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Japanese Umpires Hope to Stick in Majors

March 23, 1997|RONALD BLUM | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — As Noriyuki Fujimoto thought about the chance to umpire in the major leagues for a full season, his eyes brightened.

"That's a dream," he said, making it sound as if the idea had never entered his mind.

In this spring of Japanese pitchers, the major leagues took in three Japanese umpires for a nine-day exchange program during spring training. One day, maybe they'll stay for a full season.

They watch the American umpires on television back home, just the way Japanese baseball players watch the major league stars.

"All Japanese baseball has it as kind of a dream," said Maaski Nagino, director of planning for Japan's Central League. "First, (Hideo) Nomo wanted to come to America--his dream. So do all umpires hope to do so, someday."

Fujimoto, Takeji Kobayashi and Masato Tomoyose stuck out during the exhibition games they worked in Arizona, primarily because of their uniforms--light blue dress shirts and gray trousers, much different from the blue and red polo shirts major league umps started wearing last season.

"He was OK," Colorado pitcher Billy Swift said after Kobayashi worked the plate in a Rockies-Cubs game. "He missed a couple, and he gave me a couple. He called a strike before it got there a couple of times, once on (Sammy) Sosa. And I thought he made up his mind on ball four to Sosa a little quick."

They were chaperoned around Arizona by officials of the American and National leagues along with Nagino and a translator. During their stay, major league umpires announced their crackdown on arguments, another offshoot from the Roberto Alomar-John Hirschbeck spitting incident last September.

The Japanese umps appear unsure what to make of the umpires' union in the majors and Richie Phillips, its combative head. When asked about Alomar, they turned to each other, then looked at Nagino, allowing the league official to answer for them.

"Japanese people, not only players, do not spit against anyone," Nagino said. "It was quite hurtful to see such incidents on the field."

Not that players and umpires don't confront each other in Japan.

"It's about the same," Kobayashi said. "When there's a problem, they come out and argue."

In Japan, bench jockeying seems to be more akin to American high school and college baseball than the major leagues.

"The Americans seem to have more sportsmanship," said Fujimoto, a Pacific League umpire since 1968. "One thing bad about Japan is that during the game, a lot of stuff comes off the bench. We really hear that."

And how do they respond?

"In one ear and out the other," he said, putting his fingers in his ears.

On-field disputes in Japan have more of a tendency to turn into team-vs.-team affairs.

"In an argument in America, it's just one person in the argument, or two people," Tomoyose said. "In Japan, everyone's arguing."

There are a few differences in the way the umpires work games. In Japan, they operate in five-man crews and get a day off after working behind the plate. Then they rotate counterclockwise, going from first to second to third.

U.S. umpires rotate clockwise, and they also stay in the same crews for the entire season. In Japan, crews frequently are broken up.

The biggest difference may be at second base. In Japan, the second base umpire always is in the outfield, just like umpires used to be in the AL. Now, major league umpires mostly work from the infield when a runner is on first.

Perhaps because of the closer view, the Japanese umps say major leaguers hit the ball harder than batters in their country.

"The ball is very fast," Tomoyose said. "It's almost scary. That's why it scares me to be inside, because I wouldn't get out of the way."

They seem a little in awe of the major leagues. As more players leave Japan for the majors, they aren't afraid of a talent drain back home.

"We're happy the players are making it in America," Fujimoto said.

Like some in the United States, they hope there will one day be a World Cup-type tournament in which players from Japan and the majors compete in games that mean something.

"It's a good idea, but I'm not sure if it will be profitable or not," Nagino said. "If it's not profitable, it would not go long. Maybe a game between Japan and the United States. But what about others? Would Japan-Korea, Japan-Taiwan draw? It might be a long time before all Japanese fans realize other countries' players are so good."

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