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Japanese Baseball: Buying Victories--and Trouble

February 05, 1988|FRED HIATT | The Washington Post

TOKYO — George Steinbrenner isn't the only one unhappy about Japanese baseball's recent swoops into the U.S. free-agent market.

Japan's multimillion-dollar bids for New York Yankee Dave Righetti, Bill Gullickson and other major-league players may ease the U.S.-Japan trade deficit, but they have provoked resentment among Japanese players, who earn less than $200,000 on average. They have troubled some baseball officials here, who fear U.S. agents merely are using them for bargaining leverage. And they have angered fans, who complain that owners are throwing money at players who rate such Japanese teams as the Nippon Ham Fighters one step above Little League.

"American players don't respect Japanese baseball," baseball commentator Ichiro Yagi recently complained in the Weekly Shincho magazine.

"What fun is it to watch Japanese baseball if the ace pitcher and cleanup batter are both foreigners?" retired baseball star Isao Harimoto agreed. "If Japan just imports these 100 million yen ($800,000) musclemen, Japanese baseball will deteriorate and die."

Nonetheless, the George Steinbrenners of Japan aren't likely to back away from the import market anytime soon. How much success they will have remains to be seen.

Despite all the grumbling, the phenomenal success last year of former Atlanta Brave Bob Horner as the third baseman of the Yakult Swallows has whetted the Japanese appetite for U.S.-style play -- for homer-crashing, big-inning, cleats-up baseball. In a nation where polite fans often return foul balls and bowling into the catcher may be considered unseemly, many believe that only hypermuscled foreigners can deliver.

The economics are in Japan's favor. With the yen worth twice as much as when Joe Pepitone bombed out here in 1973, everything from soybeans to shortstops is cheaper for Japanese shoppers overseas.

In addition, Japanese professional teams tend to be the jewels in the conglomerate crowns of railroad companies, department-store chains or newspaper corporations. The teams' profitability is less important than their public-relations value.

Horner is gone, signed by the St. Louis Cardinals. But he changed the economics of importing gaijin (the Japanese word for outsiders) by drawing enough fans to the Swallows' Tokyo park to more than pay his estimated $1.4 million salary. Home attendance increased from less than 1.8 million in 1986 to more than 2.2 million last year, when Horner joined the team in May and promptly hit six homers in his first four games.

Most of all, though, the Horner boom and the subsequent scramble for big-name major leaguers appear to reflect a change in fans' expectations here. The classic Japanese-style play -- team-oriented, cautious, settling for singles, bunts and sacrifice flies -- no longer satisfies the crowd.

"The trend is that Japanese ball is changing," said Tetsuo Sekimoto, sports editor of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper. "But we cannot find Japanese players to fill that demand."

"Our baseball has been 1910 or 1920-style, Ty Cobb-style, pre-Babe Ruth-style baseball," agreed Kazuo "Pancho" Ito, an executive with Japan's Pacific League.

Japanese teams therefore are willing to spend more than ever for power hitters, fastballers and other American major leaguers who can generate excitement and crowds. That appetite has swept away a vow by Japan's baseball commissioner in 1984 to ban all foreigners from Japanese ball.

"He said we hope to get rid of them in five years," said Japan Times baseball columnist Wayne Graczyk. "Four years have gone by, and it's going the other way."

Japan imported baseball in 1873 and it established professional teams in the 1930s. Almost from the start, foreigners such as White Russian Victor Starfin and Japanese-American Bozo Wakabayashi were stars.

For almost as long, gaijin in baseball have been controversial -- both a spur to better baseball and a sideshow for the fans, an attraction and an implied insult to the quality of Japanese play.

Many U.S. stars have performed poorly here, arriving in the twilight of their careers and never adjusting to the language, food and and style of play. Pepitone, Dick Stuart, Reggie Smith and many more have passed through and made little mark on Japanese baseball.

"Japanese fans have thought of American players as superhuman," said Ryuichi Suzuki, assistant curator of the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. "In return for the big salaries, people expect big feats. Instead, big expectations, small returns. So fans get frustrated.

"Japanese fans have to learn that American players are just human beings, too," he said.

Some Americans have done well in Japan, often players who were not superstars at home. Randy Bass, who played with five U.S. clubs in six years, has hit .300 four straight seasons as a Hanshin Tiger, and former Expo Warren Cromartie has done almost as well for the Yomiuri Giants.

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