Like the U.S.
game, the Nippon version is played with a bat and ball. The same rule book is
also used, but that's where the resemblance ends. Training, for example, is
nearly a religion in Japan. Baseball players in the U.S. start spring training
in late February and take no more than five or six weeks to prepare for their
six-month season. They spend four to five hours each day on the field then head
for the nearest golf course, swimming pool or couch.
begin with "voluntary" training in the freezing cold of mid-January.
Every day they're on the field for a numbing seven hours or more, and then it's
off to the dormitory for an evening of strategy sessions and more workouts
indoors. Players run 10 miles daily, including periodic runs up and down the
stadium steps. "It makes boot camp look like a church social," said
Warren Cromartie, a former outfielder for the Montreal Expos who has been
playing in Japan since 1984.
season, rigorous training continues. Whereas many American players curtail
their pregame summer workouts to conserve energy for the game, the Japanese
often step up their training, believing that extra work is the only way to beat
heat fatigue. As Sadaharu Oh, the Babe Ruth of Japanese baseball, once put it,
"The hot weather does in all those players who haven't trained hard all
The Japanese game
is strictly organized around a plethora of rules to insure that each player not
only is well trained physically, but also has the right mental attitude. Among
the rules the Giants instituted one year for their practice sessions were:
Report to the field 15 minutes early; do not engage in private conversation on
the field; encourage your teammates in a loud voice; run when moving from place
Oh incorporated a
drill into his routine in which he would slice away with a sword at a tiny
piece of paper suspended by a string from the ceiling. Said Oh, of his 868 home
run career, "I achieved what I did because of my coaches and my willingness
to work hard." When Oh signs autographs, he signs with the word doryoku
("effort"). So does former star Koji Yamamoto, who hit 536 home runs in
his 18 years with the Hiroshima Carp.
No one embodied
doryoku more than Yamamoto's teammate Sachio Kinugasa, who started at third
base for the Carp on Oct. 19, 1970, and did not miss a game until he retired on
Oct. 22, 1987. He played in 2,215 consecutive games, the longest streak in the
history of professional baseball. When Kinugasa surpassed Lou Gehrig's streak
of 2,130 games, it was cause for jubilation unseen in Japan since the period
when Oh was slugging his way past Ruth and Hank Aaron in career home runs.
It was a triumph
of will, they said. Kinugasa had overcome slumps, injuries and broken bones on
the way to the record. In Oh's case, there had been grousing by American fans
that he had achieved his record by playing in small parks against inferior
pitching, and also that throughout his career he had used compressed bats that
propelled the ball considerably farther than normal bats (compressed bats are
banned in the U.S. and were phased out in Japan after Oh's retirement). But no
one could possibly disparage Kinugasa's accomplishment.
Kinugasa was more
than just an average player. He hit 504 home runs and was one of the few
Japanese to reach 2,000 hits, the benchmark for the Japanese game, given its
short, 130-game season. In 1984, he led the Central League in RBIs with 102,
and was named the league's Most Valuable Player. His lifetime average was
The exploits of
Kinugasa and Yamamoto moved people in Hiroshima to tears. Together they
elevated the Carp from a second-division team to a perennial contender, winners
of five pennants and three Japanese championships. It was a team that
symbolized the remarkable resurgence of Hiroshima from the horrible ravages,
both physical and psychological, of the atom bomb.
Kinugasa was only
5'9" tall and weighed 165 pounds. But he was strong and had a big
American-style swing—much to the chagrin of Carp coaches, who favored batting
technicians—which he employed to set the Japanese career strikeout record of
1,587. He was a dark-featured man of easy smiles, a flashy dresser who liked
flashy cars. He also earned a reputation for being a hard-drinking