity of the Tiger front office this season, however, the players he attacks this season may be his own. How will the Japanese press, one wonders, respond to that?

Some Japanese ballparks of interest

Both the Central League Yomiuri Giants and the Pacific League Nippon Ham Fighters play at the Tokyo Dome, sometimes referred to as the "Big Egg." Most Giant games are sold out, but tickets for the less popular Nippon Ham games can be bought easily on the day of the game.
It can be reached from the north side by taking the Marunouchi subway line and getting off at Korakuen Station. The JR Sobu line is also a good way to get to the park. JR Suidobashi Station is just a couple of blocks south of the dome.

The Pacific League perennial cellar-dwellers Chiba Lotte Marines have loyal (although not very numerous) fans who cheer them on in Chiba Marine Stadium, in the Makuhari area of Chiba. The closest station is the Kaihin Makuhari Station, on the JR Keiyo line.

The Yokohama Bay Stars (Central League) play at the rather run-down Yokohama Stadium. The park is small and intimate, however, and rather easy to get to - just get off at Kannai Station (either JR line or Yokohama Subway) and follow the signs.

The Hiroshima Carps (Central League) play at Hiroshima Stadium, not too far from the Peace Memorial Park. It can be reached on foot from Hiroshima Station, but the walk may take half an hour. A taxi is a good option.

The Orix Blue Wave (Pacific League) play at attractive Kobe Green Stadium. The nearest station is the Sogo Undo Koen Station on the Seishin-Yamate Subway line from Sannomiya (JR or Hankyu).

The Kintetsu Buffaloes (Central League) play at Osaka Dome, which can be reached by getting off at Taisho Station on the Osaka Loop line, or Kujo Station, on the subway Chuo line.

In the Kansai area, the most famous sports venue is Koshien Stadium, home of the hard-luck Hanshin Tigers and some very rabid fans. Get off at Koshien Station on the Hanshin Line.

Tickets can be bought at the ballpark on the day of the game. They range in price from about 1,000 to 1,500 yen for bleacher seats (which are probably best to avoid) or 3,000 to about 5,000 for better seats on the foul lines or behind home plate. Some of the less popular venues may be the best bet for the first-time goer, since buying a ticket will be easier and the crowds will be more manageable - Central League games featuring the Yomiuri Giants, however, usually sell out no matter where the game is being played.

by Nikolai Yasko

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