|Friday, November 15
Japan provides culture, intrigue and plenty of baseball
By Jim Caple
Japan is one ocean, 17 hours and nearly 5,000 miles removed from the United States and it can be difficult to keep up on what is happening back home. The TV broadcasts, after all, are in Japanese and even the few English-language channels rarely bring updates on, say, possible changes in the Athletics front office.
"I've watched a lot of BBC news -- it's the only channel in English,'' Philadelphia pitcher Randy Wolf said. "I'm up on all the news in Burma. I'm very well-informed on Tony Blair.''
As anyone who has tried to program a Sony VCR can attest, the U.S.-Japanese language barrier is a considerable one but translators are easy to come by on the major league All-Star tour of Japan. The two leagues provided several, the Mariners and Ichiro's p.r. people provided a couple more and bi-lingual reporters are always willing and eager to help.
Some things, however, lose a little in the translation. The Rally Monkey, for instance.
Major league baseball brought over video of the Rally Monkey but when they showed him during the first couple games, fans responded with mystified silence. Which is understandable given that most Japanese fans have never seen R-Diddy, have little idea of what he is and could not read the slogan, "If you make noise, he will come,'' which appeared in English.
Even when later provided a Japanese translation, the fans remained silent, turning sold-out, 50,000-seat stadiums as quiet as Le Stadium Olympique.
"They don't know how to use him,'' Anaheim pitcher Scott Schoeneweis complained. "They bring him in at the wrong time. You have to wait until there's a runner on base in order to keep his percentage up. They show him between innings. He doesn't have a chance that way. They're misusing him.''
Not that it made any difference to the Japanese players, who have torn into major league pitching, scoring 29 runs in the first four games, winning three of them and impressing everyone from opponents to scouts. "They're not like a Triple-A team,'' Arizona pitcher Miguel Batista said. "Those guys can play.''
Clearly, Hideki Matsui is not the only player who has a future in the major leagues. There is Seibu Lions shortstop Kazuo, Osaka Kintetsu third baseman Norihiro Nakamura and Yomiuri Giants starter Koji Uehara, who struck out Barry Bonds three times in one game, the first pitcher to do that in two years.
"Anytime Barry Bonds wants to ask for my autograph,'' Uehara said, "he can have it.''
Of course, the fans here were far more interested in getting Bonds to sign their balls.
Just as they do in the U.S., fans wait in the hotel lobbies at each stop on the tour, begging players for autographs, instantly recognizing most even if they couldn't always quite pronounce the names (Giambi gave them some trouble). When the All-Stars took the bullet train from Fukuoaka to Osaka, traveling at speeds in excess of 200 miles an hour, dozens of fans were at the station waiting for them.
And following the game at the Osaka Dome, hundreds of screaming fans lined the roadway to watch the team bus depart the stadium, as if John, Paul, George and Ringo were aboard instead of Jason, Bernie, Torii and Jacque. They begged for autographs and handed players signs with caricatures of Giambi and Bonds through the rolled down windows.
Slow traffic allowed the fans to follow the bus as it edged away from the dome, and even when it finally picked up speed, several fans raced after it on bicycles. Every time the bus appeared to finally break away, it would stop at a red light and the fans would catch up. One particularly spirited fan wearing a Piazza jersey actually beat the team back to the hotel, pedaling furiously into the driveway just ahead of the bus.
Other than Bonds' multiple home runs far into the bleachers, it may have been the most spectacular athletic performance of the tour.
Call him Mr. Food Network
Player introductions and announcements are delivered in both Japanese and English, and the voice of the English p.a. announcer would be a familiar one to viewers of the Food Network. It's Bill Bickard, a Tokyo broadcaster who dubs the English play-by-play commentary on the "Iron Chef.''
If you're not familiar with the oddly addictive show, "The Iron Chef'' is a weekly Japanese cooking competition that pits a regular roster of four "Iron Chefs'' against a challenger in a frantic battle to whip up the most delectable recipes possible in one hour. There is a specific ingredient each week and it always seems to be something incredibly unappetizing, such as a bucket of squirming live eels.
" 'Now making their ascent into Kitchen Stadium,' '' Bickard proudly intoned over breakfast one morning, repeating the standard phrase that begins each competition," 'are the nation's culinary masters, the men of mettle, your Iron Chefs!' 'The invincible men of culinary skills' -- That's mine. I created that phrase.''
A sports fanatic from the Bay Area -- he stayed up for the 1:30 a.m. taped broadcast of Monday Night Football -- Bickard purposely patterns his "Iron Chef''' delivery after American broadcasters.
"I'm blowing my own horn here, but I'm a pioneer,'' he said. "I'm bringing sports play-by-play analysis to cooking competitions for an American audience.''
Bickard said he's making a special effort when he introduces Hideki Matsui on the tour. "A p.a. announcer can't fire up the crowd, but you have to reflect the emotions of the moment. ... These fans are heartbroken.''
While this tour has been an eagerly awaited homecoming for Ichiro, especially south of Tokyo in Osaka and Fukuoaka, where there were thunderous "Ichiro! Ichiro! Ichiro!'' chants for his final at-bat each night, it has been an emotional departure for Matsui, the beloved Giants home run champ who has been a national hero since he played in Japan's high school tournament a decade ago. He will soon leave to sign with a major league team, almost certainly the Yankees, and his last at-bat each night has drawn loud and appreciative chants.
"There are some sentimental factors because these fans have supported me throughout the years,'' Matsui said, "but in order to respond to that, I have to do well and perform well next year.''
Matsui is so revered here that there is a Matsui museum that his father operates, called the Baseball Palace, next to the family home in the Ishikawa Prefecture. Ichiro's father, Nobuyuki Suzuki, also runs a museum of his son, the four-story, spectacularly maintained Ichiro Exhibition Room in Nagoya that apparently includes everything the player ever owned or wore in his life (plus a mannequin that represents a 12-year-old Ichiro at his childhood desk). The familiar term for father in Japanese is chi-chi, and Mr. Suzuki is so over-the-top about his son that many fans refer to him as Chi-chi-ro.
And you think Little League fathers in the states can be a little extreme?
The must-visit for players in Japan, however, was not the Matsui or Ichiro museums, nor the temples, Kabuki theater or Mount Fuji. The pilgrimage they all made was to Electric City, the Tokyo neighborhood crammed with stores selling the latest electronic equipment unavailable in the United States. They did their part to help Japan out of its recession, surely fueling much of the Yen's rise against the dollar.
"I bought a 45-inch flat-screen TV and had it shipped home. I just hope it gets there,'' third baseman Eric Chavez said. "I have at least five big screen TVs and this flat-screen will make it six. I can't stop buying TVs. It's like a fetish.''
Chavez considers that a video fetish? The cell phones here have cameras inside. The planes on Japan Airlines have cameras mounted in the nose and you can watch yourself take off and land as it happens on the video screens in the rear cabin. And consider this the next time someone in a SUV Gotterdammerung 6X6 sipping a Starbuck's double-tall and yelling on his cell phone nearly runs you off the road: There are cars here with TVs in the front seat.
Riding in the backseat of a yellow cab while a hack weaves in and out of Manhattan traffic may be a little unnerving, but it scarcely compares with fighting through rushhour traffic in Japan, narrowly dodging semi-trucks, guardrails and pedestrians while your driver watches a talkshow on his TV!
Still, though the Japanese are technologically ahead of us in everything -- they still generally play in domes and circular, symmetrical stadiums. Due to the lateness of the season, the tour has been played exclusively in domes, each of which resembles a major league counterpart. The Tokyo Dome is a copy of the Metrodome, complete with the dirty Teflon ceiling panels that make catching flyballs so difficult. The Fukuoka Dome looks a bit like SkyDome and the Osaka Dome a lot like the old Kingdome.
The concession stands are very similar to those in the majors, selling hamburgers, pizza, popcorn, candy, soft drinks and beer in addition to yaki-soba, miso soup and hard liquor. Music for batting practice is a little different, though. Rather than eardrum-puncturing levels of Eminem, the stadiums play soft, muzak versions of such dental office classis as "The Rainbow Connection'' and the Carpenter's "Sing a Song.''
Fortunately, major league baseball brought along its own music for the players.
Enjoying Japan to its fullest
One of their highlights was a U.S. military helicopter flight to Yokota Air Force Base outside Tokyo where several players delivered brief baseball clinics for the children at the base.
Flying over the city you gain a new appreciation for how large and densely populated the city is. Mount Fuji rises majestically 30 miles to the west and the land appears covered with homes and apartment buildings virtually to its slopes. Nearly 30 million people live within 20 miles of the Imperial Palace, making Tokyo twice the size in population and twice as crowded as New York. More than two million people pass through the main subway station every day, crowding the trains so much that the system employs uniformed, white-gloved men specifically to shove commuters inside the cars, then bow politely when the doors finally slide shut (an ESPN.com editor who lived in Tokyo remembers standing in a train so crowded that 16 people were touching him at one time).
Living here must be like spending your days in the concession line at Yankee Stadium.
The servicemen on the base are one ocean, 17 hours and nearly 5,000 miles removed from their home and they greatly appreciated the visit, brief though it was.
"I wake up at 6 a.m. and I'm trying to figure out why I'm up at 6 a.m. Because I never see 6 a.m. in the states,'' Minnesota outfielder Torii Hunter told the crowd, describing his jet lag woes. "We're definitely a long way from home. So we decided to bring a little piece of home to you. Thank you for all you do for us.''
Bonds, too, has enjoyed the series, his fifth time on the tour. Not that he was any more accessible for reporters than he is in the U.S.
The MVP announcement was made around four in the morning Tuesday when the team was sleeping in the hotel in Fukuoaka. A couple hours later, Bonds took part in a teleconference call from his hotel room to New York with U.S. writers, but gave the five American writers covering the tour no access that day. He answered a couple questions for a crowd of Japanese reporters in Osaka that night, but declined to take questions from American writers at the stadium - security guards shoved several of us aside when we tried to get close enough to hear him respond to questions from the Japanese (and they didn't even bow politely afterward). His publicist -- who traveled everywhere with him -- said we should have joined the conference call if we wanted to talk to him.
At first I was furious, but eventually I had to laugh at the absurdity of the situation.
Here we were in Japan, paying $3,000 to $4,000 in travel expenses to cover Bonds and the rest of the major leaguers. We were staying in the same hotel as Bonds. We were at the stadium with him. But when we wanted a comment from him on winning his unprecedented fifth MVP, the only way to do so would have been to place a call back to the United States at approximately $3 a minute, wait on hold for probably half an hour and then hope that we could squeeze in one question amid the reporters in the U.S. who also were trying to ask their questions.
It's at times like that when you wonder just what the point is of covering the tour. But then you'll see something extraordinary that makes it all worthwhile. A passionate fan on a bicycle will outrace the team bus through the streets of Osaka. The fans at the Tokyo Dome will chant Matsui's name after the game until he is forced to put his uniform back on and return to the field. Ichiro will hold out his bat and touch his shoulder, making a sold-out stadium light up brilliantly with camera flashes. David Eckstein will stand next to 600-pound sumo wrestler Konishiki.
Or you'll fly on a U.S. military helicopter over Tokyo, peering down at the world's largest city, where real estate is so precious that office rents are twice that of New York, and spot teams playing baseball on diamonds around the city.
As crowded as Tokyo is, as precious as land is, there still was room for baseball.
Japan is a long way from home and the culture and language are very different from ours, but baseball remains a language that requires no translation.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.