1 of Japan’s unwritten rules

Yudai Ono led Japan’s Central League in earned run average this season, passing Hiroshima’s Kris Johnson on Monday in his final start, when he was pulled after not allowing a base runner over 3-1/3 scoreless innings.

The issue

The game was a meaningless one for the Dragons, but not for their opponents, the Hanshin Tigers, who needed to win in order to advance to the playoffs at the expense of the Hiroshima Carp.

By pulling an effective starter, the Dragons reduced their ability to compete and make the Tigers earn the win, but guaranteed Ono would lead the league in ERA. The Tigers went on to win 3-0, scoring seconds after Ono left the mound.

Both the Dragons and Carp had something to gain from a situation if Ono did not allow an earned run over 3-1/3 innings and the Tigers won the game. That doesn’t mean there was an agreement, tacit or otherwise, to defraud the Carp, but such things happen in sports when teams pursue their selfish interests.

Kris Johnson weighed in on Twitter, expressing shock that gambling was going on in a casino. But it’s very typical behavior in Japanese society, where social rules give precedence to the workgroup over the law.

Japan rules

Team sports often demand an individual sacrifice individual gain for the greater good of the team. That means you don’t swing for the fences in an effort to win the home run title on a 3-2 pitch out of the strike zone if taking that pitch will force in a run and win your team a game.

I’ve written this before but in Japan, teams are also expected to generate rewards for team members in helping them pursue individual accomplishments. This is why pitcher Satoru Kanemura had a meltdown in 2006 when Nippon Ham Fighters manager Trey Hillman pulled him in the fifth inning of what would be his last start of the season, leaving him just one win shy of reaching double digits in wins.

Kanemura believed the team owed him a chance to win 10 games, and Hillman was violating that contract. He believed that because teams bend over backward to do stupid things in order to block opponents from beating their players to individual titles.

The Seibu Lions once threw intentional wild pitches with Lotte’s Makoto Kosaka on first base so he wouldn’t steal second and beat Kazuo Matsui for the Pacific League stolen base crown. Intentional walks are common. The Yomiuri Giants in 1985 and later the Daiei Hawks in 2001 and 2002 famously refused to challenge opposing hitters who were in danger of threatening the single-season home run record of their manager, managerSadaharu Oh.

Oh himself has called that sort of behavior distasteful because he was a fierce competitor and is a gentleman. But the culture here expects it.

Had Ono needed a win to lead the league in wins, there is no chance he would have come out early.

Players expect this behavior, fans expect this behavior. That’s the way it is. I don’t like it, but the regular season is 143 games long. I suppose if a few games here and there are marginally tainted because stupid stuff happens, I can live with it.

It’s not like six or seven teams here are tanking because spending less is more profitable.

Jim Allen

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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