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.