Baseball, Japan's real national pastime

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Ever since I was stationed in Japan at the end of the Korean War, I have been fascinated by the fact that at that time on practically every corner and sandlot, I saw kids playing Baseball.  Understand, during that period, there was no question; Baseball was America's Sports Pastime. Football was in its infancy.


Many years after the Korean War, I had to go back to Japan on business. I became associated with a man named Tsubohiko Kuboki. It's easier if we just call him by the nickname "Tee". Not only because he loves golf, but more evidently his first name is difficult to pronounce.


Over the years we have become fast friends and he is like a little brother to me. On my numerous trips I would talk about Baseball and reminisce how in my service days as Sports Director of Armed Forces Radio (there was no TV at that time), I would not only Broadcast from their Major League Stadiums, but on off-days would go to games as a fan.


It's the same game, but yet the physical differences are plenty. For example, the Broadcast Booths are at ground level.  Every stadium, unlike ours, does not have grass infields. They have skinned infields, reminiscent of our sandlots. Their outfield walls in all the parks are exactly the same dimension... equal down left, right and center.


Also, the fans, unlike ours, are never rowdy.  In fact, they are organized and sit on different sides of the field.  Not unlike the way we sit at Football games. They have cheerleaders who lead cheers only when their team is at bat.  At all times they are polite... even bowing to the umpire when they strike out.


For a long time, they were considered a minor league in talent to our majors. Many American Ballplayers either at the end of their careers, or minor leaguers would go there for an opportunity to play. The money was good and if they had remaining star value, they could earn good paydays. If you have not seen the movie "Mr. Baseball" with Tom Selleck, you should. It captures the feel, the reverence and the tradition of Japanese Baseball.


Times are different!  Today, there are many native Japanese playing in our Major Leagues. The first name that comes to mind is Ichiro Suzuki who for many years played for the Seattle Mariners and today displays his talents in Yankee Pinstripes. My friend Tee is involved with Ichiro and Major League Baseball in a business capacity.  To me, it looks like business is good.


To show how coveted many of the Japanese players are, we do not have to look further than what it cost the Red Sox to pursue and sign Dice Matsuzaka, Japan's most valuable pitcher at the time. Dice's agent demanded the Red Sox bid for Dice's services in an auction. They outbid the New York Mets and the Texas Rangers for just the right to negotiate. The winning bid was $51, 111,111.11 (three times the Seibu Lions entire payroll). In addition, they signed him to a six-year contract with a no trade clause for an additional $52,000,000 plus a

$2,000,000 signing bonus.


So, I started thinking about what has happened and asked Tee to help me in my research.  It started 10 years ago. He and I went to see the Yomiuri (Tokyo) Giants. In essence they are the New York Yankees of Japanese Professional Baseball. Are you aware that the greatest Home Run Hitter of all time was not Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, or Barry Bonds?


His name is Sadaharu Oh! In his entire career, which was with the Tokyo Giants, he hit 868 home runs... Wow!


Let's look into history of the game.  Although the game was brought to Japan in the mid 19th century, it wasn't until the 1930's when Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner at the time, allowed American Major Leaguers to go to Japan to play exhibitions. Lefty O'Doul led a group of Hall-of-Famers including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, capturing the imagination of the Japanese. Lefty was the sport's goodwill ambassador and when the Professional Leagues were founded he actually name the Yomiuri Giants and designed their uniforms in the mode of the New York (now San Francisco), which he had been a part of.


How good have the Japanese become at the American game, they just won the 2012 Little League World Series. Noriatsu Osaka hit three Home Runs and a Triple as they beat Tennessee for the crown. As for International Play, the World baseball Classic, Japan has won it both times since its inception, 2006 and 2009.


But the language and the fact that Sushi is sold instead of Hot Dogs confuse me. It just didn't seem like Baseball. So Tee took the time to tutor me.


In case you are interested, Tee gave me some words to go by... For example, "Yakyu" is "Baseball. "Boru" is Ball.  Umpire is the same in both languages. Kill is "Shine" pronounced "shine-a". "Poray Boru" 

means play ball and the word for "the" is "senshu"


So, when you are next at a Ball Game and you are not happy with the Umpire's call just yell "Shine senshu Umpire". People might look at you strangely, but you won't get in trouble.

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Shelly Saltman has been in the sports world as an executive, TV producer, broadcaster and event creator for more than 50 years. Among his credentials are his work with Muhammad Ali and Evel Knievel, the numerous network TV shows he produced and created, NBA/NHL management roles, co-creator of the Amgen Tour of California and as the first president of Fox Sports. He lives in Ventura County.