Yankee ingenuity: Japanese investor may buy American


December 19, 1990|By MIKE LITTWIN

The word is out: The Japanese are trying to buy the Yankees.

THE YANKEES!!! Nobody would mind so much if it were the Seattle Mariners. Or the Cleveland Indians. But there is nothing -- not mom, not apple pie, not even the right to bear semiautomatic weapons -- more American than the Yankees. What in the name of Moose Skowron is going on?

Hollywood has already been snapped up by Japanese investors. Hollywood is supposed to be America's dreams wrapped in celluloid and sprinkled with fairy dust -- or was it popcorn salt? On one hand, the Japanese influence could be dangerous. Aren't we risking re-entering a new era of bad dubbing? On the other hand, are you really going to miss the people who brought you Ishtar?

Baseball, that's different. When the Japanese bought up Rockefeller Center, that was just business. But when it's Yankee Stadium, then you're cutting mighty close to the heart of a nation.

The Yankees are the Babe and Lou and Joe D. and the Mick and Yogi and Casey and all those world's titles. One thing about the Yankees, they knew how to be heroes. When we went overseas, they called us Yanks, and, gosh, did it make us proud. We'd chew and spit and feel like winners, too.

Here's how special the Yankees are: George Will actually wrote that teams, even when losing to the Yankees, as they almost always did, were elevated simply by their proximity to the Bronx Bombers' reflected glory. It's as if he were writing about Rome, which is how Will usually sounds when he's writing about baseball.

I ask you this: Was it really so long ago when pinstripes were the style of choice and General Motors ruled the world?

Different world, different rulers. The Yankees are said to be worth between $200 million and $400 million, or, given the state of the dollar, just about the cost of a cab ride from the Tokyo airport into town. For a country that loves its baseball and has the money, this kind of acquisition seems inevitable.

It isn't as if we're not accustomed to Japanese goods. Our cars are from Japan, our TVs are from Japan, our VCRs are from Japan. But our baseball? You've got to figure this is one place where the trade balance ought to favor America.

The entire concept is tough to digest because we were raised to believe that only Americans got to export their culture. Doesn't everyone want Disneyland? Big Macs? That giant hole in the ozone layer? We were the ones who introduced baseball to Japan in the first place. Now, we're supposed to be upset if William Bendix stars in the Sadaharu Oh story? Or if somebody grows up wanting to own the Yankees?

According to reports, a fellow named Isao Nakauchi, the chairman of Japan's largest supermarket chain, is trying to purchase about 10 percent of the club. Is there any reason to believe he wouldn't be a great improvement over Steinbrenner, who was banned this year by commissioner Fay Vincent from running the club? Are we ready to suggest that Steinbrenner is what America, or baseball, is all about?

The really scary thing is that I have this nagging suspicion the Japanese aren't involved at all. Isn't Isao Nakauchi an anagram for George Steinbrenner? Has anyone ever seen these two men together? Might this not just be a ploy for Steinbrenner, who still owns more than 50 percent of the Yankees, to reclaim working control of his team by pretending to be Nakauchi? And what does Howard Spira have to do with any of this?

I think we can solve this case. If the guy says he has signed the emperor to a three-year contract and promises not to fire him before the end of the season, it must be Steinbrenner in disguise.

Steinbrenner is easy to hate. But I hope we're above Japan bashing in this country. I've got a Sony CD player, a Sharp VCR, a Mitsubishi TV, a Toyota in the driveway and the complete collection of Jim Traber baseball cards. In fact, I wish someone from Japan would buy the Orioles. If there's anything we've learned about Japan in the modern era, it's that the folks there are not afraid to spend money.

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