Land of the Rising Sun -- and rising baseball ability

Going back to the 1920s and the Glory Days of Babe Ruth, who used to play exhibition games with US teams in Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun has always been keenly interested in major league baseball -- American-style!

In fact, 3 of Japan's 12 major league teams have spent time training and playing exhibitions this spring with American teams in the United States: the Taiyo Whales and Hanshin Tigers in Arizona and the Tokyo Giants in Florida.

Basically, Japanese baseball differs from the American version in five ways: The players train harder; power hitters are a luxury; most pitchers lack velocity; ballparks are smaller; and there is great individual devotion to the group. For example, when teams are traveling, they are still expected to eat together on the road.

Whereas American teams don't begin spring training until March, the Japanese start in the unpleasant cold of mid-January, practice at least six hours a day, and then are often asked to attend strategy meetings at night.

The importance of team discipline and respect for authority is emphasized just as much as learning a proper way to hit the cutoff man with a throw from the outfield. Unlike American stars, Japanese players rarely hold out for more money, because that would be putting themselves before the team and is not considered in good taste.

On the field, players have traditionally accepted close calls that went against them much more charitably than their US counterparts. Only in the past few years, two Japanese umpires told me, have players begun to question ball-and-strike calls with enough hostility to occasionally get themselves thrown out of games.

In the matter of ability, US scouts rate most Japanese teams close to American Triple-A clubs, or about one notch below our major league level.

How many of Japan's 12 major league franchises, most of which are owned by huge corporations, make a profit is hard to determine. One interpreter I talked to said 3, while another included all 12.

But the Taiyo Whales' media guide lists their 1980 attendance for 65 homes games at 1.4 million, and the Hanshin Tigers drew 1.7 million. Box seats cost $ 11 apiece; reserved seats, about half that much.

Each Japanese team is allowed two American players on its roster, with that figure increasing to three next season. Power hitters and hard-throwing pitchers are most in demand.

When the Hanshin Tigers offered a contract to former major leaguer Doug Ault at the end of last season, it was with the understanding that they would fly him to Japan so that he could get a firsthand look at things.

"I was there for a week and they didn't try to force me into anything," Ault explained. "They just showed me around and let me make up my own mind. In addition to signing a good contract, which I consider very fair, the Japanese are also paying all moving expenses for my wife and myself as well as providing us with a Western-style furnished apartment. Actually we're going to have only two major expenses while we're there -- food and Japanese income taxes."

The average Japanese player depending on which interpreter you ask, makes between $25,000 and $50,000 for a 130-game season and can't understand why he isn't given a free apartment, too.

According to Shinobu Mashima of Kyobo News Service (he says this is the Orient's equivalent of the Associated Press), only 2 of Japan's 12 major league parks have artificial turf. All the others have dirt infields, with grass somehow available only to outfielders.

Although the Japanese baseball looks the same as the American until the two are placed side by side, it is actually smaller, and the stitches aren'st raised nearly high enough to satisfy US pitchers, who are used to getting a better grip on the ball.

Mashima says losing managers in Japan are seldom fired. Instead they are given a vacation for a few weeks, sometimes sent on a free trip to the US to study baseball, then later returned to the dugout to finish the season. While the manager is away his coaches do his work, and some Japanese teams have as many as nine.

Even though Japanese players are taller than they used to be, nothing about the way they play the game (except their ability to run) seems very physical. Most of their pitchers throw 10 to 15 m.p.h. slower than Americans, and it is not unusual to see their hitters with their hands six inches up on the bat handle.

But it would be a mistake to underestimate the Japanese tenacity to improve, which is surely going to get them, at some point in time, to where they want to go.

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