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The Hardest Hardball in the World : YOU GOTTA HAVE WA by Robert Whiting (Macmillan : $17.95; 224 pp.)

July 09, 1989|Bill Dwyre | Dwyre is The Times' sports editor.

The concept of kamikaze pilots has most certainly baffled the American mind ever since World War II. Loyalty to one's country is one thing; suicide on its behalf entirely another.

So it is ironic that one of the best explanations of that Japanese approach to fighting a war comes in a book on the game of baseball, "You Gotta Have Wa (team harmony)" by Robert Whiting.

In Whiting's book, baseball is everything to the Japanese, including war. Their approach to their version of the Great American Pastime is tense and militaristic. And the joy they seem to glean from it is consistent with their approach.

The topic of Japanese baseball is probably not a particularly compelling one to many readers, including even the most avid sports fan. To the American at the corner bar, swilling beer while watching the Cubs and Cards from Wrigley Field and reading the box scores from the morning sports section, Japanese baseball is something played by a bunch of light-hitting Asians and a handful of Americans in the twilight of their careers. And the only reason the Americans are over there is for a couple of big paychecks before they go over the hill for good.

Much of that is the truth.

But Whiting turns this scenario into a fascinating collection of anecdotes that, in the end, adds up to a nicely researched and written book that goes beyond the games and the cliches and into some intriguing sports sociology.

There are the Japanese heroes:

--Choji Murati, the veteran pitcher who lived and breathed the accepted work ethic of a major-league pitcher by throwing hundreds of pitches each day, even on days when he wasn't in a game. Murati felt a twinge one day, kept right on throwing until the pain was so intense he simply could not do it any more, and finally came to Los Angeles, where Dr. Frank Jobe discovered he had been pitching with a severed tendon.

--Sachio Kinugasa, who stepped onto the field in the Japanese major leagues Oct. 18, 1970, and didn't step off again until he had played every game of every season and retired Oct. 22, 1987. In that time, he broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive game record of 2,130 with 2,215 of his own, and even kept playing the day after a pitch struck him and broke his left collarbone.

--Shinechi Ishimaru, the 20-game-winning pitcher turned kamikaze pilot, whose heroics became legendary when he demanded to throw 10 strikes to a hastily recruited catcher on board his aircraft carrier before getting in his plane and flying off to his death.

And there are the American anti-heroes, the gaijin (foreigners) who came to Japan to play for crowd appeal, huge salaries and, many felt, for the purpose of providing the Japanese press and fans with easy whipping boys:

--Davey Johnson, a power hitter now managing the New York Mets, who enjoyed great success in Japan before suffering a hand injury that limited his hitting. In Japan, players play through injuries; they merely practice harder until the aches and pains depart. When Johnson wouldn't and couldn't, he was deemed to have disrupted team wa and eventually was released, even though he was among the best players on his team.

--Reggie Smith, the volatile former Dodger whose temper once took him into the stands after some fans at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Smith was afforded little or no privacy, and his flamboyant personality flew right in the face of the Japanese way. The Japanese have a saying: "The nail that sticks up shall be hammered down." Eventually, Smith was, and left Japan in anger.

--Randy Bass, arguably the most successful gaijin ever to play Japanese baseball, who got to within one home run of the fabled Sadaharu Oh. But then, in the final game of the season, his last chance to tie the record of 55 homers in a 130-game season, was thrown nothing buthorrible, unhittable pitches by Japanese pitchers. The manager of the team playing against Bass that night, who allegedly instructed his pitchers as to how to pitch to Bass, was, of course, Oh himself.

Bass eventually left Japan because his 8-year-old son was suffering from a brain tumor. When Bass was criticized for putting family before team and for demanding that the medical insurance his contract called for be paid, the rift was too wide for him ever to return. And if there ever had been a chance for him to be forgiven and welcomed back, it ended when an official of his Japanese team, upon returning from California and a negotiating session with Bass, leaped to his death from a hotel balcony. Baseball kamikaze, apparently.

Whiting captures all this and more in a wonderful narrative manner that gets the reader through the book quickly and easily. And he ends up with a picture of a Japanese culture so built around face-saving and group-think--not to mention an American baseball culture built around ego and greed--that it is a wonder the two cultures can even come close to co-existing in a game that has readily available weapons such as bats and balls.

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