Time becomes blurred on the other side of the international date line, as confusing as a heavy fog on a moonless night. How long has it been since men dressed in suits, women in hats and—good gosh!—newspapermen in blue blazers and ties knotted tightly at the collar to attend a baseball game?
A foul ball flies into the stands, but there is no testosterone-fired light for the silly thing and no burlesque mugging for the television cameras once it is recovered. Instead, schoolgirls working as ushers blow shrill whistles to warn spectators of the incoming projectile. No one leaves his seat to chase it. The person who recovers the baseball readily hands it to an usher, who returns it to the home team.
There is no brawling on the field when a pitcher buries a fastball into the ribs of a hitter. Instead, the pitcher tips his cap in apology. Who can remember when players made less money than their manager and actually respected him; when they didn't step out of the box after every pitch, preening like prom dates; when they left the hotdogging to the vendors, the jewelry to their wives and the strikes to the umpires?
All of these things can trick a body clock, but there is more: There are no agents, no multiyear contracts and no wild-card playoff teams. Pitchers warm up in front of their dugouts, players know how to bunt, championship-series games are played in the daytime, and—talk about retro—there is a commissioner to preside over the sport's premier event.
A strike by the Major League Baseball Players Association may have killed the World Series this year, but the game goes on—played as passionately and, given the vacuum left in North America, as poignantly as ever. Looking for baseball as it used to be? It is made in Japan.
Last Saturday, on the day the champions of the American and the National Leagues were to have begun the 91st World Series, the champions of the Pacific and Central Leagues formed a line that stretched across the infield from third base to first base at the Tokyo Dome before Game 1 of the 45th Japan Series, an event that resists American excess even in its name. The Seibu Lions and the Yomiuri Giants were introduced collectively, not individually, as their managers each clutched a bouquet of roses. In a stadium bereft of decorative bunting, VIP field boxes and commemorative logos painted on the playing surface, a police band played a Sousa march and then, even more oddly, Anchors Aweigh.
"It's difficult for Japanese people to understand what is happening in America," Giant pitcher Hiromi Makihara says of the players" strike. "It would probably never happen here. If it did, it would last a couple of days, or a month at the most, because people wouldn't allow it to keep going. I am impressed with the way the American players have the power and stick together for so long."
Press your ear to the ground long enough, though, and you can tell something ominous is coming to yakyu—baseball—in Japan. And it's not just Bobby Valentine, the former Texas Ranger manager, who is expected to manage the perennially awful Chiba Lotto Marines next season. Free agency began last year in the Japan Pro Leagues, albeit in a restrictive form, and it contributed to a 25% jump in the average player salary, to $422,000, this year. Also, the maximum number of gaijin, or foreign players, permitted on each team was increased from two to three.
Games 3, 4 and 5 of the Japan Series, scheduled to begin at 6:15 p.m. this week, were to be the first night games in series history, except those played in the autumn of 1964, during the Tokyo Olympics. This time the night games were set for the cold and wind of Seibu Lions Stadium in Tokorozawa, about an hour outside of Tokyo—"Our Candlestick Park," says Nobuhisa Ito, assistant director of baseball operations for the commissioner—to accommodate television. Midweek day games last year in this nation with an 11-hour workday drew single-digit ratings. Moreover, a young generation of fans is now bedazzled by the J-League, a professional soccer circuit that became an instant success last year with the help of dreadlocked players, Day-Glo uniforms and heavy corporate sponsorship.
"When I came here, every kid was wearing a Giants cap," says author Robert Whiting, an American who began writing for newspapers and magazines in Japan in 1979. "Now the J-League has all these longhaired players and crazy Brazilians running around, and it's more in tune with the younger generation. In America people say baseball is a game for 50-year-old males. It's true to a certain extent here."