Advertisement

On-Field Attack Ends Japan Stint for Ump

Share
THE WASHINGTON POST

It was an experiment that was supposed to bring the United States and Japan closer together. Instead, it ended with punching and shoving, a shower of garbage and the latest cultural disconnect between two countries that can’t quite seem to figure each other out.

Mike Di Muro, the first American umpire to work full time in Japanese professional baseball, is leaving Japan just three months into the season because of an on-field fracas in which several players and coaches shoved and struck him during a game.

U.S. Major League Baseball officials called Di Muro home over the incident Monday, bringing a sour end to what started out as a promising exchange between two countries whose dealings in everything from semiconductors to whale meat are often marred by cultural misunderstandings.

Advertisement

Although Japan is one of the world’s least violent societies, manhandling of umpires--absolutely taboo in the United States--is relatively commonplace here and is an accepted way of getting them to change their calls.

Di Muro, who was invited to Japan this season to help improve the quality of Japanese umpiring, said he and American baseball officials he consulted were “shocked” by Thursday’s dust-up, which involved at least five Japanese players and coaches.

The Americans were incredulous that none of the players or coaches involved was fined or suspended. Only one, a player who struck Di Muro in the chest once with his fist and swung at him a second time, was given a letter of reprimand.

Di Muro said American officials would not allow him to continue working in a league where players can rough up umpires without meaningful punishment.

“What will the next guy be allowed to do if I call a strike--take a bat to my head?” Di Muro, 29, said in an interview. “There’s a great difference in the style of baseball here and in America, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I would hope that when you’re talking about a physical assault, there would be no acceptance of that no matter where you are.”

Officials in Japan’s Central League had asked Di Muro, an umpire in American triple-A baseball, one level below the majors, to work in Japan this season to improve sagging fan and player respect for Japanese umpires. League officials said they wanted him to teach by example with his American-style “fair and strict and lively conduct.”

Advertisement

The incident that caused Di Muro’s departure took place Thursday night in Gifu, a city west of Tokyo. Di Muro called a strike on slugger Yasuaki Taiho of the Chunichi Dragons. Taiho argued the call and refused at first to step back into the batter’s box to take the next pitch.

A tape shows that after Taiho stepped back in, Di Muro called another strike and Taiho argued again. This time, he approached Di Muro and repeated, “Why?” and “No strike.” Di Muro told him to get back into the batter’s box. Taiho refused.

Coaches at first and third bases, as well as the manager and a coach from the dugout, ran to home plate. Di Muro then ejected Taiho from the game.

As soon as he did, the first base coach put his hands on Di Muro’s chest and argued with him. Then Taiho punched Di Muro in the chest. More players ran toward the scene, and the group shoved Di Muro away from home plate. Taiho swung at Di Muro again but missed.

Di Muro eventually was grabbed by Leo Gomez, the Dragon third baseman and a former player for the Baltimore Orioles. Di Muro said Gomez told him, “You’ve got to get out of there. They do this all the time over here.”

As is common practice in Japanese games, the head umpire got on the public address system and explained the incident to the crowd. Di Muro said the announcement so enraged the crowd that two young men climbed the screen behind home plate to scream at him, and other people threw plastic noise-makers and garbage toward the field.

Advertisement

“It was not a comfortable feeling,” he said.

Baseball has become an area of increasingly common ground for Japan and the United States as more Japanese players join the U.S. major leagues. Having an American umpire spend this season in Japan seemed a natural idea to some, even though the two countries play entirely different brands of baseball. The rules are the same, but they have been interpreted differently to suit each culture.

In the United States, umpires are strong figures of authority whose calls may be questioned, argued and booed from the stands, but are almost never reversed. In Japan, umpires have evolved as weak figures whose decisions are often subject to reversal if questioned.

In the United States, hitting an umpire can end a player’s season. In Japan, it’s just part of the game.

Japanese players and coaches berate umpires and occasionally hit or shove them to make their point. At times in the 1980s, Japanese umpires were beaten bloody by coaches.

The incident involving Di Muro, which lasted only a few seconds, seemed relatively common and minor to many here, who felt the Americans overreacted by calling Di Muro home. One sports newspaper ran a mocking headline that said “Bye-Bye” in English. In smaller type, it said, “Umpire Di Muro: ‘I was scared of Taiho (the player who hit him). I’m going to quit.’ ”

But many more here said they understood why Di Muro is leaving and called his departure a setback for Japan.

Advertisement

Di Muro had become something of a celebrity. He had been featured in most major newspapers and television stations and was recognized wherever he went. Japanese baseball fans seemed to like him and many asked for his autograph.

So Monday’s announcement at a news conference was colored not by anger but by disappointment that a well-intentioned idea had been crushed beneath the weight of cultural differences.

“This is an embarrassing day for Japanese baseball,” said Tomoaki Takayama, a columnist for the Sports Nippon newspaper.

Di Muro said he is disappointed to be leaving. “The Japanese umpires are good people and good umpires,” he said. “I would hate to see things set back even further over here because of this.”

“This is a big loss for Japanese baseball,” said Hiromori Kawashima, president of the Central League. “The time has come for us to fundamentally discuss why these things happen and what we can do about it.

Advertisement