Joey Robinson is on the mound with two on and two out in the bottom of the second. He checks the runners, nods to the catcher and rears back into his windup. His coach, Tuneharu Takahashi, signals frantically from the dugout, yelling and tugging at his shirt. Joey stops in mid-delivery and peers perplexedly at Takahashi.
"Shatsu o ireru!" shouts Takahashi. "Shatsu o ireru!"
Takahashi keeps yelling and tugging. Joey keeps peering. Finally, the first baseman calls a timeout and jogs over to the pitching rubber. He points to the shirttail hanging out of Joey's pants. Joey tucks it in. The first baseman nods his approval. Takahashi nods his approval. Even the umpire nods his approval. Joey resumes pitching and gets out of the inning neatly. "We like our players tidy," explains Takahashi through an interpreter. "It's part of the ceremony of baseball in our country."
Joey rarely bows to ceremony. He doesn't even bow to the ump, a ritual practiced by every other 11-and 12-year-old on the Yokosuka Little Tigers. It's not that he is being deliberately disrespectful, it's that he is never quite sure when he is supposed to bow. "I just don't understand the umpires here," says the only American playing Little League ball in the Land of the Rising Sun. "Most of the time I don't know what anybody's saying."
Joey is a shy kid whose conversation tends to trail off into a soft fluttering of umm's, and ahh's. He joined the Little Tigers last fall. He had been the star pitcher on a team at the U.S. Naval base in Yokosuka, where his father, Steven, is a lieutenant. "Joey was a wild kid—not wild-stealing or anything, he just looked down at other kids instead of looking across," says his old man. "He acted like he was Mr. Cool Stuff." Steven thought Joey would find greater challenges with the Little Tigers, who ate him up, 12-1, last August in what is called a "friendship game."
"The Japanese were impressed that Joey could keep them to 12 runs," says Steven, straight-faced. Takahashi's memory of the rout is a little hazier. "I think Joey was on that team, but I don't remember," he says. "All American kids look the same to me."
Steven played his Little League ball for a team sponsored by the Lee Mar Shirt Factory in Pulaski, Tenn. "I had potential," he says, "but my father wanted me to stay home and milk the cows." He was a 6'1" center and forward on the Beech Hill High basketball team when he met Debbie Gaines, a cheerleader for rival Bodenham High. "It was like Romeo and Juliet," he recalls.
They wed in 1974 after Steven served his first 18-month hitch in the Navy. Joey and his older brother, Chris, picked up baseball at various ports of call as his father did tours of duty overseas. He started out in Ex-mouth, Australia, and played in Guam until his father was transferred to Yokosuka.
Baseball is almost as popular in Japan as Ninja turtles are here—some 50,000 kids play Little League. Yokosuka is one of 30 teams in the Kanagawa prefecture, which is the Japanese equivalent of a state. Japanese teams were the first in the Far East to beat the U.S. in the Little League World Series, but they've since been eclipsed by teams from South Korea and Taiwan. The Japanese, however, still play pretty good ball, as Joey has found out. "I feel sorry for him," says Takahashi. "Overall, he's below the other players. He isn't really a hitter or good defensively. He hasn't yet learned the Japanese way of baseball."