“Wa” is the Japanese ideal of unity, team play and no individual heroes-a concept that ex-U.S. major-leaguers playing in Japan have had a lot of trouble grasping.
I don’t know what it is they play here,” grumbled former California Angel Clyde Wright after his first season as a Tokyo Giant. “All I know is, it ain’t baseball.”
Like the American game, the Nippon version is played with a bat and ball. The same rulebook is also used, but that’s where resemblance between the two ends. Training, for example, is nearly a religion in Japan. Baseball players in the U.S. start spring training in March and take no more than five or six weeks to prepare for the season. They spend three to four hours on the field each day and then head for the nearest golf course or swimming pool. Japanese teams begin training in the freezing cold of mid-January. Each day they’re on the field for a numbing eight hours, and then it’s off to the dormitory for an evening of strategy sessions and still more workouts indoors. Players run 10 miles every day, and one team, the Taiyo Whales, periodically performs the “Death Climb,” 20 sprints up and down the 275 steps of a nearby Shinto shrine.
That’s only the beginning. The average Japanese game is more like a board meeting at Mitsubishi than an athletic event. As each new situation arises, there is so much discussion on the field among the manager, coaches and players that most games last three hours. Unlike their counterparts in the States, losing managers in Japan are seldom fired outright. Instead, they go through an elaborate, time-consuming ritual designed to save face all around. It culminates with a public apology by the deposed skipper, his resignation and, often, an all-expenses-paid trip to the U.S. for him to “study baseball.”
Such phenomena are the tip of the iceberg. Below the waterline are the concept and practice of group harmony, or wa. It is this concept that most dramatically differentiates Japanese baseball from the American game. The U.S. is a land where the stubborn individualist is honored and where “doing your own thing” is a motto of contemporary society. In Japan, kojinshugi, the term for individualism, is almost a dirty word. In place of “doing your own thing,” the Japanese have a proverb: “The nail that sticks up shall be hammered down.” It is practically a national slogan. In Japan, holdouts are rare. A player takes what the club gives him and that’s that. Demanding more money is kojinshugi at its worst, because it shows the player has put his own interests before those of the team. Katsuya Nomura, the Nankai Hawk catcher who has hit 652 home runs in his career, said, upon quietly accepting a minuscule raise after winning yet another of his numerous home-run titles, “If I had asked for more money, the other players would have thought I was greedy.”
The U.S. player lives by the rule: “I know what’s best for me.” In Japan, the only ones who know what’s best are the manager and coaches. They have the virtues Orientals most respect going for them-age and experience, hence, knowledge. Their word is law. In the interest of team harmony, they demand that everyone do everything the same way. Superstar Sadaharu Oh must endure the same pregame grind as the lowliest first-year player. At 38 Shinichi Eto, a three-time batting champion and a 10-year All-Star, found that 40 minutes of jogging and wind sprints before each game left him exhausted by game time. He asked to be allowed to train at his own pace. “You’ve been a great player, Etosan,” he was told, “but there are no exceptions on this club. You’ll do things according to the rules.” Eto lost weight, his batting average dropped, he spent the second half of the season on the bench and then reluctantly announced his retirement. Irrational? Perhaps, but any games lost because Eto was dog-tired were not as important as the example he set.
In the pressure-cooker world of U.S. pro sports, temper outbursts are considered acceptable, and at times even regarded as a salutary show of spirit. Unreleased frustrations, the reasoning goes, might negatively affect a player’s concentration. Japanese players are expected to follow Sadaharu Oh’s example. “When he strikes out,” says an admirer, “he breaks into a smile and trots back to the bench.” Oh has been known to be glum during a batting slump, but temper tantrums-along with practical joking, bickering, complaining and other norms of American clubhouse life-are viewed in Japan as unwelcome incursions into the team’s collective peace of mind. They offend the finer sensitivities of the Japanese, and as many American players have learned the hard way, Japanese sensitivities are finer.
Michio Arito was the captain of the Lotte Orions, a 10-year veteran and the team’s longtime batting mainstay. Because of a badly bruised hand he had been able to play only by taking a lot of painkillers, and before a crucial game that would, as it turned out, mean the pennant for the Orions, the manager decided to replace him with a healthier player. When Arito heard he’d been benched, he yelled, threw his glove and slammed his bat against the bench. Next day, at the Orions’ victory party, Arito was summoned forth to atone for his sins. After bowing deeply to all, he said, “I am sorry for my childish actions yesterday. I have upset our team spirit and I deeply apologize.”
Jim Lefebvre, a former Los Angeles Dodger infielder who spent five years in Japan, can still not quite believe what he saw there. “It’s incredible,” he says. “These guys are together almost all the time from January to October. They live together, eat together, play baseball together. I’ve never seen one fight, one argument. In the States, there’s always somebody who mouths off and starts trouble.”
If you ask a Japanese manager what he considers the most important ingredient of a winning team, he would most likely answer, wa. If you ask him how to knock a team’s wa awry, he’d probably say, “Hire an American.” Former American major-leaguers have been an active part of Japanese baseball for 18 years. The somewhat lower level of play in Japan has given these gaijin (outsiders) a temporary reprieve from the athletic scrap heap. And although the Japanese have paid the gaijin high salaries, they have not been elated with the overall experience of having them on their teams.
Money is a particular sore point. Foreigners make two to three times as much as Japanese players of similar ability. This, combined with the free Western-style house and the other perks that the gaijin seem to view as inalienable rights, sets them too far above their teammates. And more than one American player has brought in an agent to negotiate his contract. That is considered to be in very bad taste. A contract discussion is regarded as a “family affair,” with the official team interpreter, despite his obvious bias, acting as a go-between.
Avarice is only part of it, however. Deportment is the rest. Although few Americans hold a Japanese batting or pitching record, many have established standards in the area of bad conduct. For example, the amiable former Dodger Norm Larker set the Japan single-season high for smashed batting helmets, with eight. Joe Stanka, a 6’5″, 220-pound behemoth, was ejected from games a record four times in his seven-year stay in Japan. Ken Aspromonte, who later managed the Cleveland Indians, was the first man in the history of Japanese baseball to be fined by his manager for “conduct unbecoming a ballplayer.” Aspromonte pulled off this feat during a sojourn with the Chunichi Dragons of Nagoya back in 1965. Furious after being called out on strikes, Aspromonte stormed back to the bench, kicked over chairs and launched the inevitable attack on the water cooler. He was just doing what comes naturally to many American players, but Dragon Manager Michio Nishizawa did not enjoy the show. He yanked Aspromonte out of the game and suspended him. An incredulous Aspromonte was fined $200 and required to visit Nishizawa’s home and issue a formal apology to get back in his manager’s good graces.
Other Americans have followed in Aspromonte’s footsteps. Ex-Giant Daryl Spencer was one of the more memorable. Like most former major-leaguers, Spencer insisted on following his own training routine, and it was considerably easier than everyone else’s. One night, as he was lackadaisically going through his pregame workout, his manager on the Hankyu Braves, Yukio Nishimoto, decided something had to be done. “You don’t look sharp, Spencer-san,” he said. “You need a rest.” “What do you mean, I need a rest?” Spencer growled. “Who’s leading this team in home runs, anyway?” “I don’t think you can hit this pitcher,” Nishimoto said. “I can’t hit him? I’m batting .340 against that guy!” “Not tonight. That’s my feeling. You’re out.” That was too much for Spencer to take. He was in the dressing room changing into street clothes when he heard his name announced in the starting lineup. Nishimoto had put Spencer down as the third batter, but only because he was planning to “fool” the opposition by inserting a pinch hitter in the first inning. Now Spencer was smoldering. When the game began and he heard the name of the second batter over the loudspeaker, he decided to get even. Clad in his underwear and shower clogs, he headed for the dugout. Grabbing a bat and smirking in the direction of Nishimoto, he strode out to the on-deck circle to take a few practice swings. Spencer’s entrance delighted the fans, and his picture was in all the papers the next day. Nishimoto was not amused. He ordered Spencer off the field and slapped him with a suspension and a $200 fine. Spencer paid up, later reporting with a wide grin, “It was worth every penny.”
In 1972, John Miller became the first American to be released solely for his misconduct. Miller, who played briefly for the Yankees and Dodgers, arrived in Japan in 1970 and soon became the most dangerous batter on the Chunichi Dragons. He was a battler. A U.S. coach once said, “Miller is the kind of guy I’d want on my team. He’ll fight you with everything he has. He doesn’t know how to quit.” However, Miller wasn’t the kind of guy the Japanese wanted. He was seldom on time for practice. If a workout was scheduled for 2 p.m., Miller would arrive at 2:10. This was more serious than it sounds, because his teammates would invariably be raring to go by 1:50. “He always had some excuse,” says a team official. “One day it would be because the traffic was heavy. Another day, he’d missed the train. He never once said he was sorry.” When reprimanded for being late, Miller’s response was most un-Oriental: “Japanese customs are too military. I do good in the games, don’t I? What else matters?”
Miller’s hot temper sealed his fate as a Dragon. The coup de grace came in the 12th inning of a big game. Miller had been slumping, and he had a bad game. He had been up four times without a hit. The fifth time, with the score tied, he was removed for a pinch hitter. Miller blew his top. “You didn’t have to take me out,” he railed at his manager. “I’ve had it. I don’t want to play for you anymore. I don’t care if this team wins or not.” To Americans it would have been a fairly routine example of blowing off steam. To the Japanese, however, Miller might just as well have slit his throat. Although he later apologized and finished the year as the team leader in home runs, he was released at the end of the season. A second American on the team, Barton Shirley, who batted .190, was kept. He wasn’t a battler.
Willie Kirkland, who had played for the Giants and Indians, was a happy-go-lucky sort who liked to tease his teammates. One day Kirkland was bemusedly watching an aging infielder who had recently been elevated to player-coach straining through a batting drill. “Hey, man, you’re a coach now,” Kirkland yelled playfully. “You don’t have to practice anymore.” The player-coach took Kirkland’s jest as a comment on his declining usefulness and he launched a roundhouse right that barely missed. It took half a dozen men to restrain him. “I was just joking,” Kirkland protested. “He was making fun of me,” the unappeased coach retorted. Kirkland left Japan with at least one enemy and considerable doubts about the Japanese sense of humor.
The Japanese didn’t find Richie Scheinblum a barrel of laughs, either. A noted clubhouse wit in the U.S., Scheinblum spent his two years as a Hiroshima Carp baiting the umpires. Shane, as he was known on the club’s official roster, was frequently agitated by the plate umpire’s idea of Scheinblum’s strike zone. It was considerably larger than the one Shane had in mind. Scheinblum searched for a Japanese phrase to convey his sentiments to the men in blue, something that would really get under their collective skins. A Japanese friend came to the rescue, and soon Scheinblum was saying, “You lousy Korean” to arbiters who crossed him. There is as much love lost between Koreans and Japanese as, say, between William Buckley and Gore Vidal. To the umpires, Scheinblum’s taunts were intolerable. To stop him, they imposed a stiff fine each time he uttered the dreaded epithet. When Scheinblum finally departed Japan for the last time, no cries of “Come back, Shane!” were heard-at least, not from the umpires.
It wasn’t until Clyde Wright came along that rules of behavior for foreigners were finally codified. Wright, a pitcher of some note with the California Angels, made his first Japanese appearance, with the Yomiuri Giants, in 1976. A self-described “farm boy” from eastern Tennessee, Wright was regarded by those who knew him in America as a tough-as-nails competitor who didn’t believe in hiding his feelings. The Giants are something of a national institution in Japan. They are the oldest team, the winningest (12 pennants in the last 15 years) and by a million miles the most popular. Their games, all of which are nationally televised, get high ratings, and one out of two Japanese will tell you he is a Giant fan. Their manager, Shigeo Nagashima, is the most beloved sports figure in the land. As a player he won a Central League-record six batting titles and was personally responsible for the most exciting moment in Japanese baseball history: a game-winning (or sayonara) home run in the only professional game Emperor Hirohito has ever attended. Sadaharu Oh plays for the Giants.
The Giants are the self-appointed custodians of national virtue. Popular belief has it that their players are neater, better mannered, more disciplined and more respectful than those of other clubs. Their wa is in better tune. In early 1977, when one writer, a former Giant player turned magazine reporter, suggested otherwise in print, he was forever banned from the team clubhouse. Among his blasphemous revelations were: 1) Some Giant players did not like other players on the team; 2) A few players thought Nagashima could be a better manager: 3) Some younger Giants did not especially care for the Saturday night 10 p.m. curfew at the team dormitory; 4) Some Giant wives objected to the season-long “energy-conserving” rule forbidding Them to have sexual relations with their husbands. Tame material as far as expos’s go, but to the shoguns of Yomiuri, the Giant name had been desecrated, and someone had to pay.
Wright also faced the difficulty of being a foreigner on a team that traditionally liked to consider itself pure-blooded-Oh’s Chinese ancestry and the few closet Koreans on the Giants notwithstanding. Wright was only the second non-Oriental gaijin to play for the team, and the sight of a fair-skinned American in a Giant uniform was a bit unsettling to the multitudes. Wright soon gave them reason to be even more unnerved. In the sixth inning of an early-season game, with the score tied 1-1, Wright allowed the first two batters to get on base. Nagashima walked out on the field to take him out of the game. Few American managers would have removed him so abruptly. It was Nagashima’s feeling, however, that Wright was getting weak, and that was that. When Wright realized what was happening, he blew a gasket. To the horror of 50,000 fans at Tokyo’s Korakuen Stadium and a Saturday night TV audience of millions, he brushed aside Nagashima’s request for the ball and stalked off the mound, an angry scowl on his face. Halfway to the bench, he threw the ball against the dugout wall, cursed and disappeared into the clubhouse. Once inside, he kicked over a trash can, ripped off his uniform, shredded it and flung it into the team bath. Amid a rapid-fire discharge of obscenities, he said something that the official team interpreter was able to understand, “Stupidest damn baseball I’ve ever seen. If this is the way the Giants treat their foreign ballplayers, I’m going. I’ve had it.”
Nothing like this had ever happened on the Giants. Other teams had problems, but not the proud Kyojin. No one had ever shown this much disrespect for Nagashima. Crazy Wright, as he was instantly renamed by the press, became headline news in the sports dailies the next day. Letters, telegrams and phone calls poured into the Yomiuri offices. Outrageous! Inexcusable! Unforgivable! Wright should be sold. Released. Deported. Shot. Drawn and quartered. And not necessarily in that order. Only Nagashima kept his cool. First, he patiently explained to his American pitcher that what he had done was not “stupid” baseball but simply the Japanese way of playing the game. It’s a group effort. Then the manager faced the angry masses. There would be no disciplinary action. He was glad that Wright cared so much about winning. And he wished that some of his Japanese players would show as much fight. Such benevolent words from the prince of Japanese baseball dissipated much of the public’s antagonism toward Crazy Wright. It did not, however, pacify the front office. Management was not as eager as Nagashima-san to let Western ways penetrate their organization. They issued a set of 10 rules of etiquette that Wright and every other American player the Giants might henceforth deem worthy of their uniform would be obliged to obey.
The Japanese press quickly gave it a name: The Gaijin Ten Commandments. This is how they went: 1) Obey all orders issued by the manager. 2) Do not criticize the strategy of the manager. 3) Take good care of your uniform. 4) Do not scream and yell in the dugout or destroy objects in the clubhouse. 5) Do not reveal team secrets to other foreign players. 6) Do not severely tease your teammates. 7) In the event of injury, follow the treatment prescribed by the team. 8) Be on time. 9) Do not return home during the season. 10) Do not disturb the harmony of the team.
Willie Davis, then a practicing Buddhist, thought it would be different for him. Davis was perhaps the best all-round American player ever to come to Japan. He was a 17-year veteran of the major leagues and a former captain of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He had been an All-Star, he could run like a deer and hit and field with a grace and skill that few American big-leaguers, let alone Japanese, possessed. Even at 37, Davis could have continued to play in the U.S.-in fact, he has been a pinch hitter for the Angels this season-but when the chance to go to Japan came in 1977, he took it. Not for the money ($100,000), he insisted, but “for the good of baseball.”
Davis was a product of his times, of America’s “quest for meaning.” While others were exploring the wonders of Transactional Analysis, est and the like, Davis was a devout member of the Soka Gakkai, the Nichiren Buddhist sect that had America chanting. Because Japan was the birthplace of the Soka Gakkai, Davis assumed he would be right at home. It was a misguided assumption. The religion’s sacred chant, namu Myoho renge-kyo, was an important part of Davis’ daily life. He did it faithfully, because it brought him inner peace.
When he joined the Dragons, he naturally continued this practice-in the morning, at night, in his room, in the team bath and on the team bus. When not intoning the chant himself, he would play tapes of it on a portable cassette recorder. Davis reasoned that the chanting would be music to his teammates’ ears. Instead, it drove them nuts. They complained: there was no peace and quiet on the team; they couldn’t sleep. The incantatory chant that supposedly would bring inner harmony to anyone who regularly intoned it was rapidly eroding the Dragons’ collective wa.
What particularly annoyed the Japanese players was Davis’ locker-room chanting. Before each game, he would pull out his beads, and off he’d go, “namu Myoho renge-kyo, namu Myoho renge-kyo, namu Myoho renge-kyo.” “He’d pray that he’d do well, that the team would win and that nobody would get hurt,” his manager, a Japanese-Hawaiian named Wally Yonamine, says, “but it gave the others the feeling they were at a Buddhist funeral.” When the game began, Davis was a ball of fire-at least during the first half of the season. He was by far the most feared Dragon hitter, and on the base paths he displayed a flair the Japanese had never seen before. Nonetheless the team was in last place. Key players were injured, and the pitching was sub-par. Team wa was out of whack, and many Dragons blamed their American Buddhist for it.
It was more than the chanting, which Davis soon modified to please his teammates. There was, for example, the matter of his personal attire. Davis liked his Dragon training suit so much he had half a dozen made in different colors. He wore them in public, agitating club executives, who felt Davis was tarnishing the team’s dignified image. Davis would sometimes practice in stocking feet and he once appeared for a workout with his comely wife, who was wearing hot pants and who jogged with him on the field. “It’s so…so unprofessional,” one sportswriter observed. ” Davis is destroying our team’s spirit in training,” grumbled a player. “We can’t concentrate on what we’re doing.” Several players complained that Davis had special privileges. They referred to him as ” Davis, the King,” and as ” Davis, our precious black gaijin.”
Yonamine was caught in the middle. “I’d try to tell them not to worry about it,” he says. “Forget about how much money a man makes or how little he practices. What he does in the game is all that counts.” Few Dragons were willing to accept that piece of American advice. Davis’ biggest liability was his gregariousness. “People didn’t understand him,” says a team official. “He was loud. He’d get excited. He’d yell a lot and wave his arms. It was all in English and people didn’t have the faintest idea what he was saying, but it looked as though he was arguing.”
Once he reproached a teammate for not attempting to score on a play that Davis had initiated. “Why didn’t you try for home?” Davis shouted. That was the wrong thing to do, because the player was not only the team captain, but also a playing coach. In Japan, a player does not yell at a coach, much less question his judgment.
In August of 1977, when Davis had 25 home runs and a .306 batting average, he broke a wrist in a collision with the outfield fence. It put him out for the year. The Dragons immediately went on a winning streak. During the last two months of the season they had the best record in the league and missed finishing second by a hair. “It’s our pitching,” Yonamine insisted. But if you listened to Dragon supporters and students of Japanese baseball, it was all because the team wa had been restored.
“I knew Willie as well as anyone,” says Lefebvre, a teammate of Davis’ on the Dodgers. “He had his quirks, but then we all do. He was named captain, and you’re not chosen captain of a team like the Dodgers if you’re a troublemaker. If you can’t get along with Willie, you don’t belong on a baseball team.” The Dragon front office apparently felt that it was Davis who didn’t belong on a baseball team-at least not theirs. They traded him, and at the start of the following season the most exciting player ever to wear a Chunichi Dragon uniform was laboring in the backwaters of Fukuoka, contemplating the infinite and subtle mysteries of wa in between playing for the lowly Crown Lighter Lions.
Of course, not every American who comes to Japan wreaks havoc on his new team. There have been some, notably Felix Millan, Clete Boyer and George Altman, who did their best to please their Japanese hosts. In turn, the Japanese liked them, describing their demeanor as being majime. It means serious, sober, earnest, steady, honest, faithful. They did everything that was asked of them. They kept their mouths shut, their feelings to themselves. Some, like Boyer, paid a substantial price for the goodwill they engendered. The former Yankee fielding whiz had three reasonably good seasons for the Taiyo Whales, but in his fourth year, when he began to reach the end as a player, he ran smack up against the cultural wall. Boyer decided that he needed to be used more sparingly, and he asked the club to rest him every third game. “I hit in the first two, but then I get tired,” he explained. “I’d do a better job with an extra day off.” The team trainer argued that what Boyer needed was not more rest but more training. Because he was older, the trainer reasoned, Boyer would have to work harder to keep up with the others. The team owner, after considering the probable reaction of the fans to an $80,000-a-year gaijin sitting on the bench a third of the time, agreed with the trainer. Boyer reluctantly acquiesced. In an effort to keep his energy level up, he took massive vitamin injections and worked very hard. Still, he finished the season hitting .230 and then retired to coaching. His goodwill, of course, remained intact.
Lefebvre, too, obeyed all the rules, yet he ended up incurring the largest fine in Japanese baseball history. His manager on the Lotte Orions, Masaichi Kaneda, Japan’s only 400-game winner and the “God of Pitching,” had personally recruited and signed Lefebvre-to a multiyear contract worth $100,000 a year-and had predicted that Lefebvre would win the Triple Crown. Lefebvre hit only .265 with 29 home runs his first season. Hampered by a leg injury, he fared even worse in succeeding years. Kaneda was so embarrassed that he resorted to open ridicule of his “star” in an effort to regain lost face. Once, after Lefebvre had committed a particularly damaging error, Kaneda apologized to the other players for the American’s “poor play.” Another time, after a similar misplay, Kaneda temporarily relegated his gaijin to a farm team.
Lefebvre tried logic in appealing to Kaneda. “Look, you won 400 games, right?” he said. “That makes you the winningest pitcher in Japanese history, right?” “Right,” Kaneda proudly replied. “You also lost 250 games, didn’t you?” “Yes.” “Then that also makes you the losingest pitcher in Japanese history.” “Yes, but….” “But, what? Don’t you see? Even the greatest in the game have bad times. Give me a break, will you?”
But Kaneda kept up the pressure. And the unhappy Lefebvre endured it until his fifth season. After being summarily removed from the lineup in the middle of an important game, Lefebvre finally lost control. Walking back to the bench, he threw his glove at the dugout wall, producing a rather loud whack. Kaneda, sitting nearby, assumed that Lefebvre had thrown the glove at him. He sprang to his feet and raised his fists. “You want to fight me?” he yelled. Lefebvre, who saw his playing career rapidly coming to an end anyway, stepped forward to meet the challenge. Coaches intervened, but after the game Kaneda levied a $10,000 fine against his American “troublemaker” and suspended him. “It was a big game, and I wanted to stay in it,” says Lefebvre, “but what made me even madder was the way Kaneda took me out. He waited until I’d finished my infield warmups, then he came and waved me out. That’s embarrassing. But I certainly wasn’t trying to throw the glove at him. It missed him by five feet.” K
aneda wasn’t interested in Lefebvre’s version of the incident. If he had misunderstood his gaijin’s intentions, perhaps others on the team had as well. What would they think if it appeared that the “God of Pitching” tolerated that sort of behavior? Refused a private audience with Kaneda, Lefebvre took his case to the public. He called a press conference. Yes, he had lost his temper. That he regretted. But, no, he was not guilty as charged. A standard fine of 50,000 yen (about $250) he could understand. But there was no way he would pay the outrageous sum of $10,000. There was no way he could pay it. Kaneda was just getting back at him for his failure to win the Triple Crown. Or Kaneda was making him the scapegoat for everything else that was wrong on the team. Or, perhaps, Kaneda was simply taking this opportunity to demonstrate his skills as a “gaijin tamer.” Whatever the reason, Lefebvre wasn’t going to take it all lying down. When Kaneda heard that he was being openly opposed, he called his own press conference and vowed that Lefebvre would “never, ever again wear the uniform of the Lotte Orions.”
Lefebvre was in limbo for weeks, while the coaching staff and management covertly worked to find a solution. At one stage they suggested secretly dropping the fine but making an announcement that Lefebvre had paid it. As long as Kaneda, and his public, didn’t know the truth, they concluded, Kaneda’s ego and image would suffer no damage. Lefebvre refused. He had his own ego and his own image to worry about. He appealed to a highly placed baseball official in the U.S., whom he refuses to identify. The official made a call to Kaneda and the next day the fine was quietly dropped. Lefebvre was allowed to put his uniform back on.
In the 18 years since Don Newcombe and Larry Doby became the first ex-major-leaguers to play in Japan, not a season has passed without a controversial incident involving a gaijin player. Last year’s “villain,” for example, was a former San Diego reserve infielder named John Sipin, who twice during the season took exception to deliveries apparently aimed at his person and engaged the Offending pitcher in hand-to-hand combat. After the second melee Sipin was hit with a three-day suspension, fined 100,000 yen ($500) and castigated by the press for his “barbaric” behavior. One sports-page editorial likened his conduct to that of a yakuza (Japanese gangster), while another called Sipin a throwback to the days of the U.S. military occupation when, to hear some Japanese tell it, American GIs regularly roamed the streets beating up on the local citizenry. “If Sipin doesn’t want to get hit by the ball,” said one commentator, “he should jump out of the way. There is no place for fighting on the field.” In the face of such reasoning, Sipin had no recourse but to acknowledge his sins and promise to mend his ways.
Japanese team officials have understandably grown weary of the perennial conflicts wrought by their foreign imports and in recent years have tried to be more selective in signing Americans. Character investigations have become a standard part of the recruiting process, and more and more managers are going for those quiet, even-tempered types who keep their feelings to themselves and fit into the Japanese system. The 1979 crop of 24 gaijin (there is a limit of two per team) is the most agreeable, mildest-mannered group of foreign players ever to play in Japan. It includes Wayne Garrett, Felix Millan, Lee Stanton and Carlos May, as well as a number of unknowns who never quite made it in the majors. There is even an American manager. Don Blasingame. Collectively they are so subdued that one American player’s wife says, “This is the best-behaved bunch of ballplayers I’ve ever been around, either here or in the States. I just can’t believe it.” Garrett, a former Met, is so obliging that he agreed to get up at 7:30 and join his teammates in their daily “morning walk.” Stanton, late of the Angels and Mariners, amicably allowed the Hanshin Tiger batting coach to change his batting style. May, an ex-White Sox and Yankee, is so low key that some fans can’t believe he’s American.
Millan, a former Brave and Met, has been the quintessence of propriety. When he arrived last spring for his second year as a Taiyo Whale, he politely refused an offer to let him train as he wished and instead endured all the rigors of a Japanese preseason camp with his teammates. When he was benched on opening day, he sat quietly in the dugout, a shy smile on his face, intently watching the action. When he got his chance to play a week later, he went 4 for 4, won his spot back, and of late has been leading the league with a .354 average.
Davey Hilton, a former Padre, is setting new highs in cross-cultural “understanding.” Last year’s Central League All-Star second baseman and a hero of the Japan Series, he undertook an off-season weight-training program and arrived in camp this season a proud 20 pounds heavier. He was immediately accused by his suspicious manager of loafing during the winter, reprimanded for being “overweight” and told to reduce. A few days later he developed a sore arm and asked permission to ease up in fielding practice. He was coldly informed that no one got special treatment and was cautioned not to let his American head get too big for his Japanese cap. To top things off, after getting only two hits in his first three games of the season, he was benched and was ordered to take extra batting practice and to alter his batting stance. Through it all Hilton remained calm. “This is Japan,” he told himself. “They do things differently here.” Predictably, his average began to climb. By mid-season he was over .300, out of the doghouse and on his way to becoming an All-Star again.
Japanese observers are somewhat baffled by this outbreak of civility. One reporter speculated, “It must be the sagging dollar, the recession in the U.S. Americans have it good here, and they’re afraid of losing what they have.” American players, who pay both Japanese and U.S. income taxes and who wince at such Japanese prices as $50 for a steak dinner, attribute their good manners to other factors: adaptability and a new awareness of cultural differences.
Whatever the reason, the new tranquillity is certainly producing results. Americans are having their best year. Twelve of them are batting better than .300, and the affable Chuck Manuel, an ex-Minnesota sub, is leading the Pacific League in home runs, despite having been sidelined for 58 days with a broken jaw. Of course, a Reggie Jackson might look down his nose at the accomplishments of Manuel and his confreres-given the smaller parks and the slightly inferior level of play in Japan. But with his stormy background, it is doubtful that Jackson-san, in spite of his considerable abilities, will ever be invited to come over and prove he can do better. To access the original work (if still available), please reference: http://vault.sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1095410/1/index.htm.