Publish date:

Away Games

The start of the Japan Series served as a stark reminder of what Americans are missing this fall

Time becomes blurred on the other side of the international date line, as confusing as a heavy fog on a moonless night. How long has it been since men dressed in suits, women in hats and—good gosh!—newspapermen in blue blazers and ties knotted tightly at the collar to attend a baseball game?

A foul ball flies into the stands, but there is no testosterone-fired light for the silly thing and no burlesque mugging for the television cameras once it is recovered. Instead, schoolgirls working as ushers blow shrill whistles to warn spectators of the incoming projectile. No one leaves his seat to chase it. The person who recovers the baseball readily hands it to an usher, who returns it to the home team.

There is no brawling on the field when a pitcher buries a fastball into the ribs of a hitter. Instead, the pitcher tips his cap in apology. Who can remember when players made less money than their manager and actually respected him; when they didn't step out of the box after every pitch, preening like prom dates; when they left the hotdogging to the vendors, the jewelry to their wives and the strikes to the umpires?

All of these things can trick a body clock, but there is more: There are no agents, no multiyear contracts and no wild-card playoff teams. Pitchers warm up in front of their dugouts, players know how to bunt, championship-series games are played in the daytime, and—talk about retro—there is a commissioner to preside over the sport's premier event.

A strike by the Major League Baseball Players Association may have killed the World Series this year, but the game goes on—played as passionately and, given the vacuum left in North America, as poignantly as ever. Looking for baseball as it used to be? It is made in Japan.

Last Saturday, on the day the champions of the American and the National Leagues were to have begun the 91st World Series, the champions of the Pacific and Central Leagues formed a line that stretched across the infield from third base to first base at the Tokyo Dome before Game 1 of the 45th Japan Series, an event that resists American excess even in its name. The Seibu Lions and the Yomiuri Giants were introduced collectively, not individually, as their managers each clutched a bouquet of roses. In a stadium bereft of decorative bunting, VIP field boxes and commemorative logos painted on the playing surface, a police band played a Sousa march and then, even more oddly, Anchors Aweigh.

"It's difficult for Japanese people to understand what is happening in America," Giant pitcher Hiromi Makihara says of the players" strike. "It would probably never happen here. If it did, it would last a couple of days, or a month at the most, because people wouldn't allow it to keep going. I am impressed with the way the American players have the power and stick together for so long."

Press your ear to the ground long enough, though, and you can tell something ominous is coming to yakyu—baseball—in Japan. And it's not just Bobby Valentine, the former Texas Ranger manager, who is expected to manage the perennially awful Chiba Lotto Marines next season. Free agency began last year in the Japan Pro Leagues, albeit in a restrictive form, and it contributed to a 25% jump in the average player salary, to $422,000, this year. Also, the maximum number of gaijin, or foreign players, permitted on each team was increased from two to three.

Games 3, 4 and 5 of the Japan Series, scheduled to begin at 6:15 p.m. this week, were to be the first night games in series history, except those played in the autumn of 1964, during the Tokyo Olympics. This time the night games were set for the cold and wind of Seibu Lions Stadium in Tokorozawa, about an hour outside of Tokyo—"Our Candlestick Park," says Nobuhisa Ito, assistant director of baseball operations for the commissioner—to accommodate television. Midweek day games last year in this nation with an 11-hour workday drew single-digit ratings. Moreover, a young generation of fans is now bedazzled by the J-League, a professional soccer circuit that became an instant success last year with the help of dreadlocked players, Day-Glo uniforms and heavy corporate sponsorship.

"When I came here, every kid was wearing a Giants cap," says author Robert Whiting, an American who began writing for newspapers and magazines in Japan in 1979. "Now the J-League has all these longhaired players and crazy Brazilians running around, and it's more in tune with the younger generation. In America people say baseball is a game for 50-year-old males. It's true to a certain extent here."

Makihara, dressed in a blue sweater and gray slacks, is seated in a second-floor meeting room of the Tokyo Grand Palace Hotel on the eve of the Japan Series. Almost two dozen upholstered chairs adorned with white lace antimacassars are arranged around a cart with a television and a VCR. A solitary oil painting, of Mount Fuji, hangs behind the TV set.

This is where the Giants have been meeting nightly all week to study videotape of the Lions and to prepare their strategy. Though they are playing at their home stadium, they are sequestered from their families and staying at the Grand Palace. The thick drapes are drawn closed, just as they have been ever since the first night when somebody jumped up and said, "Close the curtains. Somebody might be looking in with binoculars."

Makihara, 31, was one of 60 players after last season with the minimum 10years of service time needed to be eligible for free agency. Only five of those players actually filed, including Makihara. "Once you declare, that means you have decided you are willing to move out of the organization," [to says. "In our culture we do not take that so lightly. We do not change jobs so many times as you do in America."

Players typically comply with management, because after they retire they can expect to get another job within the organization or an affiliated company, not all of which are plums. "We have a former five-time All-Star picking up laundry in the clubhouse," says outfielder Dan Gladden, a former major leaguer with three teams, who's now a Giant gaijin. The Yakult Swallows dropped out of the players' union a couple of years ago because they decided they were treated so well by their owners they didn't need it.

The Chunichi Dragons offered Makihara a contract, but he re-signed with the Giants after they agreed orally on a contract of "three to four years," he says. "It's not officially approved by the league. Only one-year contracts are approved." Makihara threw a perfect game in May and started the Giants' pennant-clinching victory, a win on the last day of the season over the Dragons, with whom they had been tied with a 69-60 record. The game drew a 48.8 share, the highest for a baseball game in Japan in the 31 years such statistics have been kept.

The Giants are Japan's Team and, by their own pronouncement, "the most traditional team in baseball." Every one of their 130 games was on network television (the Lions made five such appearances). The Giants are so important to Japan's sense of well-being that their success has been directly tied to the nation's economy: It grew an average of 4.25% in each of the eight years in which the Giants won the Central League between 1973 and '90. As the theory goes, a happy Giant fan is likely to spend money more freely. That would include the team's owners, also proprietors of the Yomiuri Shimbun, the newspaper with the largest circulation in the world. In appreciation of the Giants' league title this year, the owners are sending the players and their families on vacation in Australia.

The Giants are as coldly corporate and efficient as the New York Yankees of the 1950s. After a few down years they reasserted themselves this season, the hallowed 60th for Japan's first professional team. In a culture that tracks a person's life in 12-year cycles, a 60th birthday is honored with a special gift. This one turned out to be the end to a three-year streak without a league title, which had equaled a franchise record. Says Lion manager Masaaki Mori, "This is the series everyone has been waiting for."

In 1974, on the final day of the regular season, the Giants held a retirement ceremony for their beloved third baseman, Shigeo Nagashima. The Giants' run of nine straight Japan Series titles had ended and with it the career of one of their greatest players. There were tributes and flowers and tears all around, especially when Nagashima took the microphone and, in the closest thing Japan has had to Lou Gehrig's famous farewell speech, pledged, "The Yomiuri Giants are forever." Even players in the visiting dugout wept.

As Nagashima walked off the field, he was congratulated by a receiving line formed by his teammates, among them a catcher known for his astuteness and defensive skills: Masaaki Mori. Nobody seemed to notice that Mori, who had also played in the Giants' "V-9" glory years and who had also announced his retirement, was playing his last game as well.

The Giants soon named Nagashima their manager. Mori asked him for a job on the coaching staff. Nagashima refused.

They shook hands again last Friday, this time with forced smiles for a staged picture on the day before they faced each other in the Japan Series for the first time. By then, Mori had molded the Lions into what the Giants once were: Japan's dominant team. They had won six Japan Series in Mori's eight years as manager. "The manager is god here," says Lion gaijin Rod Brewer, a former St. Louis Cardinal outfielder. "If you want to leave the bench during the game to go to the bathroom, you'd better ask the manager. Somebody like Barry Bonds, if he pulled some of his stuff here, he wouldn't last long, no matter how well he played."

Though he had not won a Japan Series in seven years over two tenures as Giant manager, Nagashima remained the bigger star. The concession stands in and around the Tokyo Dome—dubbed the Big Egg, and a look-alike for the Metrodome in Minneapolis—were full of items bearing his likeness or the number 33: key chains, dolls, flags, uniform shirts and wristbands. "In Japan everybody respects Sadaharu Oh," says sportswriter Nobuya Kobayashi, "but everybody loves Nagashima."

On the morning of Game 1, an astrologer predicted the Giants would win in six games because the position of Mars favored Nagashima. Problem was, that's where Nagashima's head seemed to be for the series opener. Mori outwitted him from the start. Playing under Central League rules, the managers did not announce their starting pitchers and lineups until 30 minutes before game time. While everyone expected Mori to use ace lefthander Kimiyasu Kudo, he chose righthander Hisanobu Watanabe instead. Nagashima was caught with a predominantly righthanded-hitting lineup against Watanabe, who threw 5‚Öì scoreless innings. Seibu broke open the game with a seven-run seventh inning that included three disastrous pitching changes by Nagashima. Call it the Big Goose Egg: an 11-0 Yomiuri loss, MORI, FIVE STARS; NAGASHIMA, THE WORST is the way Sports Nippon, one of six national sports dailies, would call it the next morning.

The Giants hurried out of their clubhouse—an area that for all Japanese teams is off-limits to the media—in retreat to their hotel for another meeting. Nagashima berated his first baseman, Tatsunori Hara, for missing a sign on a pick-off play. The score was 11-0 at the time.

Later, Makihara lay in his hotel bed and put himself to sleep in his usual manner on the night before he pitches. He imagined himself striking out the opposing hitters one after another in Game 2. "It's always three strikes to each batter," he says. "I usually go five or six innings before falling asleep." This time he didn't last that long. "I slept great," he said.

The Giants gave him one run in the first inning—Gladden reached first on an error, was sacrificed to second and scored on a base hit—and Makihara, using an unusually high percentage of fastballs for a Japanese pitcher, made sure it was enough. He allowed only four hits, the last a leadoff double in the ninth. He then retired the Lions' 3-4-5 hitters to close out the 1-0 win. Kaname Yashiki ended the game with a diving catch in centerfield.

Only then, when Makihara was presented with the customary stuffed animal as the star of the game, did the sellout crowd of 46,342 salute him en masse. Japanese teams have traditional cheerleading sections in the bleachers; their occupants bang drums, blow horns, clack plastic bats and sing personalized fight songs for the players all game long, often while decked out in ceremonial kimonos in the official team colors. The rest of the stadium, especially those in the $70 box seats drinking $8 drafts, hardly stretch a vocal cord or wrinkle a suit.

"I've been in the World Series before," says Gladden, who played for the Minnesota Twins' 1987 and '91 championship teams. "You're used to all the banners and the dignitaries and the first-ball ceremonies and Al Michaels and all of that stuff. Here, nothing. They have these cheerleaders, and they're paid to do their cheering. They have tryouts, practices and everything. If you can't cut it with all the songs, you become a clacker. It's different. It's like computer baseball at a big-time college football game."

It was nearing five o'clock last Saturday afternoon, and 13-year-old Takemori Fujisaki and his friend, Masaki Okui, 16, having just exited Game 1, stood near the front of a long line of people waiting to reenter the Tokyo Dome for Game 2 the next afternoon. They were holding unreserved bleacher tickets. "We have to wait on line and then rush to get a good position when the doors open," Fujisaki said. That explained the sleeping bags.

Baseball had brought them together. The boys, who live 40 miles apart, had met at a Japan Series game last year. "October 10," Fujisaki said. "We became good friends. I like soccer, too, but baseball is better. It's the best."

At that moment every baseball stadium across the U.S. and Canada was dark.



In Game 1, everything came up roses for Mori (opposite), whose Lions roared to an 11-0 win.



With four RBIs for Seibu in the opener, Makoto Sasaki kicked off the Japan Series in high style.



Gladden scored the only run in Game 2, to the glee of the Giant cheering section.



[See caption above.]