Saturday, August 20, 2005

Book Reviews: Remembering Japanese Baseball and Slugging it Out In Japan

Happy note for the day: Spiezio on waivers for unconditional release

I'm sorry your stay in Seattle was so lousy, dude. May my cries of "Frickin' Scott Spiezio!" ring through the crowd again as you come back to wreak havoc at Safeco for another team in the future... let's just hope we don't have to see that godawful tattoo!

(hey, should I start "Hunter Brown For Third" now? Heh.)

So yesterday, on the bus home from work, I just finished reading a great book. I think we're due for another Marinerds Book Review post.

Remembering Japanese Baseball, by Robert K. Fitts

I actually read this book several months ago when it first came out. I was pretty familiar with Rob Fitts from the Japanese baseball web boards for the past few years, and from his website about Japanese Baseball Cards. When he mentioned that he was doing an oral history of Japanese baseball, my first question was: "Is this going to be like The Glory of Their Times? That's my favorite book ever!"

The short answer is: Yes. At the same time, it is a very different book with a very different purpose.

A big difference between this book and Glory is that it attempts to span the entirety of Japanese baseball, pretty much starting from right after World War II, going all the way up to 1998. The sad part is, unlike Glory, it was written too late to capture much of pre-WWII baseball. The first story in the book is from a guy who actually saw Eiji Sawamura play, but that's about it. After that we move right into the Giants of the 1950's.

Another difference is that there are basically two types of stories in here: stories told by Japanese players, and stories told by Americans who played in Japan. Both are fascinating, but in different ways, and the tone is very different between the two styles, which might partially be due to things being lost in translation. The older stories, from the 50's and 60's, are more from the Japanese players and the nisei (Japanese-Americans), and are more like "We'd just gotten out of the war. We were (on the Giants and had to win / trying to beat the Giants). We had very little in the way of equipment or money, but we trained and trained and did our best." The stories then start giving way to the foreigners, being like "So, I went to Japan to play. It was freakin' weird! They treat Americans very (well / poorly) there. Our strike zones were huge!" Eventually you have people like Boomer Wells talking about when he first saw Ichiro come up on the Hankyu Braves.

I think the highlights of the book are the chapters by Wally Yonamine, Don Blasingame, Masanori Murakami, and Clyde Wright. But I'd say that every single chapter has fun or interesting stories in it, and it wouldn't be much fun if I summarized them all here, would it?

Another great thing about this book is that it makes a GREAT "bus book", much like the other oral histories of this type. Each chapter is around 10 pages, so depending on how long your commute is, and how quickly you read, you can read one or two chapters each way, without having to really keep context when you pick up and continue reading the next day.

Slugging it Out In Japan, by Warren Cromartie with Robert Whiting

Okay, so this is the book I just finished reading. And let me tell you, this book is a must-read for:

1) Warren Cromartie fans
2) Japanese baseball enthusiasts
3) American fans of the Yomiuri Giants
4) Anyone who's watched Mr. Baseball

No, really. I'm pretty damn sure Dennis Haybert's character in Mr. Baseball is pretty much supposed to be Cromartie.

Anyway, this book is an autobiography, which makes it sort of like Remembering Japanese Baseball, except it's 277 pages of oral history goodness rather than just a chapter. It's pretty much almost entirely about his 7 seasons playing for the Yomiuri Giants (1984-1990), mostly under Sadaharu Oh. One chapter does cover the rest of his life; yes, he mentions waving around a Canadian flag in Veterans Stadium after winning the 1981 NLDS.

But mostly, it's about those crazy guys in Japan. Of course, they seem less and less crazy as the book goes on -- or is he getting more and more crazy? Unlikely. All along the way there's the same wit and the same viewpoint, just the names change and the situations change. The other gaijin change. The stadium changes. The country, even, changes, with Japan's economic growth in the 1980's. So in some ways, much in the same way you can get some great perspectives on American history by reading books about baseball here in different time periods, you can get a good perspective on Japan in the 80's by reading Cromartie's book.

There's a great insight into the craziness of the Japanese media, as Cromartie shows a lot of the articles that were written about him in his time there, most of which have such wisdom as "Cromartie is a slacker, only hitting .325 with 21 home runs. This is why the Giants have not won the pennant." The press was so pervasive that you can feel while reading.

It's also fun but sort of sad reading about Sadaharu Oh through the eyes of Cromartie. In some ways, this book picks up where "Sadaharu Oh: A Zen Way of Baseball" leaves off, since that book is about Oh's life and ends in 1983 when he had just been named manager of the Giants, and Cro's story in Japan picks up in 1984, in that first year, where Cromartie was supposed to be the Giants' "Messiah" and lead them to the pennant. It is obvious that Cro had a lot of respect for Oh, and that they were very good friends -- he even named his son Cody Oh Cromartie -- but at the same time, the stress of having to win a pennant "or else" was obviously taking a toll on Oh, and you read about it through the eyes of a friend, which makes it sadder.

Cromartie uses Japanese phrases in the book a lot, either for humor or to lend to the "holy crap, I'm in JAPAN" mood he establishes. Sometimes you realize that his use of Japanese with his teammates must have been very touching for them, though, as the scene in Mr. Baseball when Tom Selleck apologizes to the team in Japanese. In Cro's case, for example, when superstar Tatsunori Hara was in a batting slump, and everyone got on his case more and more, Cro was the one trying to get him to relax:

       Well, wouldn't you know it, in the bottom of the ninth inning of a scoreless tie that night against the Taiyo Whales, with runners on second and third, it was Hara's turn to bat. He wasn't about to be walked, even with first base open, because I was in the on-deck circle. Hara was scared. Flat scared. Somebody had to try to calm him down, so I went over and called his name, trying to be heard over the din of the Dome.
       Now, I knew that Hara's hobby was dogs, that he knew about breeding and raising them and what the prices were for different types of dogs. So I decided to try that tack. "Tatsu," I yelled, "My friend bought boxer dog. He pay Y100,000 -- ju man yen. You think too high? Takai?"
       Hara stared at me and blinked. I might as well have asked him a question about rocket science. His mind was in the twilight zone.
       "Hara," I tried again. Ju man yen. Bokusa doggu."
       "Eh, doggu?"
       I'd made contact.
       "Right. Doggu. Inu. Bow wow. Bokusa. Ju man yen. Takai?"
       Hara focused on me. He'd returned to earth.
       "Takai," he said, shaking his head at the ridiculous price.
       It was only for a second. But it had taken his mind off the situation he was in. It had relieved some of the pressure. And when he finally stepped up to bat, he had relaxed just a shade. He swung at the first pitch and lined a sayonara single into left field.

Anyway. This book was really fun. It's possible as a bus book, but only if you read fast. I was able to cover a season chapter a day, but your mileage may vary.

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