The novel coronavirus has changed the world. Shutdowns, slowdowns and–in Japan–self-restraint, have allowed wild life to flourish and cleared our skies of airborne filth. We are now locked in a cultural debate about how we can return to normal or if this is the new normal.
Authoritarian regimes across the globe have used this as an opportunity to restrict liberties and that goes for baseball as well. No one should be surprised at this. After all, following rules in baseball—particularly “unwritten ones”–is praised to the skies as “playing the right way.” Suppressing free spirits is as much a part of America’s game as three strikes and you’re out.
There is no doubt that baseball values rule-keeping, but the children’s game we love also seems to be a vehicle powered by those who want to make sure others obey their rules as well.
Japan reverts to old ways
With the pandemic forcing changes left and right, Nippon Professional Baseball opened its season on June 19 behind closed doors. In addition to scrapping its all-star series and trimming five league games from each team’s calendar, the leagues opted out of interleague play. The Pacific League trimmed its postseason playoffs from a three-team, two-stage affair to a two-team final series that is a best-of-five instead of a best-of-seven. The Cemtral League, citing its old-fart rallying cry of “giving priority to league games,” did away with its postseason tourney.
What that means for fans is more of the CL “playing its game the right way”—read “old way”—and fewer meaningful games for fans. Once the Yomiuri Giants clinched the pennant on Friday, Oct. 30, the 24 remaining games became meaningless. If teams were allowed to fill up their parks during the pandemic, it would be obvious that the old way is bad for everyone except those who consider preserving the old way a virtue.
That’s why in 2007, the CL adopted the same PL format it had been ridiculing for three years, because most PL teams were playing meaningful games until the final days of the season, while the CL games were just there to make the weight.
The PL pennant might be decided, but who gets to be in the Japan Series is not. In both leagues, there is a razor-thin margin between third and fifth. That difference is meaningless in the CL, but cause for excitement for fans of a league that is less concerned with “playing the game the right way.”
The gate keepers
Decades before he was the Fighters’ general manager, Nippon Ham exec Hiroshi Yoshimura was a former sportswriter working in the Pacific League office. When I started publishing critical analytical books about the ways of Japanese pro baseball in 1994, he reached out to me. When I asked him how to contact team’s PR people, he said: “Japanese baseball PR people are gate keepers rather than facilitators.”
The attitude of PR people has softened some since the 1990s, when PR people would sometimes interrupt and threaten English-speaking journalists having pregame conversations with players and tell them they were forbidden to talk without permission. Often this kind of behavior was dependent on the individual then in charge of the team’s PR department. The Pacific League, less uptight from top to bottom, tended to be cooperative, while Central League clubs tended to cast a more suspicious eye.
There have, however, been outstanding individual PR guys in Japanese baseball. I don’t want to get him in trouble for singing his praises, but the all-time superstar of NPB PR guys was a former player who used to run the Yomiuri Giants’ PR shop. His attitude of going out of his way to help the media do good stories about the Giants and their players would probably not sit too well with their current boss.
So far as I can tell, the Giants, the Tigers—notoriously the least cooperative and most authoritarian—and Yakult Swallows have all used the pandemic as an excuse to block out media requests to interview their players. The DeNA BayStars, to their credit, have not, and although that organization is perhaps the most authoritarian in Japan, they have procedures and they are simply sticking to them rather than using the coronavirus as an excuse to be as pernicious as possible.
As expected, most of the PL teams have been about as welcoming and helpful as they usually are with special shout-outs to the Fighters, who have bent over backwards in these difficult days. It seems that if your league is bent on being innovative, as most PL teams have been, there is less room for an authoritarian disposition in your organizational culture.
Baseball’s cultural divide
Something I’ve long struggled with is the intelligent former ballplayers who have leaped onto the authoritarian-side–or “traditional-side” if your sensitivities demand a euphemism–of America’s current culture wars. These people are, for the most part white, although not exclusively so.
The response to publicity surrounding police brutality and Black Lives Matter, has been met with ridicule by many white former players I know who at the same time have the highest respect for black former teammates as individuals of character. These people are not demonstrably racists, but something is going on that is tough to figure out.
For a long time, I’ve attributed this to people not understanding the scope and impact of white privilege. Until a few years ago, I understood aspects of white privilege without being able to give it a name or explain it well. I figured ballplayers who also grew up in homogeneous mostly white communities might be in the same boat I was.
If one grows up in a homogeneous environment, one sees that those who succeed often have ambition, talent or money, while those who fail often don’t. It is unfair but easy to label our peers’ failures as their individual failings, and also to see failure anywhere as the failure of those individuals.
This sense must be particularly acute for athletes, who are taught early on not to whine about failure but to perform better. Such people might attribute the lack of success of those from other socio-economic groups in the same way they view those from their community who failed.
But I now think that while that an inability to recognize white privilege might be a small influence, a bigger one might simply be baseball itself, a sport that nurtures and promotes authoritarianism, and that some people are just wired to think that way.
It could be genetic
In a 2014 New York Times opinion piece, Thomas B. Edsall surveyed research of a genetic component in one’s disposition toward authoritarianism. He cites the work of Steven Ludeke, Wendy Johnson, and Thomas J. Bouchard Jr. They concluded that “authoritarianism, religiousness and conservatism,” which they call the “traditional moral values triad,” are “substantially influenced by genetic factors.”
Baseball is played by a code, although a code that differs from culture to culture, with each culture referring to its code as the unwritten rules that prescribe the “right way” to play. In Japan, players can land on home plate with a handspring after hitting a home run and no one worries about a fastball behind their ear, but they will be ostracized if they suggest that current doctrine is nonsense.
Promotion in pro baseball is a long arduous process of enculturation, limiting the number of cultural outliers who make it to the elite levels. At every step, on-field success is rewarded with promotion but deviance from the unwritten rules is punished.
It’s easy to see how, given two players of equal promise and quality, the one who better represents baseball conservative values will likely be promoted ahead of a free spirit.
It’s not that baseball is inherently authoritarian, but it is a culture that more easily rewards those who are inclined to follow the rules and insist others do as well and preserve a kind of idealistic status quo.