Twenty-eight Japanese baseball players swarming over the practice green at a golf course on the Arizona-Mexico border should draw at least a sidelong glance. But this is Yuma on a late-winter morning, and the folks around the 1st tee at the Desert Hills course have seen it all before.
It's a day off for the Yakult Swallows, the Japanese team that for 19 years has held its spring training in this treeless desert town on the Colorado River. The Swallows, one of two Japanese big league teams that train in the U.S., use the spacious practice fields at the Ray Kroc Baseball Complex, former winter and spring home of the San Diego Padres.
Besides sun and warmth, Yuma offers something that civic leaders don't usually advertise: There's not much to do in this town that bills itself as the winter lettuce capital of America. "We have no distractions here," says Hideaki Kawako, the Swallows' unfailingly diplomatic spokesman.
The only distractions, in fact, are the omnipresent members of the Japanese media who accompany the team and dog the players' every step. Manager Katsuya Nomura is like a movie star in his native Japan. In his playing days Nomura hit 657 home runs, the most by a Japanese righthander. In Yuma he spends most of his time under a canopy of microphones inventing ways to keep producers and editors back home interested in the Swallows rather than in their Central League rivals, the Yomiuri Giants, who train at home in Japan.
One day Nomura divides his players into workout groups by blood type and orders classical music played over the loudspeakers to enhance concentration. The thunder of Mozart draws bemused looks from the smattering of American fans looking on.
Life after practice is quieter, even homey. Supper is Mongolian barbecue served by the Hot Wok Cafe Bar and Grill, the restaurant of the Airport Travelodge, where the Swallows stay. Under team rules the players aren't allowed to drive, so they spend their after-work hours close to the hotel. The Circle K next door adds extra help to its second shift to handle the demand for beer and hot dogs.
Yuma's relationship with the Swallows has deepened since 1993, when the Padres dropped the town as their spring home and headed for Peoria, Ariz. The move left bad feelings in Yuma but also created a greater appreciation for the Japanese, who had first come to Yuma for spring training in 1977. Every year the Swallows play a benefit game at Desert Sun Stadium, with the proceeds going to Yuma's youth baseball program. This year's game, on Feb. 16, drew 6,600 fans and netted about $21,000. "After the Padres left, a lot of people really embraced this team as their own," says Terry Bross, an American pitcher who's beginning his third season for the Swallows.
At the ballpark a handful of American fans, mostly retirees, stand at little more than arm's length from the Japanese players. Among the spectators is Bob Kelty, of Medford, Ore., who was a Marine in World War II and participated in the bitter fighting at Saipan, Tarawa and Okinawa. He has been coming out to watch the Swallows train for three years. It wasn't easy at first.
"I fought their ancestors 50 years ago, and for 50 years I held a grudge," says Kelty, 72. "But watching these boys has helped me forgive. I like baseball, and they're nice young men. They're sportsmen."