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March 13, 2007

Live From Akita City

The Nippon Professional League

by Mike Plugh

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As a resident of Akita City in northern Japan, I am treated to the spectacle of junior high school students, in full practice uniform, traveling to school by bicycle in the snow. High school players are at school early everyday, grooming of the field and preparing the clubhouse. They run, stretch, and practice with the same level of concentration as their more famous professional counterparts. A Japanese player will always tip his cap and bow upon entering or exiting the field. This goes for the elementary school practice field and the professional stadium. Why? Because the field is the place to pursue perfection. It is the temple of self-mastery, and should be treated with the respect afforded such places.

The top high school teams occasionally achieve an even greater level of dedication than the pros, and are therefore among the most celebrated heroes of the nation. The Koshien High School Summer Baseball Tournament is the be-all and end-all of athletics in Japan, and young boys everywhere dream of leaving their blood out on the hallowed grounds of that stadium or taking home a bag full of its dirt as a symbol of their victory.

On his tour of Fenway, Matsuzaka bowed as he entered and exited, much to the surprise of the American media. In his 1989 book You Gotta Have Wa, Robert Whiting gives us an anecdote from 1891 about a popular English teacher named Robert Imbrie--he was beaten by students of Ichiko High School for climbing their wall to enter the field after arriving late to the start of a game. Their field was their "dojo," and not a place for such a disrespectful act. This is serious business.

The wave of successful Major Leaguers from Japan has turned the spotlight on the Japanese game. Each year a new set of names enters the arena, but even so, the sample size is still incredibly small, and despite our best efforts to provide accurate statistical comparisons and translations, it remains a rough process. Perhaps in a few seasons, we will have seen enough players of varying ability enter the U.S. game that we will be able to predict a range of performance at a more refined level.

Understanding the context of the numbers is highly dependent on keeping cultural factors in mind as we attempt to project from one league to the other. Why do the Japanese bunt more? Do Japanese managers pitch around foreign players to keep them from setting home run records? Is the cultural imperative to finish what you start a factor in understanding the role of the relief pitcher in Japan?

Baseball has been played in Japan since the 1870s, when it was introduced to high school students by missionary academics like Horace Wilson. The early days of the sport saw players wearing traditional "hakama" (men's traditional clothing) or "geta" (wooden sandals). Baseball, or "yakyu," is as much a national pastime in Japan as it is in the United States, and has been played nearly as long. On the surface the sport looks the same, but there are many fundamental differences in the product on the field, as well as among the reactions of fans in the stands. Over time, a lot of information has become available to us about the nature of the sport in Japan. Much of this work has been provided by the likes of Robert Whiting, Jim Allen, Michael Westbay, Jim Albright, Wayne Graczyk, Sergei Borisov, Bob Bavasi, and Gary Garland, not to mention the many excellent English-language reporters and columnists who follow the games and behind-the-scenes action every day.

Just as it is in the States, Japanese baseball is played on a number of levels. Amateur baseball is very important and no discussion of the sport could be complete without some focus on the passion for the game at the elementary, junior high, high school, and university levels. With respect to the amateur game, beyond the Spring and Summer editions of the Koshien High School Baseball events, the National Athletic Competition ranks among the most important. The Tokyo Big Six League is the cream of the university crop.

The Nippon Professional Baseball league, or NPB, has been around since the mid-1930s in one form or another. It has existed in its current form since 1950, divided into the Central League and the Pacific League; the Pacific uses the DH. The season is currently 146 games in the Central League and 136 in the Pacific. The 2007 season marks the first time that both leagues will use a standardized multi-round playoff format. You might imagine the difficulty in comparing two leagues with different schedules and formats.

Professional players and teams have earned Hall of Fame reputations for their play over the generations, and the stories are colorful and heroic. Eiji Sawamura (for whom Japan's pitching award is named) once struck out Charlie Gehringer, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx in succession. He pitched Japan's first no-hitter, but was eventually killed in action at the age of 27 when his naval vessel was sunk during a Second World War sea battle. Tokyo Giants third baseman Shigeo Nagashima is considered by many to be the greatest player in the history of the Japanese game. He is certainly the most popular, as he hit the first home run in a game attended by the Emperor. His teammate Sadaharu Oh is the world's all-time home run champion with 868, and together, Nagashima and Oh made the Giants champions nine straight years, from 1965 to 1973. That club is affectionately referred to as the "V-9" as a tribute to that run of success. The modern names are equally celebrated, but are now known internationally as well. Ichiro, Matsui, Matsuzaka. As we get to know them more, we also get to know their predecessors just a bit.

By attempting to draw out the finer points of Japanese culture and sport, we can better understand the places where the game is approached differently. This goes beyond park factors and changes in diet from Japan to the U.S. There is a more comprehensive picture to be drawn and analyzed. In the coming weeks, I'll be providing some bread-and-butter analysis of players and teams from the Nippon Professional Baseball league in this space. Learning the basics about the who, what, where, and when of the sport in Japan is step one. Step two is the how and why of the Japanese game. Stay tuned for a look at the upcoming season in Japan, and the key players and storylines ready to enter your living room. I hope to bring you the same quality of writing and analysis of baseball that has preceded me, and that has led me to pursue my own take on Japan's game.

Mike Plugh is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is also the author of Matsuzaka Watch. You can reach Mike by clicking here.

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