Joey Robinson is on the mound with two on and two out in the bottom of the second. He checks the runners, nods to the catcher and rears back into his windup. His coach, Tuneharu Takahashi, signals frantically from the dugout, yelling and tugging at his shirt. Joey stops in mid-delivery and peers perplexedly at Takahashi.
"Shatsu o ireru!" shouts Takahashi. "Shatsu o ireru!"
Takahashi keeps yelling and tugging. Joey keeps peering. Finally, the first baseman calls a timeout and jogs over to the pitching rubber. He points to the shirttail hanging out of Joey's pants. Joey tucks it in. The first baseman nods his approval. Takahashi nods his approval. Even the umpire nods his approval. Joey resumes pitching and gets out of the inning neatly. "We like our players tidy," explains Takahashi through an interpreter. "It's part of the ceremony of baseball in our country."
Joey rarely bows to ceremony. He doesn't even bow to the ump, a ritual practiced by every other 11-and 12-year-old on the Yokosuka Little Tigers. It's not that he is being deliberately disrespectful, it's that he is never quite sure when he is supposed to bow. "I just don't understand the umpires here," says the only American playing Little League ball in the Land of the Rising Sun. "Most of the time I don't know what anybody's saying."
Joey is a shy kid whose conversation tends to trail off into a soft fluttering of umm's, and ahh's. He joined the Little Tigers last fall. He had been the star pitcher on a team at the U.S. Naval base in Yokosuka, where his father, Steven, is a lieutenant. "Joey was a wild kid—not wild-stealing or anything, he just looked down at other kids instead of looking across," says his old man. "He acted like he was Mr. Cool Stuff." Steven thought Joey would find greater challenges with the Little Tigers, who ate him up, 12-1, last August in what is called a "friendship game."
"The Japanese were impressed that Joey could keep them to 12 runs," says Steven, straight-faced. Takahashi's memory of the rout is a little hazier. "I think Joey was on that team, but I don't remember," he says. "All American kids look the same to me."
Steven played his Little League ball for a team sponsored by the Lee Mar Shirt Factory in Pulaski, Tenn. "I had potential," he says, "but my father wanted me to stay home and milk the cows." He was a 6'1" center and forward on the Beech Hill High basketball team when he met Debbie Gaines, a cheerleader for rival Bodenham High. "It was like Romeo and Juliet," he recalls.
They wed in 1974 after Steven served his first 18-month hitch in the Navy. Joey and his older brother, Chris, picked up baseball at various ports of call as his father did tours of duty overseas. He started out in Ex-mouth, Australia, and played in Guam until his father was transferred to Yokosuka.
Baseball is almost as popular in Japan as Ninja turtles are here—some 50,000 kids play Little League. Yokosuka is one of 30 teams in the Kanagawa prefecture, which is the Japanese equivalent of a state. Japanese teams were the first in the Far East to beat the U.S. in the Little League World Series, but they've since been eclipsed by teams from South Korea and Taiwan. The Japanese, however, still play pretty good ball, as Joey has found out. "I feel sorry for him," says Takahashi. "Overall, he's below the other players. He isn't really a hitter or good defensively. He hasn't yet learned the Japanese way of baseball."
In Japan baseball is an embodiment of the work ethic. Personality and individuality are subordinated to wa—a sort of spirit of group harmony. To screw up is to bring shame to the team. Ballplayers are supposed to practice unceasingly, and practice is valued for its own sake. Even Little Leaguers train throughout the year. The Little Tigers work out every Sunday from sunrise to sunset, and their spring training begins in September. "Through endless repetition we build consistency and perfection of form," says Takahashi. "It took Joey a while to get used to our rhythms."
Takahashi believes you can accomplish anything with constant work and unflagging will. He conducts marathon conditioning drills with crisp precision. To improve Joey's fielding, he puts him through shadow practice with shortstop Akimoto Ryou. Over and over Joey simulates the act of scooping up grounders and making the throw to first. Mostly Takahashi has Joey run. And run. And run.
Running is something Joey dislikes. But films and baseball books are his passion. Joey prepped for the team by watching Godzilla 1985 over and over. "I saw it 15 or 20 times," he says, "until it got boring." He has turned in book reports in his sixth-grade class at Sullivan Elementary School on The Kid Who Only Hit Homers, Catcher with a Glass Arm and How to Be a Superstar in Baseball.
"His favorite was Rabbit Ears," says his dad.
"It taught me to not let words make me cry," says Joey.
Takahashi says that when Joey tried out for the team at a weeklong camp, he was a bit of a nakimushi—a crybaby. "He complained that he hated the food, that his back hurt, that he had headaches and needed to rest," Takahashi says. "He couldn't meet his father's expectations. I sensed he didn't want to play. Every day I wondered when he was going to quit. I'd tell him, 'Ganbare'—Keep trying."
"I didn't really like it," says Joey, pounding his mitt, "but I kind of got used to it."
"I told Joey if he hung in, it would be easy," says Steven. "And I was right, wasn't I, Joey?"
"Did it get easier?"
Takahashi makes his players keep a running diary as a kind of self-evaluation. Joey wrote:
Nov. 19: I played pitcher. My arm was starting to hurt. When I played outfield, I made a cupple of mistakes.
Dec. 3: I lied. I did not fill in my diary.
Dec. 10: I lied. I did not fill in my diary.
Jan. 14: We must of ran about 15 miles.
Jan. 21: I learned to keep your I on the ball when you are hitting.
Feb. 25: I need to catch the ball.
Which is always sound advice for a young ballplayer to absorb.
"Does writing a diary help, Joey?" asks Steven.
"I guess," says Joey. "I don't know."
"Do you keep what you wrote in the back of your mind during games?"
Joey's mouth forms a mutinous pout. "Yessir."
Japanese discipline extends to Little League parents. Unlike the country's pro fans, who howl wildly, blow trumpets and beat drums during games, Little League parents are only supposed to clap, and that's just when their sons are batting. Everything else is a serious breach of decorum. "No one seems to mind if I yell, 'Way to go, Joe!' " says Debbie. That's possibly because no one knows what she's yelling.
Joey carries with him a Japanese phrase book, which is hard to consult while chasing a pop-up. He learned "abunai!" when he collided with Akimoto. It means, Get out of the way.
His best friend on the Little Tigers is first baseman Motomichi Suzuki, who is known to the team as Munchie. When Joey gets razzed on the mound, Munchie comes over and says, 'Relaxo.' "
"It relaxes me," says Joey. "Umm, I guess."
On Opening Day Joey looked pretty relaxed. After getting picked up at the Denny's in Yokosuka, he sat around with his fellow Tigers playing jan ken pon—rock, paper, scissors. At lunchtime, his teammates ate rice balls wrapped in seaweed. Joey ate Dinty Moore beef stew. In the spirit of wa, he ate his stew with chopsticks.
Takahashi seemed pleased. "Joey is learning to blend in," he said. "Sadly, he is American and only speaks English. If he knew Japanese, I could teach him baseball as it is meant to be played."
Joey's dad thought his son would benefit from some Japanese discipline.
On Opening Day, Joey (middle, second row) toed the line with his fellow Little Tigers.