Having a Tsutsugo at Japan’s adult-centered youth ball

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo” class=”wp-image-2501″/>
Yoshitomo Tsutsugo is the prototypical Japanese ball player in most respects, but he is now breaking the mold and speaking out on the ills of his nation’s youth baseball culture.

DeNA BayStars cleanup hitter Yoshitomo Tsutsugo asked Friday why Japan even has youth baseball if its culture values winning over teaching kids and helping them grow.

Japanese baseball is realizing there is a problem as the population shrinks but the baseball-playing population shrinks even faster. When Niigata Prefecture’s High School Baseball Federation recently took steps to protect high school pitchers’ arms in their local tournament, it was ridiculed from some quarters by those who worry that protecting kids will ruin competition.

Some people in Japan seem to think that the glory of sacrificing one’s body for the sake of their school’s victory is a good thing. One wonders if such people would be just as happy if the national high school tournament at Koshien Stadium were replaced by gladiatorial combat.

Read my story for Kyodo News here.

At his Tokyo press conference, Tsutsugo, the BayStars cleanup hitter and captain took aim at the youth sports authorities for their failure to institute rules and at coaches who forget that the game is for the kids.

“People in the baseball community are pushing for a resurgence in the sport at the youth level, but if you don’t make it fun, if you don’t protect the children, there is no point in having baseball at all,” he said.

Tsutsugo presented the results of some research by Japan’s leading Tommy John surgeon, Kozo Furushima, who has studied youth baseball injuries. One is particularly interesting, although it does involve a small group of student athletes (60) at a high school that frequently reaches the most prestigious national tournament finals at Koshien Stadium.

Of those 60, 39 had experienced elbow pain in junior high school, and 18 of those had relapses in high school. Those 18 relapses accounted for 90 percent of the elbow-pain sufferers, as only two of the 21 players felt elbow pain for the first time in high school. This suggests that fewer high school kids would be hurt if more injuries were prevented at a younger age.

Elbow pain graphic
Graphic from Dr. Kozo Furushima indicating that among 60 new high school students, only two who had not suffered elbow pain before high school had those injuries in high school.

On being disciplined and flexible in Japan and in life

Mr. Brown comes to town

Outfielder Roosevelt Brown only played in Japan for two seasons, and it didn’t provide a spring board to a longer career in the States, but the experience, he said recently, wasn’t wasted on him.

Brown joined the Orix Blue Wave in 2003, roughly three years before he went 0-for-1 as a pinch hitter at Tokyo Dome for the Chicago Cubs against the New York Mets. In Las Vegas last December at the baseball winter meetings, Brown spoke about his experiences and impressions of Japan’s game.

“Guys here now really want to go over there. They’re starting to hear how good the baseball is over there,” said Brown, who upon his retirement built homes and still owns that construction company, while working as an advisor with sports training business, Vizual Edge.

The stories and the reality

“All the nightmares that I heard about, I did not seen none of those. The Japanese people took care of me and I really appreciate the hospitality of the people of Japan.”

After an excellent debut season at the age of 27, Brown could see himself finishing his career in Nippon Professional Baseball, but it didn’t happen.

Players are now turning to Japan not for their final playing paychecks from an inferior league, but as an opportunity to realize more of their potential than they had shown in the States. Often, the time spent in Japan makes them better players.

“And better people, too. You learn a lot and you improve your game,” Brown said.

“The difference with Japanese baseball is the strength. You have more stronger guys at the big league level than you do in Japan. That’s the only difference. The command of the fastball, offspeed stuff, they can command all three pitches. The players here are a lot bigger, but they just don’t have the body control that most Japanese have.”

“They (Japanese) do a lot of body weight stuff. When they take their shirts off, they look like they’ve been lifting weights. The body tissue, because of the diet with a lot of seafood, their tendons are softer so their muscles expand more than an American player who eats a lot of beef. They eat a lot of protein but with lots of seafood, so the flexibility of Japanese players is ahead of a lot of American players.”

A new approach

A frequent passenger on the Triple-A, major league shuttle, Brown began studying martial arts, to increase his flexibility and fitness. The process opened his eyes to some of the things about Japan’s game that are not readily apparent in the numbers.

“It started in 1999,” Brown said. “I wanted to increase my flexibility, because I found out that flexibility creates strength. The longer the muscles are, the more agile you can be. When I got into martial arts, I just started liking it. I put my kids in it. I took private lessons. Before I worked out I would go in about 5 am and train with my master, and after that I would go to the gym and work out with my trainer.”

“It helped me tie in the biomechanics of the swing and how to tie in my energy and put the most energy into one area. I noticed a lot of the Japanese guys at the plate had the same ability. They got the most out of their bodies.”

An audience with the king

And in Japan he had the chance to meet with a man whose practice of aikido and other martial arts had helped turn him into one of the greatest power hitters the world has ever seen.

“I had a conversation with Sadaharu Oh,” Brown said. “I was trying to figure out what was his secret to hit so many home runs because he’s so small.”

“He used his body probably better than anybody in the history of the game. He was small. The only other hitter who had that power and that size when I played was Michihiro Ogasawara. Those guys’ weight transformation through the baseball was probably better than some guys in the States. I learned a lot. It was an awesome experience.”

Two years provides just an introduction to Japan’s whys and wherefores. Although Brown gained insight into swings, training and diet, some mysteries remained unsolved. Keen to earn the respect of his teammates, he tried to be the best at whatever the BlueWave players were doing, but when it came to Japan’s training grist mill, he had to raise his hand and take a time out.

“They were overworking and I had to talk to the team and say, ‘Look, if you want me to be 100 percent in August, we need to find a better way to buffer the work,’” he said. “Because I was accustomed to training hard in the offseason and maintaining during the regular season, but those guys train in season and offseason.”

“That amazed me how well those guys stayed in shape, because they were heavy smokers. Those guys would run forever despite the fact that they smoked. I saw myself as not being able to do something like that.”

A way of life

What he could relate to were elements of the culture that meshed with his own values, the importance of craftsmanship in Japanese society that is manifested in the discipline and respect the players are nurtured in. To some Latin players, Japanese baseball can at times seem joyless, but Brown discovered learning points on and off the field.

“I learned a lot about discipline,” he said. “The culture of Japan is built on discipline and respect. I knew about respect. I was raised that way, but Japan made me take it to the next level.”

“You’ve got to embrace change when you go there. It’s their way of living and you’re going over there, and you’ve got to make those adjustments to succeed. If I hadn’t got injured, I probably would have played the rest of my career over there.”

After he got hurt in 2004, his career ended all too quickly following a good 2005 season in Triple A with the White Sox.

Endings and beginnings

“It was tough because I had to leave the game earlier than I anticipated because of injury,” he said. “It was tough, but I dealt with it. It’s part of life, and I live not through my kids, but my kids all play baseball, my family members all play baseball. It’s something I won’t ever be able to get away from. I understand that. I thought about if I would be a bitter guy, but I look back on my career and I hit .300 nine years straight. Most people don’t do that. Instead of being bitter about it, I decided I was going to take the time God gave me to better my knowledge for my kids. So I know that’s starting to translate with my kids and the people I train. I talked to a couple of people here at the winter meetings about jobs. I didn’t realize how much respect I had earned as a player.”

“Hitting a baseball is something I had a gift at. I broke my wrist in 1997 and that was the most miserable season that I had. I had a bad season. That was the first bad season I had, and I didn’t understand how to deal with failure at the plate. It helped me grow into a better hitter. Never experiencing a failure like that was difficult.”

“I had a gift and I couldn’t use it. Now I want to pass it on. What’s a gift if you can’t pass it on? That’s why I understand gifts. That’s where my heart and conviction are now.”

Former greats weigh in on high school pitch limits

The outer limits

Since Japan’s Niigata Prefecture has announced its plan to restrict pitcher usage in its spring tournament this year, three former Chunichi Dragons pitchers, two Hall of Famers Hiroshi Gondo and Shigeru Sugishita and Masahiro Yamamoto have weighed in on the issue and expressed widely divergent views.

On Jan. 15, Gondo was announced as one of the three newest members of the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. The right-hander’s playing career was defined by his first two seasons. As a 22-year-old out of corporate league ball in 1961, Gondo won 35 games in his 429-1/3-inning rookie season. The following year, he pitched 362-1/3 innings and won 30 games.

Niigata’s new limits will prohibit a pitcher from starting an inning after he’d thrown 100 pitches in a game but not prohibit pitchers from pitching on consecutive days.

Save the game

“I am absolutely opposed to that (sort of restriction),” Gondo said.

“Most of those kids aren’t going to be professionals, and this will be the end of their baseball careers. You don’t want to hold them back. Besides, if you can’t pitch that much in high school without ruining your arm, there’s no way you can make it in the pros anyway.”

On the question of whether high school baseball should be about competition or education, Gondo came down solidly on the side of competition.

“You don’t want to put obstacles in the way of people playing to win,” he said. “People are going to get hurt, and you can’t alter that fact.”

I don’t want to state that as his entire philosophy on the issue, since we only spoke for a few minutes, but he certainly seemed to think that high school ball is safe enough.

Save the kids

Sugishita, whose No. 20 Gondo inherited when he joined the Dragons, wasn’t certain if Niigata’s method was the right way to go, but said, “You’ve got to do something to protect these kids’ arms.”

Yamamoto, a lock to join them in the Hall of Fame after he enters the players division ballot for the Hall’s class of 2021, was even more emphatic when he spoke on Sunday in Yokohama.

At a seminar attended by nearly 600 people that included elementary and junior high school coaches, doctors and parents, Yamamoto spoke of last year’s high school superstar, pitcher Kosei Yoshida.

At the national high school summer championship, Yoshida threw 881 pitches over six games, with four of those games coming over the final five days of the tournament.

“It’s a good thing Yoshida didn’t break down,” Yamamoto said. “But I thought that continuing like he did put the player’s career at risk.”

When Niigata’s prefectural association imposed its rules without asking the national body, the Japan High School Baseball Federation lashed out, calling the new system arbitrary and unenforceable.

But Yamamoto praised the work of Japan’s national rubber ball federation, whose guidelines limit pitchers to 70 pitches in a single game and 300 within a week.

“They have done good work to protect children’s futures,” he said.

No magic number

In a recent interview, Dr. Tsutomu Jinji, a professor of biomechanics who has extensively studied how pitchers mechanics impart movement to baseballs, said there is no magic number of pitches that will prevent injuries.

“Some people possess thicker ligaments, that can withstand more stress and torque,” he said. “Other pitchers are more flexible than others, or possess better mechanics.”

“What that means is that some pitchers’ arms will break down even with very limited usage, while others will survive much heavier workloads without any damage at all. It is possible to prevent catastrophic damage with ultrasound examinations so that pitchers whose elbows are at risk get rest, but that is not being done.”

Japan’s deep still waters

Tuffy Rhodes‘ failure to win election to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame for the fourth straight year sparked no outrage or surprise at all on Jan. 15, when this year’s voting results were announced. Several stories on this site and the Japan Times were published but barely made a ripple in the nation’s baseball consciousness.

For the past two seasons, I’ve been posting my postseason award ballots on Twitter, and they’ve received a huge amount of feedback. When I got the right to vote in Japan’s Hall of Fame for the first time in December, I thought this would get a killer response. The silence was deafening. Nobody cared.

When Kazuyoshi Tatsunami was elected, the Japanese language internet was filled with high-fiving supporters on social media and in the comments sections of news stories. Didn’t see one about Rhodes, who was easily the most qualified player on the ballot.

The table below shows the 2019 Hall of Fame votes for position players on this year’s ballot who failed to gain admission. It is sorted using career totals of Bill James‘ win shares. The “offensive categories led” column is for the big ones, runs, doubles, triples, homers, RBIs, stolen bases, walks, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging average. No NPB player whose led his league in more than 17 categories has not been elected to the hall — until Tuffy.

Hall of fame graphic
Position players with 25 percent of vote in 2019 Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame voting, sorted by career totals of Bill James’ win shares.

Enter the foreign media and NBC Sports’ story on Rhodes peculiar voting results. Within a few days, Japanese website Full-Count picked up on Craig Calcaterra’s story and that got 300-plus comments. You can read some of those here.

If it hadn’t been for Craig’s story, one would have thought nobody in Japan gave a hoot about the Hall of Fame, but let an overseas media outlet light a spark and the flames were visible.

I asked a fellow voter at my office, one of the guys who runs the Japanese pro baseball desk in the main (Japanese language) sports section of Kyodo News in Tokyo. He said Japanese dislike negative stories, preferring to celebrate the winners and forget about the losers.

He said he’s voted for Rhodes every year he’s been on the ballot and couldn’t figure out why he didn’t have more support, since his overall numbers place him smack in the middle of all the current Hall of Fame outfielders.

The only similar outfielder not in the hall is Masahiro Doi, who was victimized by changes to eligibility. It used to be that no who had been in uniform for five years was eligible. A few years ago the ballot was split into a players division for those who had been inactive for five to 20 years, and an experts division for anyone who has been out of uniform for six months or more.

Doi became a coach before he was eligible under the old rules. When the new rules were instituted, his career had been over for more than 20 years so he couldn’t enter the players division. He told me last year he has retired, so he’ll be on next year’s experts division ballot.

When Japan fans hit the shit

After NBC Sports’ Craig Calcatarra published his side of the Tuffy Rhodes Hall of Fame story, Japanese language baseball site Full-Count responded with an article saying even the American media was mystified by Rhodes’ inability to be selected to Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame.

This story, linked int Yahoo! Japan’s sports baseball news, has drawn a flood of comments, mostly from people pissed off with the Hall of Fame voters, who put Rhodes behind a number of players on the ballot with weaker credentials.

There’s an expression in Japan called “gai-atsu”. It means foreign pressure. Sometimes, when one wants to accomplish something or promote an agenda, voices shaming Japan from abroad is seen as useful leverage.

We recently marked the anniversary of the Great Hanshin Earthquake. At that time, 1995, every national network news program began its domestic coverage of the quake by showing how it was being covered by the BBC, or CBS, or NBC or CNN. That kind of paranoia about how the world views Japan is no longer an everyday facet of life, but the idea that Japan cares about its image abroad is still there.

What the fans said:

While Japan’s Hall drones on year after year without a whiff of the controversy or debate that Cooperstown provokes, the fans have shown some fire in this debate. Japanese baseball has been much of my life, but I got a little choked up reading the comments to the article.

I have abridged some of them. I wish I could reproduce them all here.


“When his team Kintetsu was being put of business and Japan’s players union went out on strike in 2004, Tuffy did his part. He was out engaging with the fans, signing autographs even though he wasn’t a member of the union. He belongs in the Hall of Fame on the merit of his stats, of course, but just as much because of how well he treated the fans.”

近鉄の球団身売り→球界初のストという一連の事態に於いても「何とか力になりたい」と選手会主催のサイン会に参加していた(日本の選手会に所属してないにもかかわらず)。 記録もそうだが、ファンを大切にしていた彼は殿堂にふさわしい。


“This goes for (Kintetsu Buffaloes teammate) Norihiro Nakamura. WHat kind of numbers would you have produced if you were even a bit more humble? But the fire you showed, and speaking the Kansai dialect, the Kintetsu colors were perfectly suited to you. You were one of the greats.”

中村ノリ共々、もう少し謙虚であったならどんな成績を残していたか。まぁ豪快な打棒と暴れっぷり、関西弁を喋るキャラは近鉄のカラーに合ってた。名選手の一人。


“The attention paid to Pacific League players is not as great as for those in the Central League, and it seems that they are not evaluated as highly either.”

主にパリーグに在籍していた選手は、セリーグのそれに比べ、注目度の低さが祟って、相対的に低めに評価される傾向があるようには感じる。


“Compared to Rhodes, people are forgetting his character compared to someone like Alex Ramirez, who is still working as a manager (in Japan). This is very unfortunate for such a wonderful person who paid so much respect to Japan.”

ラミレス監督の現役時代のチームへの貢献度やホームランはバレンティンを超える成績を残せたであろう選手。なんせ日本へ敬意を払ってくれていた素晴らしい選手だっただけに残念。


“The American baseball community pays its respect to Japan’s home run king Mr. Oh, and I think it’s only fitting that we have foreign players in our Hall of Fame.”

アメリカの野球界が日本のホームランキングの王さんに敬意を示しているわけですから、日本の野球も外国人選手の殿堂入りはあっても良いと思います


“Ichiro is going to make it to Cooperstown, and it seems Rhodes has done more than enough to be inducted in Japan’s Hall of Fame.”

イチローがアメリカで殿堂入りしそうなんだから、ローズの日本で殿堂入りも十分ありでしょ。


“Someone please explain Rhodes’ failure to be elected. It’s not just one year, but four. If Rhodes were Japanese I think I might be able to accept that. But if racial discrimination is involved in the process, then that should be stated clearly in writing. This is an embarrassment for Japan.


Are we still living in an atmosphere of national isolation (like Japan’s feudal era) ? People form other countries strived and contributed here for a long time. Isn’t that itself something special? It would not be any surprise if Greg “Boomer” Wells were in our Hall of Fame, too. I think it’s because these people are seen as imported labor.”

“Tuffy came back and contributed to (managed) and played in Japanese independent ball, so I would like to see him back in Japan even if it were as a coach for Orix. He is Mr. Buffalo.

未だに鎖国的雰囲気があるのか・・・・
異国の地で長く活躍するのがどれだけ大変な事か
ブーマー辺りも殿堂入りしても全然不思議ではないのに

助っ人だと思う。
また、独立リーグでのプレーもみたいし、コーチでオリックスに帰ってきてほしい。
ミスターバファローズ


Just to be certain. It wasn’t all sweetness and light.

“It’s because he’s hired help. Foreigners’ bodies are bigger.

助っ人だからな。日本人とは体格も違うし。

NPB to take more requests

Managers get more review options

Managers were given expanded video review options on Tuesday, when Nippon Professional Baseball rolled out its revised video review program — known as the “Request System” — for 2019 at the NPB managers meeting.

Prior to 2018, video reviews were limited to balls caught against the outfield wall, potential home runs and plays at home plate, and were conducted at the sole discretion of the umps. This didn’t prevent a manager from raising one eyebrow or both, or stepping on the field with a plaintive look to encourage umps to exercise that option.

Last year’s system allowed managers to review only safe and out decisions on the field. Each team is able to request reviews until two requests through nine innings have failed to overturn rulings. Teams are allotted an additional request in extra innings.

In addition to safe-out calls, managers this season will be able to review whether a pitch struck a batter in the head or not, obstruction calls at home plate or takeout slides to prevent a double play.

Hitting a batter in the head with a pitch — a “kikenkyu” or dangerous ball — results in automatic ejection for the pitcher, but now the umpire’s call can be reviewed before the pitcher is kicked out of the game.

No talking back

From this year, NPB intends to enforce its rule that players and managers who dispute the result of a video review will be automatically ejected. In addition any time a player is ejected for that offense, his skipper will also get the heave-ho.

“If a player get thrown out of the game, the manager automatically gets thrown out from this year,” DeNA BayStars manager Alex Ramirez said after the meeting in Tokyo. “That’s one thing that is also very good.”

One less cook seeing to the broth

Although umpires will still go under the stands and stare at tiny screens to examine the video evidence, the umpire who made the call in question will no longer be part of the process.

According to Osamu Ino, NPB’s umpiring technical committee chairman, the umps had wanted someone off the field to handle that duty, but were refused. Video reviews in the majors are handled by Major League Baseball at a remote sight and the umps on the field are then informed of their decision.

A step forward

“Of course, this system is an improvement,” Yakult Swallows manager Junji Ogawa said. “Having it is better than not having it.”

“They’ve expanded the range of things we can review, and I don’t think it will stop there. From now on, we will want more and more reviewable options. But at some point you have to just respect the umpires’ decision and their position.”

Ramirez vowed to be more efficient in requesting reviews, especially after he was “recognized” for his behavior in 2018 and suggested that sometimes he expended requests on plays that really weren’t that close late in games because he felt the need to either use them or lose them.

“It was very new to everybody,” he said. “Sometimes I didn’t know what to expect when requesting. I realize today that I requested the most, 51 times. And 13 times that was correct. I had a 25 percent success rate. So I realized I needed to do better.”

“If we don’t have to (make a request), don’t do it just because.”

Long road to Wrigley Field

The Chicago Cubs' Naoto Masamoto
Chicago Cubs video coordinator Naoto Masamoto overcame poor English ability through effort and has earned a lifetime of experience in American baseball.

This is a favorite story of mine of one of the many interesting Japanese people I’ve met from going to the baseball winter meetings the past five years. Naoto Masamoto is now the Chicago Cubs’ video coordinator, but he’s done a lot, lot more.

Naoto Masamoto thought his baseball career was over after he finished high school in Japan, but he made the most of his father’s business move to America to launch a career that took him to the major leagues.

“Not good. Not good at all,” Masamoto said of his English ability went he went abroad with his dad to the States. “I had one American kid on my little league team, maybe that helped. Maybe not.”

In order to pursue a career as an athletic trainer, Masamoto attended the University of Massachusetts, and when he found out they had a baseball program, he restarted his career on the field.

“I just walked into the coach’s office,” he said.

And asked if he could play.

“Yep. That was pretty much it.”

Read the full story at the Japan Times.

Tsutsugo calls for revolution

Power hitters Yoshitomo Tsutsugo and Sho Nakata
Power hitters Yoshitomo Tsutsugo and Sho Nakata talk to reporters after National team practice in March 2016 at Nagoya Stadium. As a youth baseball consultant, Tsustugo is now trying to alter his country’s slap-hitting mindset.

Slap-happy Japan fails to launch

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, cleanup hitter of the Yokohama-based DeNA BayStars, on Sunday told elementary and junior high school baseball coaches on Sunday that they need to accept the fly-ball revolution and stop teaching hitters to try and hit ground balls (see links below on related studies). Tsutsugo has told the club he would like to be posted next autumn so he can play in the major leagues in 2020.

According to a Nikkan Sports story, Tsutsugo’s first duty as a sports advisor in his hometown of Hashimoto, Wakayama Prefecture, was to tell the 50 coaches in attendance that the days of chopping down on the ball were over.

His argument was that most coaches for the most part impart their own experiences only and don’t update their thinking, and that since times have definitely changed the only way to prepare kids for the future was for the coaches to learn new ways.

Since back in the day, he said, it’s been “Hit down on the ball. But everyone is different. Even pros swing the bat parallel to the ground while a lot even have slight downswings.”

He explained about the “fly ball revolution” and that rather than hit ground balls, generating lift with a 30 degree launch angle would generate more hits and more home runs. Tsutsugo pleaded with the coaches to study the matter.

Individual effort

Tsutsugo also encouraged coaches to let the kids think for themselves and railed against the primacy of winning among coaches, saying, “That leads to abusive language and shaming players instead of teaching.”

Speaking to about 70 people at a sports festival later that day, he preached his mantra that kids shouldn’t be talked down to for making mistakes.

“There’s no shame in making errors,” he said. “Not trying for fear of making a mistake is the worst possible outcome.”

Ichiro, Oh and the world

Sadaharu talks to reporters during the 2006 WBC
Sadaharu Oh talking to reporters as Japan practiced at San Diego’s Petco Park before its 2006 WBC semifinal against South Korea.

Oh’s story

On Friday, Jan. 18, 2019, Sadaharu Oh spoke to reporters at Japan’s National Press Club in Tokyo. The SoftBank Hawks chairman was speaking on the subject of pro baseball during Japan’s Heisei Era — which ended last spring.

During the press conference, Oh spoke of how over the past 30 years, Japanese baseball made itself heard in America, with the success of Hideo Nomo in 1995 and later Japan’s triumph in the first World Baseball Classic, which he managed.

“That first time, I didn’t know what was what, and it just became a case of leaving it to the players who volunteered,” Oh said. “I became emboldened when Ichiro (Suzuki) called. He was the first.”

Oh wasn’t kidding when he said he didn’t understand what was what. He didn’t particularly want to manage Japan in 2006, but no one was stepping up to do it.

He had been a proponent of the project in 2004 and 2005, when Nippon Professional Baseball was suspicious of dealing with Major League Baseball and accepted the job because no else wanted it.

“There were people in Japanese baseball who didn’t want this new burden,” he said a year ago. “It wasn’t because they were wrong, but because they were focused on their business at hand. But I thought it was important. That it was a chance to broaden our horizons.”

The WBC

Jim Small, then MLB’s vice president for Asia, had just opened up shop in Japan so that MLB could negotiate TV rights and licensing deals without having to outsource them. The WBC turned out to be a hard sell and the process involved a lot of public sniping from NPB’s secretary general at the time, Kazuo Hasegawa.

With the deal finally agreed to late in the summer of 2005 and with Oh now in charge of selecting his team, people wondered which of Japan’s major leaguers would take part. Outfielders Ichiro and Hideki Matsui were the biggest stars. It was assumed that second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, then en route to a World Series championship with the Chicago White Sox, would sign on since he had played under Oh with the Hawks.

For one reason or another, the common assumption in Japan was that Matsui and Iguchi would play, but Suzuki would not.

And so I thought until a chance meeting with Small on a shinkansen heading west out of Tokyo. Small had been sitting in the same carriage, saw me and brought up the subject of Ichiro.

After listening to me spout the common view, Small said, “I’ve heard he wants to play. And he’s waiting for Oh to call him.”

I was in Fukuoka a few weeks later when the Hawks hosted Bobby Valentine‘s Lotte Marines in the final stage of the Pacific League playoffs.

The king and I, Sadaharu Oh.

The king and I and Ichiro

I can’t properly explain my relationship with Oh, Japan’s all-time home run king, who is a household name and an icon here.

After I started working at the Daily Yomiuri in 1998 after six years as a free lancer, I ventured up to Oh on the sidelines at Tokyo Dome one day. I am sure I was shaking as I quizzed him on Japanese baseball in my fairly broken Japanese. His demeanor was friendly, reassuring and straightforward. It wasn’t me. It’s the way Oh is.

So on one of those days during that series in Fukuoka, I remembered what Small had said on the train, that Ichiro was waiting for Oh to call him.

“Can I do that?” Oh asked. “Is that permitted?”

I didn’t know if it was permitted or not, but suggested that it was worth finding out. I also haven’t asked Oh since then exactly how that play out. It is just as likely that he forgot what we talked about and only thought about it when someone else mentioned Ichiro. At some point, Oh began pursuing Matsui, with the progress of that courtship playing out in the daily sports pages.

After Matsui turned Oh down, Oh sought out Iguchi. Although everyone thought he would jump at the chance, he was reportedly less than thrilled to be considered an afterthought and turned down a spot on the WBC roster.

But with Ichiro in tow, the rest was history, as Japan largely lucked its way into the WBC final despite two losses to South Korea and Oh’s insistence on sacrificing with batters he had no business putting a bunt sign into their heads. *

“I’m good when I’m the first,” Oh said. “And at that time, too, I remember thinking, ‘My luck is still holding.’ My first time wearing the rising sun emblem in baseball empowered me.”

*–His extreme small-ball approach in 2006 is ironic when one considers his recent comments about how Japan’s national team should play.

NPB’s most famous strike

NPB umpiring technical committee chairman Osamu Ino
Osamu Ino, NPB’s umpiring technical committee chairman was there the day east met west.

End of the experiment

The plan, hatched by Central League president Hiromori Kawashima, was to prove umpires showed no favoritism to Japan’s most powerful franchise. Instead, it demonstrated to the world that Nippon Professional Baseball showed no favoritism towards its umpires when they were attacked on the field.

On June 5, 1997, Mike DiMuro was assaulted on the field after calling an American-style outside strike on Chunichi Dragons slugger Chen Ta-feng (known in Japan as Yasuaki Taiho). DiMuro, who was supposed to spend the season on loan in order to prove umpire neutrality, called it quits.

Although technically, he was recalled for his own safety, it was cover-your-ass story.

“He came out of the game, and then informed us he wouldn’t be back,” former umpire Osamu Ino said.

Masaaki Nagino, the league’s secretary general at the time, said DiMuro was ready to leave and the incident was not the reason he left, but the reason he left at that time.

“He had a tough time, living out of hotels, always on the road, with few people he could speak English with,” Nagino said soon after the incident. “He was ready to go, and nobody blamed him for leaving.”

The zone

A central issue to the DiMuro experiment was his use of the American strike zone that had been altered by umpires in the States, shifted one ball width away from the batter. A pitch not entirely over the inside edge of the plate would not be called a strike in the majors but would be in Japan. On the other side, American umps had become accustomed to calling strikes on pitches within two ball-widths of the outside edge.

This troubled foreign hitters, like Hensley Meulens, and created an opportunity for players willing to exploit it, like Motonobu Tanishige and Hiroki Nomura.

The setup

“I was there,” Ino said. “DiMuro was always in my crew. That day in 1997, I was the second base ump and DiMuro was behind the plate. There was nobody on base, and Yokohama playing Chunichi. Tanishige, the catcher, set a target a little outside, and it was one of those ‘American-style strikes,’ and DiMuro called it.”

“Taiho made a commotion about I thought, ‘What a moron.’ It didn’t enter into Taiho’s head that DiMuro’s strike zone would be like that.”

The sting

“But Tanishige was sharp, so he set a target a little farther outside, and I was thinking, that’s just like Tanishige to do that. The pitcher, Nomura, had really good control, and he threw another outside, more than a ball outside.”DiMuro, of course, couldn’t let it go, and had to teach (Taiho) a lesson. So as soon as I saw the target, I thought, ‘Here we go.'”

But Dragons were not an ordinary team. Their manager, Senichi Hoshino, wore his fierce emotions on his sleeve, could erupt in anger or laughter at the drop of a cap and had a history of getting physical with umpires and players he was angry with.

Another character was coach Ikuo Shimano. Fifteen years earlier, in September 1982, Shimano had been coaching with the Hanshin Tigers when he and a fellow coach assaulted two umpires in a game in Yokohama. *

The ruckus

“Nomura threw it, (DiMuro called a strike and) Taiho shouted and then all of a sudden Hoshino’s there and Shimano’s charging in there,” Ino said. “And they’ve got DiMuro surrounded near the backstop.”

“Because there was nobody on base, I was out in center field and shouted, ‘Wait!’ as I ran in, but I couldn’t get there in time to prevent it. Dimuro was in shock. We took over for him and the game went on.”

It never was much of a melee. DiMuro got away as Ino and the other two umps jawed with Hoshino, who was seen laughing as he went back to the dugout.

The aftermath

Although DiMuro’s departure had been as much about timing as the way he was treated on the field, it caused Japan’s managers some embarrassment to realize their actions put Japanese baseball as a whole in a bad light.

Soon after to show their solidarity for the umpires and the greater good, Kintetsu Buffaloes manager Kyosuke Sasaki and Seibu Lions manager Osamu Higashio pledged not to argue with umpires for an entire series.

That warm-and-fuzzy approach didn’t last however. On July 10, Higashi shoved umpire Koichi Tamba for calling one of his players out on the bases. Tamba tossed Higashio. After the game, the skipper went the umpires room and when Tamba refused to listen, put him in a headlock. The ump suffered a contusion on his left leg, while Higashio was fined 100,000 yen — worth about $890 at the time — and suspended for three days.

*–Local authorities investigated the incident, that forced one of the umpires to miss two weeks of work and the other three. Shimada and fellow coach Takeshi Shibata were prosecuted for assault and fined 50,000 yen each in summary proceedings by the Yokohama District Court. They were fired by the Tigers and both banned indefinitely from baseball. They both indicated their remorse and their suspensions were lifted the following March.

writing & research on Japanese baseball

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