Japanese see a different kind of ballgame

It was the quiet and the brawn.

The Japanese fans who packed the Tokyo Dome last night to watch the Chicago Cubs defeat the New York Mets 5-3 discovered a more pristine form of baseball than they usually see. And they watched some "Xtra Large" guys play the game.

Without the cacophonous cheering sections that normally characterize the experience in Japan, more than 50,000 people got a chance to concentrate on, well, baseball.

"A lot of times my friends say 'Oh, don't go, it's so noisy,' when I tell them I'm going to a game," said Toru Ushiroda, an insurance company employee who came to see Major League Baseball's season opener. "But this way of watching a game is just so simple. It can be a good example for Japanese teams." Asako Inatsu was having none of that. She'd brought her son and granddaughter to see the Cubs' Sammy Sosa, and all the calm was getting to her. "I can't shout. I can't say 'home run' or 'Sosa' in a big loud voice. That's what I need," said Ms. Inatsu, who bought an apartment in Tokyo just to be near her beloved Yomiuri Giants, Japan's premier team.

"I think those cheering sections are great fun," she said, pointing to the right-field bleachers of the Tokyo Dome where she usually sits. "We use horns and drums. And we even have a song for each player. Cheerleading is what I'm missing." She also missed a homer from Mr. Sosa, who singled and doubled.

The quiet was partly natural and partly enforced. The cheering sections are associated with particular teams, and the Cubs and the Mets aren't popular enough here to merit such support. Japanese officials had banned noisemakers, hoping to achieve a more American atmosphere. but major league officials promised tonight's game would have a louder, more Japanese flavor.

Last night's game was certainly good baseball, even if it wasn't quite Japanese baseball. America's pastime also happens to be one of its more profound exports to Japan - along with, say, democracy - and one that has taken on a distinctive character.

In the early 1870s an American teacher named Horace Wilson organized the first baseball games at what is now Tokyo University.

Hiroshi Hiraoka, a railway engineer who developed a love for the Red Sox as a student in Boston, founded the country's first team in 1878. The Shimbashi Athletic Club Athletics made their own gloves and rounded the bases wearing traditional wooden sandals.

"The Japanese found the one-on-one battle between pitcher and batter similar in psychology to sumo [wrestling] and the martial arts," writes Robert Whiting in a 1989 book on Japanese baseball. And though the country had no team sports - or even the notion of doing athletics for fun - the collective nature of baseball was naturally appealing in a society famous for group-think.

Today 12 corporate-sponsored teams play a 135-game season culminating in the Japan Series. Approximately 25 million fans attend games annually. The game is equally popular at the amateur level; 4,000 high school teams compete for places in spring and summer invitational tournaments that are as closely followed as the series.

The game here is slower paced and more strategic than its American progenitor. Japanese teams "go for getting one run at a time rather than the big power hit that clears all the bases," says Ken Marantz, who has covered baseball here for 12 years. "I hate seeing a bunt in the first inning," he complains.

Japanese teams revolve around their managers, who put their players through rigorous practice routines and spend a lot of time on the field during games in strategy sessions. Baseball here is more of a collective enterprise, and players don't receive the same attention and adulation that their colleagues in the US enjoy.

They also don't receive the same compensation. Last year the average Japanese Division 1 player made about $540,000. The average US major leaguer was paid $1.6 million.

Americans have been coming to Japan to show off their brand of baseball - sometimes without veiling their condescension - for decades. As Babe Ruth wrote in his autobiography, reflecting on the players he encountered during a 1934 tour of Japan: "They couldn't hit a lick, but I was surprised at their high class fielding and the ability of some of their pitchers."

After World War II, Japanese teams began importing foreign players - limited to two per team - and most have been major league veterans from the US. Many have gone home after a single season, unhappy with the rigid training discipline many managers enforce.

Since 1995, when pitcher Hideo Nomo joined the Los Angeles Dodgers, Japanese interest in US major league games has grown. Today six other Japanese pitchers play on major league teams in the US, and fans on both sides of the Pacific have come to realize that Japanese baseball isn't minor league.

The Yomiuri Giants, in exhibition games played this week, defeated the Cubs 6-0 and the Mets 9-5. Mets manager Bobby Valentine, who spent a year managing a Japanese team, has been touting the quality of play on this side of the Pacific and clamoring for a true World Series.

Last night's contest was the first time two major league teams played a regular-season game outside of North America. Hideki Morita, who works for an information services company in Tokyo, had heard plenty about Major League Baseball's supposedly superior quality of play.

The other day he decided to spend $60 for a front-row seat on the balcony of the Tokyo Dome to see for himself. "The actions of each individual player seem so powerful," he said after finishing his curry-and-rice dinner. And the players' brawn had an added benefit: "It's easier for us to see them because they are so huge."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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