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There are so many good things about Japanese baseball, you almost wish the game there could be transported intact to these benighted shores. What instantly struck this hoary observer of the old pastime on his first visit to Japan was that maybe the best aspects of the Japanese game are things they have the good taste to leave out—player strikes, for one. There are, for another, no "waves" in Japanese grandstands, the sheer absence of which makes each ball park a haven of sanity. You can never be certain, of course, that this inane exercise, unrelated as it is to anything that transpires on the field, will not someday cross the Pacific, but for now at least it appears the wavemakers are confined to the backwater of civilization that is ours. Another thing the Japanese don't always do is inflict their national anthem on spectators before the first pitch, a practice that will surely encourage patriotism there. National anthems should be reserved for solemn occasions—or, in the case of La Marseillaise, Rick's Café Americain—and not be trivialized by ball park organists, owners' daughters and local glee clubs. Score one more for Japan.
Another ditty apparently missing from the Japanese repertoire is Take Me Out to the Ball Game; as a result, seventh-inning stretches go unsung by such as Harry Caray (a name, it goes without saying, that has an unhappy connotation in the Land of the Rising Sun). Angry male voices do not bellow at you from Japanese public-address systems, threatening dire consequences if you should appear on the field. Perfectly modulated female voices caution you in this regard and with demonstrably better results. Not that anyone in authority need feel unduly exercised, since balls caught by spectators in Japan are often politely returned to the ushers, a practice that effectively quells brawling attempts by young savages to obtain a relatively worthless souvenir.
There is also every evidence that Japanese fans are as a whole better behaved than their American counterparts, even though whiskey is unabashedly served by vendors and excellent beer is to be had in an instant by the most subtle lift of a finger. The near riots we have seen in our bleacher sections are more rare in that enlightened land. Louts do not patrol Japanese grandstands menacing the innocent. Profane exclamations go unsaid. Fans there do not regard incinerating taxicabs and flinging beer bottles as rituals of the victory celebration as much as ours seem to. Their players, absurdly underpaid by our inflated standards, do not annually demand that their contracts, already signed, be renegotiated, nor do they have the gall to portray themselves as just plain union working stiffs. Japanese players do not retire to the sidelines with abrased cuticles or complain of unfair labor practices if they are compelled to play a day game following a night game. Actually, the majority of Japanese games are played at twilight, an hour despised by American players fearful of the afflictions of the gathering dusk.
The Japanese ballplayer puts in, at minimum, an eight-hour day and may work as many as 15 hours, counting his arduous pregame practice sessions, so that not even store clerks or factory workers may look upon him as a member of the privileged class. And woe betide the player who places his personal interests above the team's. "The nail that sticks up," runs the Japanese proverb, "shall be hammered down." Try that one on Rickey Henderson.
The game on the diamond may not yet measure up to what is seen in most big league parks in the U.S., excluding, say, those in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Arlington, Texas, but, as even the most cynical expatriate will acknowledge, it's still baseball. The Japanese are neither as large nor as swift as the majority of our big-leaguers. Their ball parks are considerably smaller—300 feet down the lines on the average, no more than 395 feet to dead center—and in some parks the infields are entirely of dirt. Aggressive play is something relatively new. The breakup of the double play was introduced by an American named Daryl Spencer in the late '60s; the collision at home plate is almost never seen. The strike zone is so irregular that pitchers and hitters too often play a waiting game until some sort of territorial imperative is established. The typical Japanese manager has a quicker hook for pitchers than Sparky Anderson. Strategy tends to be so rigidly enforced that even the best hitters find themselves sacrificing runners along. And on-field strategy sessions are so verbose that delays of game are frequent.
The foreign imports, gaijin, who are mostly American and are limited to two per major league team, are often paid five times as much as their Japanese counterparts (who average roughly $50,000 per year) or even more, an imbalance that creates understandable resentment, particularly toward those outsiders whose ability doesn't measure up to their $250,000 salaries. Catcher, certainly a pivotal position, may be the most poorly manned in Japan. And because of the comparatively small size of the ball parks, outfielders neither have nor need the strong arms demanded of U.S. major-leaguers.
But Japanese pitchers can gun the ball. Takeido Kaku, who is actually Taiwanese, had his fastball clocked at better than 97 miles an hour before a sore arm temporarily sidelined him in July. Most Japanese teams have a 90-mile-an-hour fireballer. "It's the strongest part of their game," says Rich Gale, a former peripatetic U.S. major-leaguer now pitching for the Hanshin Tigers. The home run, of which the Yomiuri Giants' former first baseman, now manager, Sadaharu Oh is baseball's alltime leading practitioner, is still a big part of their game. The Central League, the more popular of Japan's two six-team big leagues (the Pacific League is the other), has a vibrant three-team pennant race grinding to a climax. And every game, even those involving also-rans, becomes an unusual and entertaining spectacle.
Nagoya Stadium, home of the Chunichi Dragons, is surely the busiest park in all of baseballdom. Its walls are so alive with pronouncements and advertisements written in Japanese characters that they look as if sci-fi-sized insects have set up residence there. The wooden stands, painted bright blue and green, are close to the field. Yellow-jacketed vendors peddle everything from sushi to hot dogs that are as corrosively inedible as anyone might find in the U.S. The old scoreboard in centerfield is antiquated and barely electrified, and a giant baseball perches near it. Lovely ballgirls in white miniskirts romp on the field and similarly clad usherettes patrol the stands. Just beyond the leftfield fence the 130-mile-an-hour bullet trains whiz by. The stadium, built in 1948, seats only 35,000, but it plays to more than 85% capacity. The Dragons finished second a year ago and drew just under two million for their 65 home games. The team is mired in fifth place this year, but attendance has scarcely lagged. A recent three-game series with the last place Yakult Swallows of Tokyo drew more than 100,000 to the buzzing little ball park. Japanese teams, incidentally, assume the names of the corporations that own them, not the cities where they play. The Yakult people purvey lactic acid drinks, among other items, so the team's nickname, coincidentally, pertains to the company's product as well as bird life. The Hiroshima Toyo Carp are a partial exception to the corporate rule. The Carp are publicly owned, somewhat like the Green Bay Packers, but the major shareholder, nevertheless, is the Mazda automobile company.
The bleachers at Nagoya Stadium offer a riotous spectacle, for it is there that the two teams' cheering sections—yes, cheering sections—take their stations: Dragon rooters in right, Carp people in left. This is no haphazard assemblage. The rooters are nonpaid volunteers who arrive hours early to assume their positions in the cheap seats. They bring to the task banners and flags, whistles and drums, trumpets and trombones, and they wear brilliantly colored happi coats. They are spurred on by exuberant megaphone-wielding head cheerleaders, who exhort their troops to a constant racket during their team's time at bat. When the other team is at bat they gather themselves for the next assault. The cheering, while certainly stimulating in its way, takes on a sort of dreadful monotony, since the same songs and chants are repeated endlessly throughout the game. Nine innings, for example, of the Bon-Odori theme, which the Japanese sing during the mid-August period when they honor their ancestors, can make one long for a return to the airwaves of the Mound City Blue Blowers or the Hoosier Hot-shots. The cheering, chanting, drumming, whistling and trumpeting continues unabated, even when the score reaches 8-0, as it eventually did in favor of the Carp this night in Nagoya Stadium.
Hiroshima is the one team in Japan that does not currently employ American players, a happenstance that a visitor from the States might assume has something to do with the 40th anniversary this year of the arrival above that city of the Enola Gay. Last year the Carp did employ two Americans but won both the Central League pennant and the Japan Series from the Pacific League champion Hankyu Braves without help from them. One didn't play and the other was injured.