ONE MAN’S ODYSSEY THROUGH JAPANESE BASEBALL

By Scott Gorman

TOKYO – It was a whirlwind of blaring trumpets and tens of thousands of fans cheering with perfect precision in lockstep choreography, the almost surreal but entirely delightful spectacle of Japanese baseball played out before astonished foreign eyes.

It was cacophonous noisemakers and whiskey and water in the bleachers, each game in many ways more amazing than the previous one, and it all ended with something so unfamiliar and anti-climactic that it was the most remarkable thing of all – a tie game.

And in this one extraordinary week in Japanese baseball, elsewhere in the nation, an African-American was granted the right to dethrone or at least sit beside a national king, the most revered manager in the game resigned in a move that shocked the nation and a previously downtrodden team won the Pacific League pennant.

As seemed appropriate in the Year of Ichiro, when the best hitter in what is called yakyu here in the Land of the Rising Sun proved the best in American baseball as well, all of these events were witnessed in and outside the ballparks by a group of visiting American baseball fanatics led by a scion of a family that might well be called the Barrymores or Kennedys of the diamond.

They came, young and old, from all over the United States, in the company of Bob Bavasi, former co-owner of the Everett AquaSox, a team that under the stewardship of Bavasi and his wife and partner Margaret made baseball a community institution in Snohomish County, a unifying force that brought families together under the sun and on the real grass before Seattle’s Safeco Field was even dreamed of.

Bavasi has been bringing Americans to Japan for cultural and baseball tours for about a decade now, often accompanied by Mayumi Smith, a Japanese native and a faculty member at Everett Community College as well as the director of the highly regarded Japanese programs there.

The two are a formidable team. Bavasi plans and leads the visits to the games at some of the nation’s most famous stadiums in the Tokyo area and elsewhere, Smith smoothes the way with her language skills and cultural understanding, and during time away from baseball they both safely lead gaping Americans through the sights and sounds of cities like Tokyo, a metropolis of 30 million residents, about 18 million more than New York City.

On this particular trip, the tour included four games in the Tokyo area (home to five teams) and one in the city of Kobe (home of the Orix Blue Wave, where Ichiro Suzuki once starred). Participants included a father and his three teenage daughters from Southern California, another California family group with roots in Everett that spanned three generations, a retired career military man from Colorado and a sports agent from Seattle.

One man who had planned to be here was honorably excused; a federal marshal, he suddenly was confronted with far more important things to do. A couple more, spooked by recent events, chose at the last minute to stay home. But those who came, and the itinerant reporter from the Northwest who joined them for the Tokyo segment of the journey, had the time of their lives.

AN ASTOUNDING WEEK

In Osaka, a city in the southwestern Kansai region with almost 17 million residents, an outfielder with the perfect baseball name of Tuffy Rhodes was swatting “homah-runs” with astonishing rapidity for the singles-oriented Japanese game. He was also leading the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes, who aren’t even the most popular team in their home city (that place is held by the Hanshin Tigers, the lovable losers who might well be called the Japanese Chicago Cubs) to a Pacific League pennant even though they had finished dead last the previous year.

On September 24th, Rhodes, a journeyman when he played in America, did the unthinkable: He tied Sadaharu Oh’s decades-old record for most home runs in a season when he belted number 55. That he was even granted a chance to tie and perhaps surpass Oh, the unchallenged king of Japanese baseball as a player and now the manager of the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, may be a testament to how much attitudes towards American players have changed in Japan, just as the immense popularity of Ichiro Suzuki in the United States signals a sea change in the American acceptance of Japanese players.

In contrast, consider the case of Randy Bass, an American slugger of an earlier era, who in 1985 was denied even the opportunity to challenge Oh. When he got close, Japanese players and managers appalled at the thought of an American (and it must be said in race-conscious Japan, an African-American player to boot) taking home the precious record intentionally walked or hit him every time he came to the plate in the last games of the season. Oh said nothing.

But this year, Oh let it be known that Rhodes should have a chance without prejudice, much to his credit. Perhaps he suddenly remembered that as a young player, before he was anointed, he took lots of guff because his mother was born in Taiwan, and he therefore was not a “pure” Japanese. Rhodes’ lot was made easier by the fact that he showed proper respect for the record and the personage of Oh all year, much to the dismay of the Japanese sporting press, who love to create screaming headlines.

(But perhaps Oh still had mixed feelings, at least about seeing his 37-year-old record broken in front of him. In a game against Oh’s Fukuoka Daiei Hawks on September 30th, Rhodes was walked or given impossible-to-hit pitches, despite Oh’s statement that he wanted everything on the level. Were Oh’s coaches acting against his wishes? Hard to say, but unlikely. But the general principle remained; Rhodes, it was maintained, was still be given his chances, apparently just not against the Hawks).

And on September 29th, Shigeo Nagashima, manager of the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, announced that at age 65 he was retiring after a combined 14 years in two hitches. Japan experiences some kind of seismic upheaval almost every day, but at this announcement you could really feel the earth shake. The Giants are at once the most popular and the most despised team in Japan, the richest club and the team that sets the pace for all others (think New York Yankees here). And Nagashima was “Mr. Giants.”

A key member of the team as a player when they won nine straight Japan Series titles from 1965 to 1993, five-time Japanese Most Valuable Player Nagashima was beloved perhaps even more than his stoic teammate Oh. As manager he led the Giants to many Central League pennants and combined Japan Series wins in 1994 and 2000.

But this year belongs to their Central League rivals, the Yakult Swallows, and Nagashima announced he was tired of all the pressure to win, and not incidentally, to achieve high television ratings for the younger demographic audiences craved by executives of Nippon Broadcasting System, Inc.

In a way, he is another victim of the Ichiro Syndrome, which has led to diminished interest in Japanese baseball both at the parks and in front of the television screens, as a delighted nation devours any and all Ichiro news. To complicate matters, soccer is starting to replace baseball as Japan’s national game, driven by the success of Japanese players in Europe and the fact that the World Cup finals will come to Japan in 2002.

So it was against this background that the Bavasi group came to Japan, with games scheduled involving almost all the key teams.

THE BAVASI EXPRESS

Japan’s famous “shinkansen,” known to Americans as “bullet trains” for their speedy pace, have nothing on the Bavasi Express.

Bob Bavasi knows baseball, in any nation, as only those born to the cloth possibly can. His father is Emil “Buzzie” Bavasi, the legendary front office executive for the Brooklyn/Los AngelesDodgers and the San Diego Padres. Brother Bill Bavasi ran the Anaheim Angels. Brother Peter Bavasi ran the Toronto Blue Jays. All are still deeply connected to the game in one way or the other.

Bob and Margaret Bavasi left Southern California in the early ‘80s and in 1983 purchased the Walla Walla franchise in the short season rookie league. Soon after, they brought the club to Everett, and dubbed it the Everett Giants due to an affiliation with the National League’s San Francisco Giants. Later, as a farm club for the Seattle Mariners, they became the AquaSox. The family, firmly rooted in Everett and key players in charitable and community affairs, remain even though they sold the club a couple of years back.

To have such an escort, whose love of the game and the people and customs of Japan shine through the occasional grumble at an extra-innings game or a stumblebum umpire, was part of the attraction for many who came on the Autumn 2001 journey, one of a series that promises to continue for some time.

The first stop was at the most famous ballpark in Japan, the glittering Tokyo Dome, home of two of the five teams based in the Tokyo area but primarily associated with the Yomiuri Giants, founded in 1936 as Japan’s first professional baseball team. The scope of the place boggles the mind. It contains the massive stadium, seating more than 50,000 in three decks under an air-supported roof, as well as an amusement park, the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame, a gleaming new luxury hotel and scores of restaurants and stores

Our group had great seats, about 20 to 30 rows up from the field almost directly behind home plate. Bavasi spread us out some in pairs and threes in the near-capacity crowd to encourage us not to cling to each other but to make friends with the fans around us. It worked. When the Giants did something special, most of us began exchanging high fives with our neighbors, much to our mutual delight. When the mustard/ketchup packet served with the (not bad) hot dogs proved difficult to open, a helping hand was easily found.

Our seats in the more expensive sections had demonstrative fans by American west coast standards, but those in the bleachers were all Red Sox or Yankee fans times three. They worked far harder than the players on the field, who were, after all, just playing baseball. The cheering sections (left field for the visitors, right for the home squad) jumped up and down in tightly choreographed routines all night. Massive flags waved above them. Trumpets and drums played constantly.

On television it sounds a little strange to western ears. At the park it was fantastic, thrilling. Soon some in our group were joining in the most common chant, sounded just on the downbeat after the musical coda.

Say Asabe-san was at the plate. From tens of thousand throats came, followed by an intoxicating beat from tens of thousands plastic clappers of all sizes:

“Katto-bas-eh, Asa-be! Katto-bas-eh, Asa-be!”

Loosely adapted from the English, it simply means “Get a base hit, Asabe!”

Sometimes came the cry: “Ganbatte, kudasai!” It means the players should have fighting spirit, the very best thing a Japanese person can have.

The Giants beat the Hiroshima Toyo Carp 2-1 in a typically low scoring Japanese game, with the difference being an error by a Carp outfielder and a sharp double by our Giants hero. We left truly pumped, almost literally swept off our feet as we exited the dome and the pressurized air released when the exit doors were opened hit us square in the back. Ushers stationed at the door caught those who were in danger of falling.

After the game most of the group made their way to the city’s scandalous but perfectly safe Shinjuku District, home to shady night clubs and a thousand temptations of all kinds offered up by touts of all descriptions. Bavasi and Smith held our hands, figuratively, and led us through Sodom to a seedy but clean noodle restaurant where we all had soup and more than a spoonful of local color. We were glad we were being escorted by veterans.

ON TO CHIBA AND YOKOHAMA

The next night in Chiba, about a half-hour from central Tokyo by subway, was a vastly different experience. The Lotte Marines of Chiba had been eliminated from pennant contention long before, as had the evening’s opponent, the Nippon Ham Fighters. So the crowd was sparse, maybe 2,000 in the vast stadium.

The Marines’ General Manager, Setsuo Gotoh, met us outside and explained that the crowd was even smaller than usual because many people had traveled to far-away Osaka to see the Kintetsu Buffaloes as they came close to clinching the Pacific League pennant. Some of us were a bit skeptical of this explanation, but of course we politely agreed with Gotoh-san.

But the game was great, and it felt so nice to be in an outdoor stadium on a pleasant fall evening. After suffering at the concrete bunker known as the Kingdome for so many years, those of us from the Northwest had little liking for domes, no matter how fancy. So the plain-Jane stadium in the open air was just fine by us.

The Marines lacked the glamorous red-leather clad squad of cheerleaders that decorated the Tokyo Dome, and had only one mascot rather than a squad of four. But the crowd was again quite loud, especially for such a small group, and some of us had purchased our own plastic clappers and set to work helping with the volume.

Another highlight was the inflating and simultaneous release of huge balloons just before the bottom of the seventh inning, just after “Take Me Out to The Ballgame” (yes, they sing it in Japan, too, in English). The balloons dancing though the night air were a marvelous sight, and we wondered what it would be like with a full stadium. And when we were featured not once but twice on the big screen, we all whooped and hollered and waved just like the big kids we all were. Only the actual kids with us acted at all cool.

The game was again a close one, but this time the home team came out on the wrong end of a 2-1 game. Still, no one asked for their money back, least of all us.

On the last night of the first segment of the trip we traveled by bullet train to Yokohama, a city of three million that acts as the Tokyo area’s great seaport. It’s also a far more human-scale city, and some of us set off through the pleasant streets to Yokohama’s Chinatown prior to the game for some shu mai and pot stickers. Delicious.

Yokohama Stadium, home to the BayStars, was the barest and most Spartan of any we had seen so far, but it was comfortable and the weather was once again agreeable. By now our group was made up of old hands, surprised by little.

We were joined for the evening by Dan Latham, a sports reporter for the English language edition of the Asahi Shimbun, who shared his wit and acquired wisdom with us, the inside stuff. Latham is also a scouting consultant for the Atlanta Braves, and the most successful American team of the ‘90s doesn’t hire someone without a lot on the ball.

When there was a hotly disputed call in the late innings, Latham shared with us the information that Japanese umpires suffer far more insults and even injuries than their American counterparts. Recently, one arbiter even had a rib or two broken by an irate manager who made the late Billy Martin, the most fight-happy American manager in recent memory, appear tame by comparison. And sure enough, the “mild-mannered” Yokohama manager rushed the field and gave the home plate ump a good push.

In America he would be suspended for three or four games. In Japan, the ump simply took it without complaint, and things quieted down. Later in the inning, the second base umpire obliged the home team with an obvious “gimme” when a Hanshin Tigers player stole second but was summarily declared out. Bavasi was seriously ticked off at the injustice of it all.

And even Latham, who had seen almost all, was nearly struck dumb by his first experience of a tie game, which was declared after the teams remained deadlocked at 3-3 at the end of 12 innings, the cut-off point. Seven years on the job, he said, and it was the first he had ever seen – in our third Japanese game.

Some were a little disgruntled, but it slowly grew on us how rare and special the occasion was, especially for life-long American baseball fans, who follow a game which theoretically can go an infinite number of innings over any number of days. There have been games that have gone far more than twice the usual length.

In the United States, we play until someone wins and someone loses. In Japan, both teams leave a tie satisfied; no one has lost, and everyone involved is covered with honor because everyone has battled hard and done their best.

Sheesh, what’ll they think of next?