Friday, February 11, 2011

You Gotta Have What?

In anticipation of a possible trip together to see baseball in Japan, Melvin gave me a copy of Robert Whiting's, You Gotta Have Wa, accepted as the authoritative English-language work on Japanese baseball.

You Gotta Have Wa is both instructive and entertaining.  First published 20 years earlier, the 2009 edition has a new introduction (more on that later).  Both editions open with three pages of basic facts about Japanese baseball, or bêsubôru.  There are fundamental differences from the American game.  For example, most Japanese teams are owned by corporations for public relations purposes and operated at a financial loss.  Games end after four hours or 12 innings, even if tied.  On the other hand, the rulebook is the same.  The Pacific League uses the designated hitter, while the Central League does not.

The book gets underway with a chapter about James Robert ("Bob") Horner.  "After decades of benchwarmers and faded stars, here, finally, was an American product worth paying for," Whiting writes.  Known in Japan as Ho-nah and Akaoni ("Red Devil"), the former Atlanta Brave signed with the Yakult Swallows for the 1987 season after salary collusion by major league owners left him without a contract.

Horner's arrival in Japan was so highly anticipated the pilot of his JAL flight overseas asked for his autograph.  When the season was over (31 home runs in 303 at bats, .327 batting average), he turned down a three-year, $10 million offer from the Swallows to sign with the St. Louis Cardinals for $950,000 and another half-million in potential bonuses.  Whiting narrates the ups and downs in between, selecting stories to introduce topics he will return to, and whetting the reader's appetite for more.

Chapters on the history and philosophy of baseball in Japan follow.  Since they gotta have wa (harmony), it is hardly surprising there is an entire chapter on what is considered the most important component of a winning team.  The ball may be slightly smaller and the strike zone larger (and more subjectively interpreted) but it the historical and cultural underpinnings that really differentiate American and Japanese baseball.

Waseda University catcher J. Nagano and second baseman J. Kuji, 1921

Before the game was introduced in the 1870s by American school teachers and Japanese educated in the states, Japan had no history of athletics for fun.  Martial arts were practiced for physical fitness but even then stressed spiritual refinement.  American baseball organized into professional leagues within 30 years of standardized rules and amateur ball followed.  For six decades in Japan, the game was played primarily by high school and college students and emphasized master-disciple training, self-denying effort and purity of spirit.  Whiting summarizes it well in two sentences: "Americans played ball.  Japanese worked at it."

Hanshin Tigers oendan by Chris Gladis

The second half of the book contains chapters on uniquely Japanese figures like the cheering groups (oendan) and translators, the predominant teams, some significant players.  This is where the author is most subtly brilliant.  Whiting explains these topics with captivating anecdotes and the stories further illustrate fundamental characteristics of Japanese baseball.  By the time the reader has finished the book, they should have an understanding of principals like doryuku (effort) and konjo (fighting spirit).  They will also learn how conservatism, racism, xenophobia, groupthink and unquestioning obedience figure in the game.

The only weakness of You Gotta Have Wa is how dated it is.  I naively read the note on the cover, "2009 Edition WITH A NEW INTRODUCTION AND AFTERWARD," to say the book had been revised, including all new sections at the beginning and end.  However, all that is new since the 1989 edition is the introduction and afterword.  As a result, the book is populated by American players most readers will be unfamiliar with.  Charlie Manuel (who Whiting often refers to as "Chuck") is to me the manager who has led the Phillies to four straight division championships, resulting in two National League pennants and a World Series championship, not the part-time player who left major league baseball in 1975.

The age of the book is most glaring when Whiting writes, "Only two Caucasian have ever run Japanese teams," relegating Bobby Valentine (left) to the afterword.   The former Mets skipper was chosen manager of the year in 2005, after leading the Lotte Marines to its first championship in over 30 years; is the only foreigner to be win the Shoriki Award, honoring the player or manager who contributes the most to Japanese baseball; and was widely known, with many commercial endorsements.  If a genuinely new edition of You Gotta Have Wa is not being planned, another author should consider writing a post-Nomo, post-Ichiro, up-to-date analysis.

By the time I finished the book, I thought it wrong to think of the sport as (adjective) Japanese (noun) baseball.  Despite the fundamental similarities to the great American past-time, what they play in the Land of the Rising Sun is something else entirely, deserving its own name, perhaps a German compound noun—Japanischebaseball.

And by the time I finished reading, I wasn't as sure I still wanted to see bêsubôru.  It could not help but be fascinating and would make for good material here, as Melvin pointed out in a list of pros and cons.  It would be expensive and logistically complicated, but not unmanageably so, especially with the assistance of a friend of Melvin's who had offered to facilitate.  I thought the oendan would be an annoying distraction before acknowledging a lot of the fans here pay as little attention to the game, which is just a pretense to swill cheap American beer.  The Japanese are physically smaller and play what they call kidoryoku yakyu (mechanical baseball), which would probably appeal to Melvin's and my preference for "small ball," to use the American colloquialism.  On the other hand, over-managing and conservative play makes the games slow and long.  Many of the teams play in domes, not Melvin's ideal or mine either.

Panarama of Kyocera Osaka Dome by Gomurafuji

We were undecided until we realized the cost would preclude seeing much baseball here this year.  The sense of deprivation was palpable, at least to me, and just like that the decision was made.  Within days Melvin and I had worked out the basics of two trips.  Melvin has already outlined those so if you will excuse me, I am going to back-date this post so our decision not to go to Japan precedes that.  Our local guide is not leaving Japan this year, as previously thought, and this topic will arise again during the next off-season.

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