Tag Archives: Masaaki Mori

Text and subtext

I’ve been watching Japanese baseball now for close to 37 years, and one quickly becomes so numb to the incessant spouting of dogma and lip service, that one rarely asks why people say the stupid things they do, even when it is impossible a single intelligent listener would believe a word of it.

Then it struck me. As they say on Twitter, “I was today years old, when I realized” that these messages aren’t about baseball at all, but about something bigger.

On Saturday, Yuya Hasegawa was interviewed about his two home runs in the SoftBank Hawks’ 8-3 win over the Yomiuri Giants.

Q: Four home runs yesterday, today a season-high five home runs. It reminds us once again of how much power the Hawks have…

Yes. But in my opinion, home runs only happen now and then. If possible, what we really want is to string together good results to diligently create scoring opportunities and drive in runs with base hits, and score more runs that way.

–SoftBank Hawks player Yuya Hasegawa after hitting two of his team’s five home runs on May 28, 2021.

That’s how post-game hero interviews work. The players get lobbed pat questions and, unless the answers are incredibly stupid, the players try and give pat answers.

What he most likely meant was: “Yes. We smacked the shit out of the ball today. Of course, we are more than just a power-hitting team. We want to be able to score in any situation that arises.

Yet he didn’t say that. He said, “Hitting home runs is not the real way to win.”

We are accustomed to all but a few of the biggest power hitters to say something along those lines. Nine out of 10 players will answer: “I was just looking to make contact and advance the runners.”

But why do this when they’re not fooling anyone? This has long puzzled me, but it occurs to me now that the players are not trying to teach a baseball lesson, about how home runs are bad and small ball is good, but a life lesson.

Hasegawa was NOT lecturing about the value of one-run tactics, but about the proper way to behave in Japanese society–where is it’s OK to act contrary to orthodox behavior, as long as you publicly defend the orthodoxy at the same time.

The player’s job in this theater is to downplay home run hitting not because he wants people to think small-ball is preferable, but because dogma says small-ball is preferable, and he wants everyone to know that you don’t challenge the system.

Of course, Japanese baseball has its share of cultural gatekeepers. There have always been guys like Masaaki Mori and Isao Harimoto who make a thing of dictating how and how not to play.

Cultural gatekeeping in baseball is in no way unique to Japan. After all, in what other sport do we see old fart managers tell opposing teams it’s OK to throw at their own players who stepped over some artificial cultural boundary?

People say Japan thrives on conformity, but perhaps what it really thrives on contradictions masked as conformity. The real cultural battlefront in Japanese baseball is not about how to turn the double play, but how to practice doublespeak. It’s not HOW the game is played, as much as it is HOW the game is talked about.

So swing for the fences if you like, it’s up to you. Just DON’T SAY you’re swinging for the fences.

Then and now

The sacrifice as religion

When asking why Japanese baseball considers batting the pitcher eighth an egregious mistake, I was confronted with the fact that the practice was once very common before it became eradicated in the 1970s. This happened about the same time as the game’s most unique batting styles were pushed out and the sacrifice bunt became as much a ritual as tactic.

Robert Whiting said he didn’t recall when these changes occurred precisely but pushed back against my assertion that the Yomiuri Giants under manager Tetsuharu Kawakami didn’t bunt THAT much.

He replied in an e-mail:

“Kawakami may not have bunted as much as other managers but he still bunted¬†a lot, 100 times. Leadoff hitter would get on, Shibata¬†Doi would sacrifice him to second.”

My memory is worse than Bob’s even though he’s a few years older than me, but I cheat by having a database. Kawakami once bunted 100 times, in 1966, although that was one of his two best seasons, his team finishing 13 games in front in 1965 and ’66.

During the 5 years of box scores I have for Kawakami’s Giants (1961-1963, 1968 and 1969, his No. 2 hitter bunted in the first inning 22.5 percent of the time when the leadoff man was on first base. The rest of the CL did that 21.5 percent of the time. So he was pretty normal.

Anyway, the point I was making was not that Kawakami didn’t bunt, because he bunted about as often as his contemporaries, but rather that his disciples, Tatsuro Hirooka and Masaaki Mori, spread this lie that the Giants won BECAUSE they executed the sacrifice, and Japanese baseball listened.

In all the other box scores I have since then, since 1999, teams have bunted with the runner on first with no outs in the first inning about 50 percent more often than Kawakami did, and they don’t do it nearly as often as they were doing in the mid 1980s, when Hirooka, Mori and another of Kawakami’s players, Masaichi Kaneda, bunted far more than the league norm in the Pacific League.