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THE PAIN OF PERFECTION
Robert Whiting
May 15, 1989
The Japanese have transformed America's pastime into a game that mirrors their obsession with hard work and harmony. The consequences are often alarming
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May 15, 1989

The Pain Of Perfection

The Japanese have transformed America's pastime into a game that mirrors their obsession with hard work and harmony. The consequences are often alarming

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The capacity for doryoku, Japanese coaches have long maintained, must be cultivated through practice. Consequently, an integral part of spring training routines are gattsu ("guts") drills designed to push a player to his limits. The record for endurance in the 1980s is held by a player named Koichi Tabuchi of the Seibu Lions. In 1984, the year of his retirement at age 38, Tabuchi capped off a day of workouts in spring camp by fielding 900 consecutive ground balls. It took two hours and 50 minutes before he slumped to the ground, unable to remain standing.

The Japanese system of player development through endless practice doesn't always work the way it's supposed to. Consider the case of one rookie pitcher who began his professional career in the mid-'70s. He was, his manager believed, a potential star, but being rather frail of build he had difficulty keeping up with his team's torturous spring training. By the time his turn for pitching practice would come around, he would be so tired he could barely get the ball over the plate.

To correct the problem, the coaches devised a special routine for him to follow daily after practice. First, he was told to run from one stadium foul pole to the other 50 times. As an additional test of his resolve, coaches would station themselves at either end of his run to yell bakayaro ("stupid s.o.b.") every time he finished a lap. This was followed by pitching practice in which an errant throw of any kind would produce another flurry of insults.

In the manner of most Japanese players, he kept a stiff upper lip and tried his best. His special training went on with no visible improvement. Finally, during his third season, he found himself in a mental institution in Osaka, the victim of a nervous breakdown.

The U.S. is a land where the individualist is honored. The typical player is a Darryl Strawberry or a Jose Canseco who lives by the rule: "I know what's best for me."

In Japan, however, the expression for individualism, kojinshugi, is almost a dirty word. The managers and coaches, possessed of age and experience, always know best. Their word is law. The traditional ideal is a humble, uncomplaining, obedient soul like Giants star Tatsunori Hara, who was once chosen in a poll as the "male symbol of Japan."

Hara has frequently been compared in the Japanese press with Cal Ripken Jr., who visited Japan in 1984 with the Baltimore Orioles, and again in '86 with a group of major league all-stars. Both were raised by baseball fathers: Cal Ripken Sr. managed the Orioles from '86 to '88, while Hara's father, Mitsugu, became famous when he guided Miike High to the national championship in the mid-'60s. Both are infielders. both were big stars in their early 20's, both were league MVPs in 1983, and both are quiet, likable young men. In many other respects, however, the two players are poles apart.

Ripken is typical of the successful athlete in America. Once he had mastered the fundamentals of baseball as a youth, he improved by emulating the players above him and improvising along the way. By the time he reached the big leagues, he had developed a batting form that was unusual—fists horizontal, bat pointed back—and a fielding style that was unorthodox: He would sometimes backhand ground balls that came directly at him. His style was different, but it worked well for him.

"I've never really taken much advice from anyone, be it my father or any other coaches," he said on one of his trips to Japan. "I've always been able to figure things out for myself." Japanese reporters and coaches were aghast.

By contrast, people have been telling Hara what to do all his life. First there had been his father and then a long succession of Giants instructors, all of whom believed that form was critically important. Because Hara had learned how to bat and field by the numbers, he looked like a carbon copy of every other player in Japan.

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