Say sayonara to theory that U.S. baseball is far superior

November 13, 1990|By Ronald E. Yates | Ronald E. Yates,Chicago Tribune

TOKYO BASEBALL may be the American pastime, but not in Japan. Here they call it yakyu, and it's not just a pastime -- it's a form of warfare.

The men swinging their bats and pounding their gloves aren't just another bunch of guys with numbers on their backs. They are the samurais of swat, modern-day warriors who play baseball like they are on a mission for the emperor.

And if you don't believe that, just ask Chicago Cubs manager Don Zimmer; or New York Yankees outfielder Jesse Barfield, or Cincinnati Reds pitcher Rob Dibble.

Like Commodore Matthew Perry who steamed into Tokyo Bay 136 years ago with his U.S. Navy "Black Ships" and forced a closed, feudal Japan to open its doors to the rest of the world, they and 24 other major-league All-Stars made history here last week.

Unfortunately, it was the kind of history that won't sit well with those who believe that on any given day the best baseball in the world is played in places like Fenway Park and Wrigley Field.

For the first time since officially sanctioned major-league teams began coming to Japan for exhibition series back in 1934, the Japanese have beaten a squad of major-league stars, sending the Americans home with a 3-4-1 record.

"Yakyu? Is that what they call it here?" asked Dibble, who in seven innings of relief in four games was 1-1 with one save and 11 strikeouts. "All I can say is the baseball's good but the food's lousy."

Although most Japanese would no doubt dispute Dibble's evaluation of their native cuisine, few would quibble with his assessment of their baseball.

"You can call it whatever you want -- yakyu or baseball -- but the fact is we were mostly outplayed," said Zimmer, who became the first U.S. manager to lose an exhibition series to the Japanese. "I don't like it. Nobody likes to lose. There was no way I thought we'd come over here and lose the first four games and not win this thing."

"We taught the Americans a lesson," said an ebullient Japanese television sportscaster after the fourth game of the series, won by the Japanese 11-6. "No longer can Americans assume that their brand of baseball is the best.

But as commissioner Fay Vincent said: "An exhibition is an exhibition is an exhibition.

"The Japanese are very, very good," continued Vincent, who traveled to Japan for the series. "You can't take anything away from them. Still, there's obviously a mistake in the process [of assembling a major-league team] somewhere. We have to do a better job preparing. You don't want to come over here and be embarrassed. And everybody associated with this year's tour should be embarrassed, starting with me."

But Vincent, like Zimmer and several of the major-leaguers, is not willing to concede that American baseball, like American cars, televisions and computer microchips, is inferior to the Japanese version.

So what happened? How did the major-league squad -- a team with 19 players who were selected to this year's All-Star Game -- lose?

"I don't want to make excuses," Zimmer said. "But if we're going to start taking these exhibitions seriously, then we need to put together a team around Oct. 3 and let it play and practice together for about a month. We only had one day to practice together before we came over here. And two days after we get here, we've got three games -- bam, bam, bam, just like that. People are tired, their timing is way off, they're just not at their best."

Barfield, who toured Japan in 1986 with an All-Star team that whipped the Japanese six games to one, agreed.

"Hey, the Japanese have been practicing for this for weeks," he said. "We had one day to practice together and everybody's got jet lag. They were laying for us."

After the whipping the Japanese took in 1986, then-commissioner Peter Ueberroth was asked if maybe the next major-league team sent to Japan (in 1988) "might not be so strong." Ueberroth replied that such an idea was unacceptable, because it would be a disservice to major-league baseball to send anything but the very best.

Nevertheless, the squad sent in 1988 was definitely weaker than the one sent in 1986, and it barely escaped with a 3-2-2 record.

On paper, at least, this year's squad was stronger than both the 1986 and 1988 teams. But it was given the task of playing against virtually every top player in Japan.

For example, major-league hitters found themselves trying to figure out 36 Japanese pitchers, not just nine pitchers (the number Zimmer brought over). And the nine major-league pitchers were not challenged with learning how to pitch to 17 different hitters (the number on the major-league squad), but to 29.

Thus, when the big leaguers got off the plane and wandered jet-lagged and groggy into Tokyo's domed Big Egg stadium with its 40,000-plus howling fans, they were ready to be had.

By the time the visitors began hitting their stride in the last four games, winning three and tying one, it was too late. The Japanese had taken advantage of the major-leaguers' poor timing to go up 4-0 in the series.

The fact that the Americans easily won Sunday's finale 5-0 -- on a combined no-hitter by starter Chuck Finley of the California Angels and reliever Randy Johnson of the Seattle Mariners -- seemed to bring many Japanese fans and sportswriters back down to Earth.

Of course, Japanese hitters who spent Sunday afternoon waving their bats ineffectively at Finley and Johnson's blistering pitches had already returned to terra firma.

"I know the Americans are much better . . . they have so much more power and speed and their throwing arms are much stronger," said Japanese superstar Kazuhiro Kiyohara, who struck out three times Sunday. "In the beginning they may have lost some concentration, or they may have been tired or out of condition. But in the end their superior ability was evident."

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