On Sunday, the day he had been scheduled to start the seventh game of the Japan Series, Yomiuri Giant pitcher Masumi Kuwata reported to the Tokyo Dome wearing something obviously less serious than his game face. He walked into a room off the Giants' clubhouse and, when asked how he felt, broke into a big smile and announced, "I am drunk." It was 11 o'clock in the morning. It had been eight hours since he flopped into his hotel bed to end a night of revelry.
There would be no Game 7. The Giants had seen to that the night before with a 3-1 clinching victory over the Seibu Lions, the aftereffects of which admittedly had not left Kuwata's system. If Kuwata's brazenness—delivered in perfect English, no less—appeared more American than Japanese, that's just part of his character.
A 26-year-old righthander, Kuwata is a free spirit who talks to the baseball when he pitches; who is an American-film buff and is bored by Japanese flicks; who refined his diet according to the suggestions of American teammates (no meat, including raw horse, on any of the three days before a start); and who chooses to tool around Tokyo's congested, drive-on-the-left streets in a Mercedes with the steering wheel on the lefthand side. Most unusual for a Japanese, he has yearned to play baseball in the U.S. ever since he traveled to California with his high school team and marveled at how his American peers practiced in T-shirts and shorts.
"That would never happen in Japan," he said. "We have to be suited up in full uniform. Americans, they just play the game. In Japan it's 'We must....' and 'We have to....' There are good things and bad things in Japan and in America. I really like the good things in America. I like the individualism." That explains why Kuwata intends to pursue a career in the U.S. major leagues after next season, when he can declare himself a free agent. "That is my dream," he said.
While working on going to America, Kuwata enhanced his already legendary reputation at home with a decidedly un-American style of pitching in the Japan Series: After throwing six innings in a Game 1 defeat, Kuwata came out of the bullpen in the 10th inning of Game 3 to save a 2-1 win, cranked out 167 pitches in a 9-3 complete-game victory in Game 5 and was scheduled to start the seventh game with two days' rest. It was a level of effort he welcomed, even though he's just 5'9" and 176 pounds.
"The body aches, but I would have been ready," he said. "When you come this far, it is mostly a mental challenge. In America, pitchers look for help when they get close to about 100 pitches. In Japan, we value a complete game more."
Kuwata and Hiromi Makihara, who took care of two complete-game wins himself, including the clincher, figured in all four of Yomiuri's victories. Makihara, another righty, won a Toyota (with the steering wheel on the righthand side) as the series' Most Valuable Player, but Kuwata's workload ranked as one of many curiosities that came in all shapes and sizes during the Giants' run to their 18th championship in 45 years and first since 1989. The oddities included the rotund figure of the jolly Giant, Hiromoto Ohkubo, who would be the John Kruk of Japan if he lost a few kilograms, as well as the lithe frame of teammate Koichi Ogata, who looks to be as weak as the U.S. dollar in his country but proved otherwise. Both players hit stunning home runs.
Workhorse though he is, it still came as a surprise when Kuwata, the Yomiuri ace, marched in from the bullpen at Lions Stadium needing two outs to close out Game 3. The second batter scheduled to hit against him in the one-run game was Kazuhiro Kiyohara, his former high school teammate. Kiyohara, who like most Japanese grew up a devout Giant fan, had broken down and cried when Yomiuri chose Kuwata instead of him in the 1985 draft. When the fellow alums met in Game 1, Kiyohara crushed a home run his first time up. Kuwata was able to keep Kiyohara in the park in Game 3, holding him to a single before getting the last out.
Seibu tied the series at two games each the next night with a 6-5 victory in 12 innings—just three innings short of the maximum permitted under Japanese rules, in which case the game would have ended in a draw. The fans accept this arrangement politely, as they do most everything else, such as the midgame garbage pickup at Seibu Lions Stadium. Ushers walk up the long aisles in the fifth inning with green plastic bags, whereupon the fans pass their trash to the ends of the rows to be deposited. And don't try this at home, major league clubs: Vendors roam the stands selling shots of whiskey, even as late as the 12th inning.
The pear-shaped Ohkubo forced the extra innings when, with two outs and two strikes in the ninth, he hacked a pinch-hit home run. Ohkubo is such a laid-back fellow he doesn't even mind his nickname: Dave. It's an Americanization of debu, the Japanese word for "fat."