Japan Displays Major-League Passion for Team Spirit : At Tokyo baseball game, American finds a sport very different from our national pastime.

Strauss is TV critic for the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey.

There are those who will tell you that Japanese baseball is just like its American cousin: four balls, three strikes, three outs, nine innings, pitcher, catcher, spitting and all that. But that is like saying Tom Sawyer and Claude Monet are quite alike because they both used paintbrushes.

Still, that doesn't at all mean you should avoid the Japanese version of our mutual national pastime when you venture across the Pacific. Just as sociologist Jacques Barzun once said, "Who wants to know about the American psyche had better know baseball," any visitor who desires to crack the enigmatic Japanese social and psychological code had better know his Yomiuri Giants and Sadaharu Ohs.

The day we arrived in Tokyo for a visit last year, my Japanese friend, Kimi, insisted my wife and I go with him to the Tokyo Dome for a Lotte Orions-Nippon Ham Fighters game. The mecca for Japanese baseball fans, the Tokyo Dome was finished just in time for the 1988 season. It was built next to the site of Korakuen Stadium, the mecca for 50 years, near the tranquil korakuen Gardens, almost smack-dab in the middle of Tokyo.

The Tokyo Dome, appropriately called the Big Egg by locals because of its shape, houses the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame, several restaurants and To!Do!, perhaps the most amazing baseball paraphernalia store in creation. One afternoon, I came by an hour after a game and fans were still standing with typical Japanese patience for their chance to browse through the orderly aisles of To!Do!, which carries everything from inspirational compact disc recordings of their favorite players to team-insignia rice bowls.

The Nippon Ham Fighters play in the Central League, perennially the lesser of the two Japanese major leagues. Both the Ham Fighters and the Yomiuri Giants of the Pacific League play home games in the Big Egg, but, as Kimi said, it was our good fortune that it was the Ham Fighters who were home the night we arrived.

The Giants, you see, are the unassailable kings of Japanese baseball, and every game of every Giants season, whether they are in first place or last, is sold out a minimum of two weeks ahead of time. The Giants were the first big-time pro Japanese team and, as such, set the standards for style, substance and strategy.

Loyalty to the Giants spreads from the emperor down to every sales clerk. The Giants are the Dodgers, Yankees, Mets and Cubs all put together. Robert Whiting, in his masterful cultural study of Japanese baseball, "You Gotta Have Wa," tells of the owner of one of the other Pacific League clubs saying that a perfect season would be one in which the Giants won the pennant and his own team came in second.

Like most true Japanese baseball fans, Kimi insisted we get to the game at least an hour early. We bought our unreserved upper-deck seats--at $18 each we paid three times the cost of comparable seats at Dodger Stadium--and counted them a bargain compared to the $30 that the Big Egg charges for an average down-the-baseline box seat.

The first thing that struck us was a typhoon of cacophony. You get to a game a little early at Dodger Stadium and you expect a low hum of fungo-hitting, glove-tapping and vendor-hawking. Not so in Japan.

Each team has a cheering section in the outfield bleachers. The japanese may generally be the most reserved people on the planet, but put them in a bleacher seat and they make fans of Anthrax and Megadeth look docile.

Each cheering section has a designated trumpeter, who stops blaring one or another team fight song only on pain of lifelong torture. The orchestrated cheers stop only at the final out, most often accompanied by every bleacherite banging hollow plastic team-insignia bats (which double as megaphones) against some hard surface. Team flags are waved without interruption. At a dull Ham Fighter game, the noise is annoying. Under the reverberating dome at a Giants game, it's unbearable.

Amid this din, we watched the Ham Fighters and Orions warm up, and warm up, and warm up.

For at least two hours before each game--and often up to five--Japanese players run sprints, turn practice double plays and catch fly balls against the fence. Japanese look with disdain on the 15 minutes of stretching and few swings of batting practice American players take before a game. The interminable practice is the only way to reach the supreme state of "wa."

And it is that virtue that separates the Japanese and American versions of baseball more than the expanse of the Pacific. In his book, Whiting explains that a team's wa --its balance or equilibrium--is far more important than winning. So watching practice is almost a necessity to an evening of Japanese baseball.

When the game finally started, we began to notice a few different phenomena. Most are not that jarring. Public address announcers in Japan are female. Sushi and soba noodles are hawked in the stands and beef bento (lunch boxes) and sake can be bought at snack stands. Pacific League games have six umpires. Foul balls are returned to ushers and put back in play.

Then the game begins . . . and seemingly never ends. If you remember two Japanese social traits it will help you keep your humor when you watch a game there: Life is a collective experience, and no one should be embarrassed by losing face.

In the first inning of this particular game, the Ham Fighters' second batter got a one-out single. The third hitter, as with most third-slot hitters in baseball a power hitter, laid down a sacrifice bunt. If Jose Canseco, say, or Darryl Strawberry were asked to sacrifice bunt once a decade, let alone in the first inning of a game, fits would be thrown, lawsuits would be filed and record books would be rewritten. But a first-inning, two-run homer might embarrass the other manager or pitcher, so a bunt was appropriate in this situation.

Most Japanese major-league games last well over three hours, since there are innumerable mound conferences, all attended by every infielder and sometimes an outfielder or two. While the manager's word is law, everyone's opinion is solicited, even in an obvious intentional walk situation, or in a game where the defensive team is already down seven runs in the eighth inning.

The drawn-out contests do have one curious sidelight. One night I was watching on television as the Hiroshima Carp make an amazing eighth-inning comeback against the Giants . . . when a comedy program came on. It was the scheduled 9 p.m. program and it was precisely 9 p.m. Even exciting games get only the prescribed three hours on Japanese TV.

Many mediocre Japanese hitters, use what is called the "flamingo" stance, in which the batter's rear leg is planted and the forward leg dangles in the air as the pitch is thrown. Try this in your next office softball game and I guarantee a load of foul tips; it is an incredibly awkward way to hit a baseball. But it was the stance of the great Sadaharu Oh, who hit 868 home runs in his career with the Giants. Players having trouble hitting are taught the "flamingo" to be just like the man they respectfully call "Mr. Oh." As obedient players--almost all bow to the wishes of their coaches--they comply and see their batting averages dip.

The necessity to help an opponent save face has other ramifications in Japanese games. About 10% of a team's 130 games during the season are ties. A close win or a tie is preferable to an 8-0 no-hitter. Fast players often will not steal a base if their team is ahead by a run in the late innings, preferring to pad their statistics during blowout games, just the opposite of the American pattern. A pitcher who has given up three straight hits to tie a game is often allowed to stay in the game in hope of getting another out so that he can leave with his honor intact.

Only two Americans are allowed on each Japanese major-league team. (Former Angels Jack Howell, Johnny Ray and Alvin Davis and ex-Dodger Ralph Bryant are among those playing in Japan this year.) Often Americans rack up marvelous statistics and are paid far more than their Japanese compadres, but they rarely stay more than two years. The grueling pregame practices, the constant besieging by sportswriters even at their apartments, the subtle racism and the language and cultural barrier eventually wear most down.

Oddly, though, all the Japanese teams are known by English names and all, save the Hiroshima Carp (a municipally run team), are owned by corporations that use their names in the titles. The Yomiuri Giants, for instance, are owned by the Yomiuri Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the country. The Nippon meatpacking company owns the Ham Fighters. The Taiyo Whales in Yokohama belong to the Taiyo fish company. Kawasaki's Lotte Orions are owned by the Lottecandy company. The Kintetsu Buffaloes and Seibu Lions are mainly advertising vehicles for their owners' similarly named train lines and department stores.

The tradition, especially at Dodger Stadium, of leaving the game around the seventh inning just to beat the traffic, would get you a section full of cold stares at the Big Egg. Games are savored; they are Kabuki plays in flannels.

When we finally were able to escape the Big Egg, nearly 4 1/2 hours after we entered, deafened by the din and bleary-eyed from the nearly two dozen mound conferences in the 7-4 Orions victory, we knew we had been through a monumental cultural experience.

We think we might have even been at a baseball game.


The Where and Wa

of Japan's Baseball

Getting there: The Tokyo Dome is at the Korakuen stop of the Marunouchi (Red) subway line. The five-stop, 15-minute ride from the main Tokyo Station costs 110 yen, about 90 cents. The Tokyo rail system is so extensive that it would be foolish to drive, or even take a cab, through heavy traffic to the stadium, where parking is very limited and extremely expensive.

When to go: The Japanese baseball season starts in April and ends, this year, Oct. 1. The Japan Series, the equivalent of our World Series, begins soon after between the winners of the Central and Pacific leagues.

Cost: Unreserved tickets for Ham Fighters games at the Tokyo Dome are usually available on a walk-up basis, though the cost is much steeper than in the United States: $18 for unreserved upper deck down the baselines and $10 in the bleachers.

Souvenir prices in the To!Do! memorabilia store range from about $3 for a key chain to $15 for a team hat to $35 for a set of compact discs of spiritual and, incidentally, baseball instruction by Japanese stars. Most vendors and ushers speak some English and all are unfailingly polite.

Also worth a visit within the Tokyo Dome is the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame (admission $2.75), but be aware that all exhibits are labeled in Japanese only.

For more information: The Japan National Tourist Organization, 624 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles 90017 (213-623-1952), has information on the entire country. In Tokyo, the Tourist Information Center, 6-6 Yuraku-cho 1-chome (local phone 03-3502-1461), near the Imperial Palace on the west side of the Yurakucho railway station may be able to help visitors determine which teams are playing and whether tickets are available. Or check with the Baseball Hall of Fame, 1-3-61 Koraku, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo (local phone 03-3811-3600).

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