"Besubaru"        page 2

Before the introduction of baseball, group sport didn't exist in Japan. Athletic competition consisted of individual feats and one-on-one contests such as Sumo wrestling, kendo (fencing), horseback riding, and swimming, all extensions of military training. Since there was no equivalent word for "sport" in the Japanese language, a new word was coined: supotsu.

Baseball expanded the notion of competition to include a vital aspect of Japanese society: the importance of the group. Historically a clan- or family-based society, Japan has always demanded that the individual subordinate him- or herself to the group in order to maintain group harmony, or wa. Any individual activity that interrupts the smooth flow of wa is dealt with instantly and harshly. As the Japanese saying goes, "The nail that sticks up will be hammered down."

American baseball thrives on the nails that stick up. The game has always been defined by its heroes -- the Babe Ruths, Christy Mathewsons, Joe DiMaggios, and Willie Mayses. It is set up for the larger-than-life confrontation between pitcher and batter, and how the team fares is almost secondary to the accomplishments of its heroes.

A "Besubaru" stadium in Osaka, Japan.

Japanese baseball enjoys this mano-a-mano aspect of the game as well, harkening as it does to the essential nature of samurai combat. But stars like Sadaharu Oh (Japan's great home-run hitter and the closest thing they have to a superstar) are exceptions to the rule. Team attitude is paramount, and as a result the game becomes, by Western standards, a little, well...boring.

Besuboru is played as if nobody wants to be the one to make a mistake.

In America, the home run is king. The ultimate is the dramatic blast that knocks in three runs and wins the game. In contrast, Japanese games are won by bunts and walks. Pitchers throw a lot of curve balls and nibble at the corners of the plate. Three-ball, two-strike counts are common in Japan, and consequently there are a lot of walks. Nobody wants to be the one who serves up the homu ran. In the U.S. of A., this pitching approach is considered somewhat effete, and the prevailing mentality is more one of  "C'mon, throw me your best fastball, let's see what you got...."  In the States, the players are more apt to challenge one another physically, and this is known affectionately as "country hardball."

Japanese are attracted to baseball because of its relatively slow pace. On-field meetings are convened to consider every possible factor in detail before a decision is made. Like a Japanese business meeting, the game can go on, seemingly, forever. According to Warren Cromartie, an American playing in Japan, "Managers in Japan are afraid to make quick decisions, because they are afraid of making a mistake. They have to discuss everything to death with their coaches before they make a move. I played one half-inning in Osaka that took forty-five minutes. That must be a world record."


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