December 16, 2011
Belittling Japanese Baseball in 1980
Yutaka Enatsu ends his 11-inning no-hitter with a sayonara home run.
Setting aside all things Ryan Braun and Albert Pujols this week, the big news around Major League Baseball has been the posting process of Japanese superstar pitcher Yu Darvish, who hopes to make a big splash next year while earning his NPB club, the Nippon Ham Fighters, a big payday. It's been over 15 years since Hideo Nomo treated us to his version of Fernando-mania and more than ten since Ichiro became only the second player ever to win the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards in the same year. The success of others who have followed in Nomo's and Ichiro's footsteps has varied, but by now the NPB-to-MLB transition is commonplace, if not entirely predictable. Thirty years ago, however, it was a very different story.
The December 1980 issue of "Baseball Digest" shows just how different the baseball world was then with an article called "Japanese Baseball Almost as Foreign as the Language":
Every season, major league players head for the Land of the Rising Sun to prolong or enhance their baseball careers. They soon find, however, the Japanese version of America's national pastime is almost as foreign as the language.
Some differences cited in the article include average game times of three and a half hours thanks to excessive meetings on the field ("The manager comes out and discusses just about everything that goes on on the field... Everything that seems to be a crisis, they're out having a meeting about it.") and a different sense of responsibility ("Our pitcher gave up two home runs in one game so they took the catcher out."). The differences in pitching are also discussed, from the lack of lefties to softer pitches and a higher, wider strike zone.
"The strike zone is much higher. It can be from head level to ankle level," [Roy] White said. "It can also be five inches inside and five inches outside. You never adjust to that. A foreign player is used to a tight strike zone. But, it's not like that every night. It depends on the umpire. I usually hit better on nights the strike zone is tighter."
Along the way, the authors throw in a few stereotypical adjectives to help remind us what era this was written in. "The industrious Japanese" play ball with an "Oriental sense of fair play" while following "the basic Japanese tenet of emphasizing the group over the individual." As an American fan in Japan, you're sitting in a "miniature seat" with your "knees hitting your chin and the person in front of you" who happens to be one of the "courteous Japanese" who "[was not] rude enough to complain" when their game was interrupted.
The highlight of the article comes when the authors are discussing home runs. The readers are introduced to the "world's home run king" Sadaharu Oh, described as "the most recognizable face in Japan [who] popularized the game like Babe Ruth did in his time." Oh, who had 858 of his career 868 home runs at the time of the article's writing, talks about his career goals: "This is not my final goal, but one goal now is to reach 900."
In a world yet to coin the term "walkoff home run", this story from Roy White was the most revealing:
"I hit three home runs in one game. The last was in the bottom of the ninth and won the game. That was my second game-winning home run. Over here they call it a 'sayonara' home run, which means it's all over, that's it. When you do something like that you're immediately interviewed on the field."
The term "sayonara home run" was known in America as early as 1980 and we still had to wait until after Kirk Gibson hit his famous home run off of Dennis Eckersley in 1988 before we even had our own, much-more-pedestrian term for the same thing? The authors may have quoted a player's wife as calling Japanese baseball a "completely different game" and may have thrown in their own examples of casual national stereotyping every chance they got, but it's this - the complete disregard of a shining, golden example of baseball terminology - that really shows how backwards the world was in 1980. Times have most definitely changed since this article was published thirty years ago (most for the better), but we still don't call walkoff home runs "sayonara home runs." What a shame.