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.

Jim Allen

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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