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The Carp's success is cause for rejoicing among Japanese baseball's Yankee-Go-Home purists, who feel it's time for them to play the American game without Americans. Among the most outspoken of the purifiers is a past baseball commissioner, Takeso Shimoda, a former Supreme Court Justice and onetime ambassador to the U.S. Shimoda concedes that American players were needed in the years following World War II to raise the level of baseball in Japan from the "zero" it had sunk to, but now, as he told The New York Times last year, "I think it's better to have only Japanese players on the teams."
Carp manager Takeshi Koba, 49, who has won four pennants in his 10 years at the Hiroshima helm, insists that his team has no prejudice against the gaijin and that it would happily hire an American if it could find one who could pitch shutouts or hit .300. "But I'm afraid what we need would be too expensive and not worth the risk," he says. And the Carp don't really need any more bait to hook their fans. In third baseman Sachio Kinugasa and outfielder Koji Yamamoto, the latter the highest-paid Japanese player at $340,000 a year, they have two bona fide immortals. Yamamoto, 38, hit his 500th career home run on July 26, and Kinugasa, also 38, played in his 1,900th consecutive game on Aug. 5. Yamamoto has no chance at his age to surpass Oh's phenomenal career record of 868 homers, or even Henry Aaron's 755, but Kinugasa, who, as of Aug. 30, had 453 homers himself, has a realistic shot at a record previously regarded as unassailable in any league in any country—Lou Gehrig's 2,130 consecutive games played. The only American in recent years to approach Gehrig has been Steve Garvey, who put together a string of 1,207 games from 1975 to '83. Kinugasa, if he can hold on, can surpass Gehrig in another year and a half, playing every game of the 130-game Japanese season. He is not unmindful of his prospective rendezvous with history.
"I know the record," he said through an interpreter before the shutout of the Dragons. "But I will try not to think about it. When I get to 2,000 games I'll allow myself to be conscious of it. If I can play that long." Kinugasa, who is half black, is a cheerful, muscular man of medium height. He has been injured often enough in his 20-year career to consider benching himself, he says, laughing, "but when I weigh baseball against injury, baseball always wins. I think I would like to play until I die. I must ask you, though, where does your Pete Rose get the energy to keep going? I'd be very concerned to know his secret."
The Carp are the defending champs, and the Yomiuri Giants have such a proud history that they are the Yankees and the Dodgers of Japanese baseball rolled into one. But the people's choice this year is a team from Osaka, the Hanshin Tigers. Fourth-place finishers a year ago, the Tigers have been in and out of first with the Carp much of the season and are striving to win their first Central League pennant since 1964. "They're the favorites of the blue-collar crowd, something like the Chicago Cubs were last year," says Marty Kuehnert, 39, who first went to Japan as an exchange student from Stanford and has lived there 15 years. He and Robert Whiting, author of The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, a portrait of Japanese baseball, qualify as the ranking American experts on the Japanese game. "Osaka is an industrial town," says Kuehnert. "In Tokyo there is a whiskey-and-water sophisticated crowd. In Osaka they put up barbed wire to keep the Tiger fans off the field. And their fans go everywhere with the team—maybe 5,000 of them traveling hundreds of miles to see them play. I'd say the whole country has Tigermania."
Whiting agrees. Going to a Giants game, he says, used to be "like attending a violin concerto." Hanshin fans, on the other hand, are mostly artisans and day laborers. A detachment of them did in fact storm the field in June at their Koshien stadium after the umpires called a game—precipitously—because of rain. This season, for the first time in Whiting's memory, the Giants have not dominated the front pages of Japan's seven daily sports newspapers. The Tigers have been stealing their thunder. "It's a kind of Miracle at Coogan's Bluff," says Whiting, recalling the come-from-behind heroics of the 1951 New York Giants. But the Tigers are playing the remainder of the season under the shadow of tragedy. On Aug. 12, the club's president, Hajime Nakano, was among the 520 people who died when a Japan Air Lines 747 crashed into a mountain en route from Tokyo to Osaka.
There is irony in the unavoidable fact that the Tigers—Japan's Team—should be led by two gaijin, the Americans Randy Bass and Gale. Bass, 31, who won home run championships in four different U.S. minor leagues, played in 130 major league games for five teams and hit only .212. Nonetheless, he is bidding fair to become the first American—indeed, the only player other than Oh—to win a Triple Crown in the Central League since 1938. (Greg [Boomer] Wells, an American, did it last year in the Pacific League.) And sacrilege piled on sacrilege, Bass is also threatening Oh's single-season homer record of 55, set 21 years ago. As of Aug. 30, he had 41. Gale, 31, an in-and-out pitcher for the Royals, Giants, Reds and Red Sox, with a big league record of 55-56, has become the ace of the Tiger staff, with a 9-7 record so far this season.
Gale and Bass represent what appears to be a new breed of gaijin. Neither can be described, as so many of their predecessors could, as "ugly Americans." Bass has played courageously this year with a broken bone in his foot, and he seems to understand, as many Americans don't, the emphasis the Japanese place on long and hard practice. "They put 100 percent into their practices," he says laconically. "You're expected to do it." But after wallowing for so long in the minors, he enjoys the attention. "Rich and I are recognized everywhere," he says. "Not that that's so hard. He's 6'7" and red-haired and I weigh 210 and have a beard." Bass is earning $400,000 this year, and 31-year-old Warren Cromartie, whose 35 home runs for the Yomiuri Giants last year were 21 more than he ever hit in any one of his nine seasons with the Montreal Expos, is making somewhere near $700,000. Some former ballplayers of lesser status in the U.S. have made Japan a career. Bobby Marcano, 34, once an Angel farmhand, is playing his 11th season there, and Leron Lee, 37, who played for the Cardinals, Padres, Indians, and Dodgers, is in his ninth. Lee's brother Leon is in his eighth season. But some still feel, shall we say, disoriented. Ken Macha, 34, who batted .258 with the Pirates, Expos and Blue Jays, but is a solid .300 hitter with power after four years with the Dragons, suggests that if he had stayed in the States, "I'd probably be nothing more than a writer for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED by now." He joshes, of course. "Actually, I never thought I'd wind up in Japan, but I'm glad I came," he says. "Still, I've got to start thinking about the future. My little boy is starting to ask me why his friends don't speak English."
"Guys who've survived nine years in the minors like me can play here," says Keith Comstock, 29, a lefthanded pitcher who had a cup of coffee with the Twins last year and is now in his first year with the Yomiuri Giants. "Guys who've played in the big leagues have trouble here with their pride. Me, I came over with no pride, so it was easy. Communication can be a problem, but my friends at home speak broken English, too."
Cromartie was considered to be something of an eccentric at Montreal, a player who had a candy bar named after him—the Cro-Bar—and who fled one game because he feared being hit by lightning. In Japan he is considered the most flamboyant of all the gaijin, though he insists he has toned down his act. "I've learned to adapt," he says. "After all, they made it worth my while to come over here. But I still ask myself just what it is I'm doing here. It seems crazy." Cromartie will be 32 next month, yet he entertains notions of returning to the big U.S. leagues, preferably to play for his friend Pete Rose in Cincinnati. "Now that would be fun," he says. In the meantime, he minds his manners. "Oh, I might bitch and moan some of the time, but this is my job, my life, and I've never regretted anything I've ever done. Then, too, there's my manager, Mr. Oh. He's the greatest. We're very close friends. He's taught me patience and concentration. I named my new baby [born in April] Cody Oh Cromartie after him."
It's not easy for a ball park situated in the middle of an amusement park to retain its sense of dignity, but Korakuen Stadium, home of the Giants in Tokyo, has somehow brought it off. Parachutes rise and fall just beyond its leftfield fence and roller coasters soar high above the third base grandstand. If Nagoya Stadium looks like an opened box of Cracker Jack, Korakuen is a Disneyland. And yet there is no question it is big league. Unlike many Japanese ball parks, it is double-decked and completely enclosed. The scoreboard is an electronic marvel with instant replay capability. The stadium is clean and brilliantly lighted. Alas, the field is of artificial turf when natural grass would have given it that last touch of majesty.