Last week, former Padres second baseman Edgar Gonzalez—brother of San Diego star Adrian Gonzalez—ditched the big leagues for a contract with the Yomiuri Giants of Japan’s Central League.
There will be a number of things for him to learn, of course, apart from an increased appreciation of sushi. Baseball might be baseball, but baseball in Japan isn’t played quite like it is in the States.
The extensive practice habits of Japanese teams are well-noted, as is the fact that there are cheerleaders at games. But how, we wondered, are the unwritten rules different? What about baseball’s code in Japan surprises Americans who go there to play, and what about baseball’s code in America surprises Japanese players?
Most pertinently, with the influx of Asian players in the major leagues, have any foreign codes permeated domestic clubhouses?
It’s an interesting topic, but with so many American codes to deconstruct, we didn’t have space for an in-depth examination of the game’s morals on foreign shores.
That doesn’t mean we didn’t research the topic, however. The following are excerpts from interviews we did with an assortment of players who spent time in Japan. The goal isn’t to paint a complete picture, but to offer up a taste of what baseball there is like. (For a comprehensive look at the subject, check out “You Gotta Have Wa,” by Robert Whiting.)
Good luck, Edgar.
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On the physicality of play:
Rex Hudler: “They didn’t come after me on double plays. They didn’t like to break up double plays. They weren’t real physical in their game. I was a physical guy, I liked contact. I had to ask the Americans on the other teams to come get me. I said, ‘come on, let’s make it fun, let’s make it exciting.’ ”
Rod Allen: “(Japanese infielder) Tad Iguchi’s first couple of months here he just about got killed because he didn’t know that the American players came in that hard at second base.”
Mac Suzuki: “I never saw a guy hit a batter on purpose. Ever. Even if we got beat by 15-0, or whatever. When they do hit a batter (accidentally) they tip their cap. But I didn’t do it. [Suzuki, who is Japanese, learned baseball in the U.S. and came up through the American minor league system.] We almost got in a fight. I hit two hitters and I didn’t tip my hat, and they yelled at me. I almost got fired from the (Seibu) Lions.”
Allen: “Absolutely you get thrown at more. I charged the mound one day. I had run over the other team’s catcher—something else you don’t do over there—and their manager was very irate and very upset. I knew they were going to throw at me. The next time I got up, they threw at me but they missed. I had already prepared two innings ahead in my mind that, if they did throw at me, I was going to the mound.
“So, I did do that, and the guy ran. It was hilarious. I’m doing a lot of dodging and weaving through his teammates to get to where I wanted to get to. I chased him all the way to the warning track in left-center field. Nothing much happened when I caught him. There were some other guys there, pushing and shoving, there were no other punches thrown.
“Obviously, I got booed, kicked out of the game, and it’s still played on the blunder shows on the video boards all over Japan.”
On dealing with records:
Ken Macha: “The last game of the season my first year over there, the leadoff hitter on the other team was hitting .351. Our guy was hitting .350. Their player did not play. They needed to win that game to win the league; if they lost that game, the Giants would win the league.
“They walked our leadoff hitter every at-bat, so I came up with guys on base every time up. I told our player to just throw his bat at the ball and something might bloop in. He thought that wouldn’t be proper, so he just stood there and took the walk. And the other team just took a 9-0 loss—with the Giants sitting in the stands.”
Allen: “Everything is done to excess over there, whether it’s taking ground balls, throwing from the outfield, etc. Teams don’t take infield here, but over there, your pregame routine, you make five throws to second, five throws to third, five throws home, so by time you got to the game, your arm was pretty much gassed.
“Also, the younger players would have to practice at night. The hotel you are staying at, there would be a room set aside where the young players either had to bring their bats, or towels. If you are a position player, you take your bat and take swing after swing after swing—dry swinging. If you were a pitcher, you put a towel in your hand and simulated a bullpen session.”
On running up the score:
Goose Gossage (from “The Goose is Loose”): “Japanese teams delight in running up the score. Here in the states, when a team gets way ahead, it generally calls off the dogs. . . . Not so in Japan.
“In one of my first outings I found out about the Japanese way of doing things. The hawks were trailing something like 9-1 late in a game when Tabuchi sent me in for a little bit of work. The other team immediately proceeded to start bunting.
“With my big windup and delivery, I wasn’t exactly a model of nimbleness and grace coming off the mound, which the opponents quickly grasped. Time after time a batter would push the ball down the third-base line and beat my throw to the bag.
“I got pissed. The madder I became, the more the other team bunted. And, as runner after runner crossed home plate, the opposing players sat in their dugout roaring with laughter. They were having a ball at my expense.
“When I finally got the third out of the inning—after giving up six or seven runs—I came down into he Hawks dugout, slammed down my glove, and headed for the tunnel below the grandstand that connected the two dugouts. I was ready to kick ass. . . . Several hawks coaches came running up and restrained me before I could do anyone harm. They settled me down and explained they had no problem with the other team’s tactics.
“In America the other team would have been guilty of showing me up. There it was standard procedure.”