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Baseball in Japan: Step Back to an Innocent Era

Dallas Times Herald

More than four hours before game time at Korakuen Stadium, the line for bleacher seats has long since woven its way around the ballpark and down the street.

Kids with orange megaphones and coats embroidered with names of their favorite Yomiuri Giants are camping on blankets in the broiling sun. Some have been there since early morning. People pour in a steadily widening stream from an elevated subway stop nearby.

Shortly after 6 p.m., when Giants’ starter Suguru Egawa throws the first pitch to Taiyo Whales infielder Yutaka Takagi, virtually every one of Korakuen’s 50,000 seats is filled. Vendors hawk Kirin beer and box dinners of buckwheat noodles and tempura. In the right-field stands, the megaphones are tapped in martial unison.

So much for a night game in midseason between third- and fourth-place teams.

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Baseball consumes Japan. Its 12 major league teams--six of them in the Tokyo-Yokohama metropolitan area--drew 16.1 million fans in 1984. Every evening on national television, a half-hour “highlight” show recaps each game.

Stars like Hiroshima Carp outfielder Koji Yamamoto and Giant third baseman Tatsunori Hara shine as brightly as Jim Rice or Dale Murphy do in the United States. Giants’ Manager Sadaharu Oh (868 home runs, .301 lifetime average) is a national hero. At midseason, fans are treated to not one but, count ‘em, three all-star games. A best-of-seven “Japan Series” between champions of the Central and Pacific Leagues is every bit the October obsession that the World Series is stateside.

While the American summer game endures labor disputes, grand-jury investigations and heightened fan cynicism over drug abuse and mushrooming salaries, baseball in Japan seems like a step back into a more innocent sporting age. To 19-year-old junior college student Toyo Mi, the meaningless Giants-Whales match might have been the seventh game of the World Series.

“Baseball is very . . . " she gropes for the right word . . . “dramatic.”

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“It is very dramatic and exciting,” she says.

Introduced to Japan by American sailors and merchants in the late 19th century, baseball has been played professionally here since the 1930s and has operated under the current two-league configuration since the mid-1950s. It may have the look and feel of the American game, but its heart and soul are distinctly Japanese. In the stands, on the field and behind the scenes, it has become a reflection of this uniquely driven society, one that has risen from the ashes of World War II to become an international industrial power.

For players, the season itself is a long march, a testimonial to Japanese regimentation. The 130-game schedule is 32 games shorter than the U.S season. Add the Japan Series, however, and a string of post-season exhibitions, all-star games, old-timers games and Fan Appreciation Days, and some players don’t go home until early December.

The hot-stove league hardly has a chance to get warm, because spring training begins in mid-January. And it bears little resemblance to the sun-splashed romp American players enjoy each year. January in Japan is not Pompano Beach in March.

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“In spring training you get up every morning at 7:30 rain, sleet or snow, and you go for a morning walk to make your appetite better for breakfast,” said Lotte Orions designated hitter Leron Lee, a former Los Angeles Dodger and one of about two dozen American players in Japan. “They have to wipe the snow off the field so we can take practice.”

In Japan, baseball samurai-style is not restricted to the major league level. High school players are on the field 350 days a year. The season culminates in a 10-day, nationally televised tournament.

“It’s the very same reason the Japanese have been successful in business,” said Marty Kuehnert, a Tokyo-based executive for Mizuno, a sporting goods company, and editor of an English language newsletter on Japanese baseball. “If they decide to get into semiconductors, they get into semiconductors. Full time, all the time.”

Players who reach the major leagues find little of the financial bounty to which American players are accustomed. While a handful of Americans transplanted to Japan command big money, average salaries for native players run from $35,000 to $40,000 annually. The highest-paid Japanese player is Hiroshima’s Yamamoto, at a reported $333,000 a year--about $30,000 less than the average salary for an American major leaguer.

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Members of the Carp squad that defeated the Hanyku Braves in last year’s Japan Series each received 630,000 yen, the equivalent of a fat $2,625. Their counterparts on the 1984 Detroit Tigers collected $51,381.

Japanese players are aware of the disparity but seem resigned to it.

“If I say I don’t mind at all, that’s not true,” said the Orions’ Michiyo Aritoh, a lifetime .284 hitter during 15 years in Japanese baseball. “I don’t think about it because there is nothing I can do about it.”

Labor relations as a whole are locked in pre-Andy Messersmith deep-freeze. Multiyear contracts for natives are non-existent. There is a players organization, but it exists, according to Lee, “to send flowers to sick people.” He said that during the 1981 players strike in the United States, Japanese major leaguers were warned not to get any ideas.

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“The commissioner went to every ballclub and had a meeting and told them how bad players were in the states for having a strike and that they better not ever think about getting a union over here,” Lee said.

Players are seldom traded in Japan, effectively indenturing them to one team the for the length of their careers. They become part of a paternalistic corporate culture that provides them with housing and post-baseball employment, but brooks no individualistic behavior.

“The Japanese player is kind of like the Japanese office worker who works for a company. You’re expected to be loyal and work there for a lifetime,’ said Wayne Graczyk, who does English-language broadcasts of some Yomiuri Giants games.

The quality of play--and the playing conditions--are generally comparable to American triple-A ball. But competition is governed by a code of gentility usually not found in the United States. Taking the extra base is considered a breach of etiquette; breaking up a double play, while seen now and then, is still unusual. When a batter is hit, he often receives a tip of the cap from the pitcher.

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Some of the quirks are endearing. In Hiroshima one night after the last out of a Carp win over the Yakult Swallows, star outfielder Yamamoto climbed a wooden box set up at home plate to do a post-game interview. His comments were patched into the public address system for everyone to hear.

Possibly the most eccentric feature is the tie. Many of the league’s stadia are in older urban areas with little surface parking available, making patrons dependent on public transportation that shuts down in the early morning. Thus, no extra inning begins after three hours and the games are not resumed the next day.

Some knowledgeable fans lament that Japanese baseball always may be a pale imitation of the American product.

“Baseball belongs to America. Sumo wrestling belongs to Japan,” said 72-year-old Yoshio Machino, a Hiroshima shop owner who rarely misses a Carp game. “American players are the best, Japanese players are weak.”

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But just as in the United States, a successful team can take a city and lift its spirits as no other civic enterprise can, deflecting its attention from real world disappointments and concerns.

Just across the street from the stark, skeletal remains of Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb Dome, a former government building that remains as a memorial to the Aug. 6, 1945 blast, residents pack Civic Stadium, home of the Carp.

Some believe the team’s exploits (four league titles in 10 years) have meant as much to the bomb-ravaged city’s rebirth as have its sprawling automobile plant and new office buildings.

“The Carp cheered us up. This is what we are proud of,” said Kurao Ueda, a 51-year-old fruit wholesaler.

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“Everyone says Hiroshima is a city always depressed. But we Hiroshima fans show how we are strong for the future. We want others to remember Hiroshima not for the A-bomb, but for the red helmets of the Carp.”


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