An old hand around the diamonds observes Japan's game and finds that baseball is baseball however it's oriented
September 08, 1985

There are so many good things about Japanese baseball, you almost wish the game there could be transported intact to these benighted shores. What instantly struck this hoary observer of the old pastime on his first visit to Japan was that maybe the best aspects of the Japanese game are things they have the good taste to leave out—player strikes, for one. There are, for another, no "waves" in Japanese grandstands, the sheer absence of which makes each ball park a haven of sanity. You can never be certain, of course, that this inane exercise, unrelated as it is to anything that transpires on the field, will not someday cross the Pacific, but for now at least it appears the wavemakers are confined to the backwater of civilization that is ours. Another thing the Japanese don't always do is inflict their national anthem on spectators before the first pitch, a practice that will surely encourage patriotism there. National anthems should be reserved for solemn occasions—or, in the case of La Marseillaise, Rick's Café Americain—and not be trivialized by ball park organists, owners' daughters and local glee clubs. Score one more for Japan.

Another ditty apparently missing from the Japanese repertoire is Take Me Out to the Ball Game; as a result, seventh-inning stretches go unsung by such as Harry Caray (a name, it goes without saying, that has an unhappy connotation in the Land of the Rising Sun). Angry male voices do not bellow at you from Japanese public-address systems, threatening dire consequences if you should appear on the field. Perfectly modulated female voices caution you in this regard and with demonstrably better results. Not that anyone in authority need feel unduly exercised, since balls caught by spectators in Japan are often politely returned to the ushers, a practice that effectively quells brawling attempts by young savages to obtain a relatively worthless souvenir.

There is also every evidence that Japanese fans are as a whole better behaved than their American counterparts, even though whiskey is unabashedly served by vendors and excellent beer is to be had in an instant by the most subtle lift of a finger. The near riots we have seen in our bleacher sections are more rare in that enlightened land. Louts do not patrol Japanese grandstands menacing the innocent. Profane exclamations go unsaid. Fans there do not regard incinerating taxicabs and flinging beer bottles as rituals of the victory celebration as much as ours seem to. Their players, absurdly underpaid by our inflated standards, do not annually demand that their contracts, already signed, be renegotiated, nor do they have the gall to portray themselves as just plain union working stiffs. Japanese players do not retire to the sidelines with abrased cuticles or complain of unfair labor practices if they are compelled to play a day game following a night game. Actually, the majority of Japanese games are played at twilight, an hour despised by American players fearful of the afflictions of the gathering dusk.

The Japanese ballplayer puts in, at minimum, an eight-hour day and may work as many as 15 hours, counting his arduous pregame practice sessions, so that not even store clerks or factory workers may look upon him as a member of the privileged class. And woe betide the player who places his personal interests above the team's. "The nail that sticks up," runs the Japanese proverb, "shall be hammered down." Try that one on Rickey Henderson.

The game on the diamond may not yet measure up to what is seen in most big league parks in the U.S., excluding, say, those in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Arlington, Texas, but, as even the most cynical expatriate will acknowledge, it's still baseball. The Japanese are neither as large nor as swift as the majority of our big-leaguers. Their ball parks are considerably smaller—300 feet down the lines on the average, no more than 395 feet to dead center—and in some parks the infields are entirely of dirt. Aggressive play is something relatively new. The breakup of the double play was introduced by an American named Daryl Spencer in the late '60s; the collision at home plate is almost never seen. The strike zone is so irregular that pitchers and hitters too often play a waiting game until some sort of territorial imperative is established. The typical Japanese manager has a quicker hook for pitchers than Sparky Anderson. Strategy tends to be so rigidly enforced that even the best hitters find themselves sacrificing runners along. And on-field strategy sessions are so verbose that delays of game are frequent.

The foreign imports, gaijin, who are mostly American and are limited to two per major league team, are often paid five times as much as their Japanese counterparts (who average roughly $50,000 per year) or even more, an imbalance that creates understandable resentment, particularly toward those outsiders whose ability doesn't measure up to their $250,000 salaries. Catcher, certainly a pivotal position, may be the most poorly manned in Japan. And because of the comparatively small size of the ball parks, outfielders neither have nor need the strong arms demanded of U.S. major-leaguers.

But Japanese pitchers can gun the ball. Takeido Kaku, who is actually Taiwanese, had his fastball clocked at better than 97 miles an hour before a sore arm temporarily sidelined him in July. Most Japanese teams have a 90-mile-an-hour fireballer. "It's the strongest part of their game," says Rich Gale, a former peripatetic U.S. major-leaguer now pitching for the Hanshin Tigers. The home run, of which the Yomiuri Giants' former first baseman, now manager, Sadaharu Oh is baseball's alltime leading practitioner, is still a big part of their game. The Central League, the more popular of Japan's two six-team big leagues (the Pacific League is the other), has a vibrant three-team pennant race grinding to a climax. And every game, even those involving also-rans, becomes an unusual and entertaining spectacle.

Nagoya Stadium, home of the Chunichi Dragons, is surely the busiest park in all of baseballdom. Its walls are so alive with pronouncements and advertisements written in Japanese characters that they look as if sci-fi-sized insects have set up residence there. The wooden stands, painted bright blue and green, are close to the field. Yellow-jacketed vendors peddle everything from sushi to hot dogs that are as corrosively inedible as anyone might find in the U.S. The old scoreboard in centerfield is antiquated and barely electrified, and a giant baseball perches near it. Lovely ballgirls in white miniskirts romp on the field and similarly clad usherettes patrol the stands. Just beyond the leftfield fence the 130-mile-an-hour bullet trains whiz by. The stadium, built in 1948, seats only 35,000, but it plays to more than 85% capacity. The Dragons finished second a year ago and drew just under two million for their 65 home games. The team is mired in fifth place this year, but attendance has scarcely lagged. A recent three-game series with the last place Yakult Swallows of Tokyo drew more than 100,000 to the buzzing little ball park. Japanese teams, incidentally, assume the names of the corporations that own them, not the cities where they play. The Yakult people purvey lactic acid drinks, among other items, so the team's nickname, coincidentally, pertains to the company's product as well as bird life. The Hiroshima Toyo Carp are a partial exception to the corporate rule. The Carp are publicly owned, somewhat like the Green Bay Packers, but the major shareholder, nevertheless, is the Mazda automobile company.

The bleachers at Nagoya Stadium offer a riotous spectacle, for it is there that the two teams' cheering sections—yes, cheering sections—take their stations: Dragon rooters in right, Carp people in left. This is no haphazard assemblage. The rooters are nonpaid volunteers who arrive hours early to assume their positions in the cheap seats. They bring to the task banners and flags, whistles and drums, trumpets and trombones, and they wear brilliantly colored happi coats. They are spurred on by exuberant megaphone-wielding head cheerleaders, who exhort their troops to a constant racket during their team's time at bat. When the other team is at bat they gather themselves for the next assault. The cheering, while certainly stimulating in its way, takes on a sort of dreadful monotony, since the same songs and chants are repeated endlessly throughout the game. Nine innings, for example, of the Bon-Odori theme, which the Japanese sing during the mid-August period when they honor their ancestors, can make one long for a return to the airwaves of the Mound City Blue Blowers or the Hoosier Hot-shots. The cheering, chanting, drumming, whistling and trumpeting continues unabated, even when the score reaches 8-0, as it eventually did in favor of the Carp this night in Nagoya Stadium.

Hiroshima is the one team in Japan that does not currently employ American players, a happenstance that a visitor from the States might assume has something to do with the 40th anniversary this year of the arrival above that city of the Enola Gay. Last year the Carp did employ two Americans but won both the Central League pennant and the Japan Series from the Pacific League champion Hankyu Braves without help from them. One didn't play and the other was injured.

The Carp's success is cause for rejoicing among Japanese baseball's Yankee-Go-Home purists, who feel it's time for them to play the American game without Americans. Among the most outspoken of the purifiers is a past baseball commissioner, Takeso Shimoda, a former Supreme Court Justice and onetime ambassador to the U.S. Shimoda concedes that American players were needed in the years following World War II to raise the level of baseball in Japan from the "zero" it had sunk to, but now, as he told The New York Times last year, "I think it's better to have only Japanese players on the teams."

Carp manager Takeshi Koba, 49, who has won four pennants in his 10 years at the Hiroshima helm, insists that his team has no prejudice against the gaijin and that it would happily hire an American if it could find one who could pitch shutouts or hit .300. "But I'm afraid what we need would be too expensive and not worth the risk," he says. And the Carp don't really need any more bait to hook their fans. In third baseman Sachio Kinugasa and outfielder Koji Yamamoto, the latter the highest-paid Japanese player at $340,000 a year, they have two bona fide immortals. Yamamoto, 38, hit his 500th career home run on July 26, and Kinugasa, also 38, played in his 1,900th consecutive game on Aug. 5. Yamamoto has no chance at his age to surpass Oh's phenomenal career record of 868 homers, or even Henry Aaron's 755, but Kinugasa, who, as of Aug. 30, had 453 homers himself, has a realistic shot at a record previously regarded as unassailable in any league in any country—Lou Gehrig's 2,130 consecutive games played. The only American in recent years to approach Gehrig has been Steve Garvey, who put together a string of 1,207 games from 1975 to '83. Kinugasa, if he can hold on, can surpass Gehrig in another year and a half, playing every game of the 130-game Japanese season. He is not unmindful of his prospective rendezvous with history.

"I know the record," he said through an interpreter before the shutout of the Dragons. "But I will try not to think about it. When I get to 2,000 games I'll allow myself to be conscious of it. If I can play that long." Kinugasa, who is half black, is a cheerful, muscular man of medium height. He has been injured often enough in his 20-year career to consider benching himself, he says, laughing, "but when I weigh baseball against injury, baseball always wins. I think I would like to play until I die. I must ask you, though, where does your Pete Rose get the energy to keep going? I'd be very concerned to know his secret."

The Carp are the defending champs, and the Yomiuri Giants have such a proud history that they are the Yankees and the Dodgers of Japanese baseball rolled into one. But the people's choice this year is a team from Osaka, the Hanshin Tigers. Fourth-place finishers a year ago, the Tigers have been in and out of first with the Carp much of the season and are striving to win their first Central League pennant since 1964. "They're the favorites of the blue-collar crowd, something like the Chicago Cubs were last year," says Marty Kuehnert, 39, who first went to Japan as an exchange student from Stanford and has lived there 15 years. He and Robert Whiting, author of The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, a portrait of Japanese baseball, qualify as the ranking American experts on the Japanese game. "Osaka is an industrial town," says Kuehnert. "In Tokyo there is a whiskey-and-water sophisticated crowd. In Osaka they put up barbed wire to keep the Tiger fans off the field. And their fans go everywhere with the team—maybe 5,000 of them traveling hundreds of miles to see them play. I'd say the whole country has Tigermania."

Whiting agrees. Going to a Giants game, he says, used to be "like attending a violin concerto." Hanshin fans, on the other hand, are mostly artisans and day laborers. A detachment of them did in fact storm the field in June at their Koshien stadium after the umpires called a game—precipitously—because of rain. This season, for the first time in Whiting's memory, the Giants have not dominated the front pages of Japan's seven daily sports newspapers. The Tigers have been stealing their thunder. "It's a kind of Miracle at Coogan's Bluff," says Whiting, recalling the come-from-behind heroics of the 1951 New York Giants. But the Tigers are playing the remainder of the season under the shadow of tragedy. On Aug. 12, the club's president, Hajime Nakano, was among the 520 people who died when a Japan Air Lines 747 crashed into a mountain en route from Tokyo to Osaka.

There is irony in the unavoidable fact that the Tigers—Japan's Team—should be led by two gaijin, the Americans Randy Bass and Gale. Bass, 31, who won home run championships in four different U.S. minor leagues, played in 130 major league games for five teams and hit only .212. Nonetheless, he is bidding fair to become the first American—indeed, the only player other than Oh—to win a Triple Crown in the Central League since 1938. (Greg [Boomer] Wells, an American, did it last year in the Pacific League.) And sacrilege piled on sacrilege, Bass is also threatening Oh's single-season homer record of 55, set 21 years ago. As of Aug. 30, he had 41. Gale, 31, an in-and-out pitcher for the Royals, Giants, Reds and Red Sox, with a big league record of 55-56, has become the ace of the Tiger staff, with a 9-7 record so far this season.

Gale and Bass represent what appears to be a new breed of gaijin. Neither can be described, as so many of their predecessors could, as "ugly Americans." Bass has played courageously this year with a broken bone in his foot, and he seems to understand, as many Americans don't, the emphasis the Japanese place on long and hard practice. "They put 100 percent into their practices," he says laconically. "You're expected to do it." But after wallowing for so long in the minors, he enjoys the attention. "Rich and I are recognized everywhere," he says. "Not that that's so hard. He's 6'7" and red-haired and I weigh 210 and have a beard." Bass is earning $400,000 this year, and 31-year-old Warren Cromartie, whose 35 home runs for the Yomiuri Giants last year were 21 more than he ever hit in any one of his nine seasons with the Montreal Expos, is making somewhere near $700,000. Some former ballplayers of lesser status in the U.S. have made Japan a career. Bobby Marcano, 34, once an Angel farmhand, is playing his 11th season there, and Leron Lee, 37, who played for the Cardinals, Padres, Indians, and Dodgers, is in his ninth. Lee's brother Leon is in his eighth season. But some still feel, shall we say, disoriented. Ken Macha, 34, who batted .258 with the Pirates, Expos and Blue Jays, but is a solid .300 hitter with power after four years with the Dragons, suggests that if he had stayed in the States, "I'd probably be nothing more than a writer for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED by now." He joshes, of course. "Actually, I never thought I'd wind up in Japan, but I'm glad I came," he says. "Still, I've got to start thinking about the future. My little boy is starting to ask me why his friends don't speak English."

"Guys who've survived nine years in the minors like me can play here," says Keith Comstock, 29, a lefthanded pitcher who had a cup of coffee with the Twins last year and is now in his first year with the Yomiuri Giants. "Guys who've played in the big leagues have trouble here with their pride. Me, I came over with no pride, so it was easy. Communication can be a problem, but my friends at home speak broken English, too."

Cromartie was considered to be something of an eccentric at Montreal, a player who had a candy bar named after him—the Cro-Bar—and who fled one game because he feared being hit by lightning. In Japan he is considered the most flamboyant of all the gaijin, though he insists he has toned down his act. "I've learned to adapt," he says. "After all, they made it worth my while to come over here. But I still ask myself just what it is I'm doing here. It seems crazy." Cromartie will be 32 next month, yet he entertains notions of returning to the big U.S. leagues, preferably to play for his friend Pete Rose in Cincinnati. "Now that would be fun," he says. In the meantime, he minds his manners. "Oh, I might bitch and moan some of the time, but this is my job, my life, and I've never regretted anything I've ever done. Then, too, there's my manager, Mr. Oh. He's the greatest. We're very close friends. He's taught me patience and concentration. I named my new baby [born in April] Cody Oh Cromartie after him."

It's not easy for a ball park situated in the middle of an amusement park to retain its sense of dignity, but Korakuen Stadium, home of the Giants in Tokyo, has somehow brought it off. Parachutes rise and fall just beyond its leftfield fence and roller coasters soar high above the third base grandstand. If Nagoya Stadium looks like an opened box of Cracker Jack, Korakuen is a Disneyland. And yet there is no question it is big league. Unlike many Japanese ball parks, it is double-decked and completely enclosed. The scoreboard is an electronic marvel with instant replay capability. The stadium is clean and brilliantly lighted. Alas, the field is of artificial turf when natural grass would have given it that last touch of majesty.

It is a home befitting the Giants, for, with all of the sudden attention lavished on the Hanshin Tigers, the Giants remain the national team. Every one of its 130 games is televised nationally, and still, Korakuen Stadium is virtually sold out every night. Last year the team drew 2,974,000 for 65 dates. The Dodgers, by comparison, led the U.S. major leagues with 3,134,824 for 81 dates.

The Giants, founded in 1934 by Matsutaro Shoriki, owner and publisher of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, were the first Japanese professional team and they've been the best. Baseball actually had been introduced to Japan as early as 1873 by Horace Wilson, an American professor at a Tokyo university, but until Shoriki organized the Giants, the game had been played only at the amateur level. Shoriki invited a major league all-star team from the States, featuring Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer, Al Simmons and Lefty Grove, to tour Japan in 1931. He brought back another, this one with Babe Ruth, three years later. Both American all-star squads went undefeated, but in the second tour, a 19-year-old Japanese pitcher named Eji Sawamura actually struck out Gehringer, Ruth, Jimmie Foxx and Gehrig in succession, a feat rivaling Carl Hubbell's in that year's major league All-Star Game. Shoriki wanted to see such young Japanese talent develop, so, on the advice of his friend Lefty O'Doul, he formed the Giants. One year after the Giants opened shop, six other Japanese teams joined them in a league, which prospered until the war years. When the Japanese game needed reviving after 1945, O'Doul arrived with his Pacific Coast League San Francisco Seals for a series of exhibitions. The 11 games drew 400,000 fans. The Japanese game was on its way.

And so were the Giants. In the last 34 seasons, they have won 23 Central League pennants and 16 Japan Series championships. From 1965 through 1973, they won nine straight pennants and nine Series titles, an achievement unmatched by any other professional baseball team. The Giants' star of stars for 22 of those glorious seasons was Oh, the greatest home run hitter in the history of baseball. Before his retirement in 1980, Oh's statistics were truly staggering. He hit 30 or more homers for 19 straight seasons; 40 or more for eight straight seasons and for 13 all told. He hit 50 or more three times, the last time when he was 37 years old, in 1977. He was Japan's home run champion for 13 consecutive years. He won 13 RBI titles and five batting championships. He won back-to-back Triple Crowns. He averaged a homer every 10.7 times at bat. Ruth, in comparison, averaged one every 11.8 and Aaron one every 16.4. Conceding that he played in smaller ball parks and against lesser opposition, his numbers remain astonishing. Many American players and managers insist that Oh would have been a star in any league. In Japan, he is a deity. At least he was until he took over as manager of the Giants last year and finished third. He's second this year, but staying close, only half a game behind.

Oh, 45 now, is wearing his Giants uniform, which is virtually identical to that worn by the San Francisco Giants—black and orange lettering, black cap and socks—except that it is in an off-yellow color instead of white. In his day he was considered a large man by Japanese measure—about 5'10", 180 pounds—but now his players are catching up to him in size. Still, he looks powerful, with large sloping shoulders and thick underpinnings. He is entertaining visitors in a reception room just off his office, and he seems comfortable and relaxed. Oh is, in fact, famous for being cooperative. His short-cropped hair is still dark, flecked here and there with gray. He is in all a handsome man with a healthy overbite and deep-set black eyes that are more merry than intense. He could be a middle-aged Japanese businessman.

"The fans have this image of a superstar," he says through an interpreter, chuckling. "They feel a team can win for him anytime." A shake of the head. He is familiar with the managerial misadventures of such superstars as Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby. "I should like to be a great manager, but I'm still learning. In a way, this job was thrust on me. I was willing to draw the line at the end of my career, but I felt an obligation to return, not so much to the Giants as to the fans." He laughs again. "Now I find that I'm much busier than before." And the gaijin? "Ah, with Cromartie and Comstock...I will let them do things their own way as long as it works. I know things are different for them—the strike zone and other things. Well, to complain is easy, but it is not a solution. I'm happy, of course, that Cromartie's child was named after me—and happy that he was born in Japan."

Oh is asked if Japanese baseball is becoming more Americanized. "Your game is stronger, so we follow what you do," he says. "Japan is influenced by America in many things. We change the rules when you do. And since Americans are making more money in baseball, our players want more, too." He pauses and leans forward, hands on crossed legs. "But there is still a strong sense of loyalty here. I don't think that money determines the value of a player. What he is in the minds of the fans determines his final worth. It is the memory that counts. Babe Ruth is yet in the minds of the fans. And Willie Mays. They made far less than players do now. But they will be remembered longer." He leans back in his chair. "I should like to be remembered. Oh, here I will. But I would have liked to have played at least one season at my peak in American baseball. Even now, I'd like to be able to send an outstanding player to your game for a season." He laughs. "But I don't have one in mind." He rises to go. "Everyone wants to be remembered. Only time can tell how great you are. Never money."

Solemnly, politely, he leaves. He walks down a long corridor leading to his dugout, trailed by a phalanx of Japanese reporters who have been waiting for him. At the end of the corridor, he steps through a small open doorway into the fading light of late afternoon. It is a humid day, so damp the air can almost be snatched up in a fist. Oh climbs the dugout steps and walks onto the field, his entourage in tow. There are cheers of recognition as fans catch sight of the No. 1 on his back. He waves gently and turns his concentration to batting practice. Cromartie is at the cage watching his manager, smiling. The American takes in the scene—Oh, his entourage and the cheering early spectators. Then, smiling again, Cromartie steps into the cage to take his cuts. It's all baseball, after all.

PHOTOANDY HAYT TWO PHOTOSANDY HAYTBall parks like Nagoya (above) and Korakuen have their own special character. TWO PHOTOSANDY HAYTYamamoto (left) can't carp about his big salary. Kinugasa (below, center) is closing in on Gehrig's consecutive games record. TWO PHOTOSANDY HAYTAt a game in Tokyo, a Swallows team mascot warns its fans as well as cheering Tigermaniacs to "be careful of foul balls." TWO PHOTOSANDY HAYTThe towering Gale (right) is the ace of the Tigers' pitching staff, and Bass has a Central League Triple Crown in his sights. PHOTOANDY HAYTCromartie, the most flamboyant of the "gaijin," has a Giant—$700,000—salary to boot. TWO PHOTOSANDY HAYTAggressive base running is new to Japan, but the batting style of the Tigers' Akinobu Okada has been around since, Oh, 1959. PHOTOANDY HAYTHe may manage a No. 2 team, but there's no question as to Oh's standing with the fans.