Friday, December 15, 2006

Mr. Walsh Generally Gets It Right, Though He's a Little Late to the Ball Game.

Bryan Walsh, the TIME Tokyo bureau chief, writes about the third biggest FA story in major league baseball:

"While most Japanese players show all the flair of dour salarymen, Matsuzaka — with his spiky, sometimes dyed hair and cool self-confidence — more closely resembles the dropout hipsters who populated downbeat Tokyo at the turn of the millennium."

Really? But "spiky,…dyed hair" is far less evident among the young compared to a couple of years ago. In that sense, Matsuzaka, married and father of one, could be a little bit behind the curve as far as hipness is concerned. But that is a minor quibble.

"Japanese players who move to the majors are no longer seen as leaving Japan behind; they are seen as representing their country in the international game. It's a sign that the globalization of sport is finally penetrating this often isolationist country, that many fans here would rather watch an international game with the top players in the world than settle for a lessened domestic product."

Come on now. We may be an "isolationist country", but "globalization of sport is finally penetrating…"? But then, you weren't born when Tokyo hosted the 1964 Olympics. More to the point, you betray your US bias when you make this sweeping statement, since you obviously are not taking account of the pro soccer J-League. The J-League, since its inauguration in 1993, has always been supportive, indeed sometimes leaned over backwards, to accommodate the desires of their stars and superstars to play abroad (usually in Europe, preferably in the four elite national top leagues). Their fans have been no less eager to see them do well, and do not begrudge their transfers.

(Sidebar: If any group of athletes "dropout hipsters who populated downbeat Tokyo at the turn of the millennium", actually the average Joe at any time, it's the soccer players.)

Even in baseball, which has its history, the public, especially the casual fan, has always been supportive of our expats, including Hideo Nomo (the Christopher Columbus of Japanese baseball to Masanori Murakami's Eric the Red), who, in 1995, left the Kintetsu Buffaloes for the LA Dodgers under acrimonious circumstances. Japanese fans watched as much of him on his pitching days as possible on the NHK satellite channels in the early morning hours before they had to ship off to work.. The results of major league baseball games, including the incomplete records of the Mariners home games, even began showing up in the evening editions of the major dailies (except Yomiuri, who I assume feared that US baseball would erode the fan base for the Japanese game and, more importantly, the Yomiuri Giants. I may be conflating the treatment in the major dailies with what I observed in the Ichiro era, but the basic fan and media reaction was as I describe here).

I am sure there were a significant number of die-hard fans who railed at the defectors for abandoning the national side, but I suspect that much of what noise there was came from or was amplified by old school ex-pros who were managing, coaching, critiquing, and doing color commentary, that is, the people who had vested interests in the domestic game. The sports media could play both sides of this game, as they reported the exploits of the pioneers while giving space to the domestic controversy.

So your article on the whole gets it right in substance (including of course the worry that Japanese baseball is losing some of its luster as we kep losing our stars to the big boys), but you take much that had already happened, in baseball and Japanese sports in general, not so coincidentally, I believe, during the post-bubble 90s and early 2000s, and conflate it into the much more recent drama surrounding Matsuzaka's transfer.

And now, the coda: His good but not spectacular ERA is somewhat worrisome as he takes his game to the Pujols and the A-Rods; and some detractors point to his "soft" look as sign of an Irabuesque penchant for the smorgasbord. (Remember Pussy Toad?) But then, he has always had an extra gear that he can shift to when the occasion warrants. That, more than anything else, separates him from the gaggle of aces that have from time to time been able to rack up similar stats. And if the fans awaiting him in Beantown, that is, the "many academic and white-collar people in Boston", do not pose such a challenge, I don't know what does.

I am sure that he will acquit himself well. Godspeed, and good luck, Matsuzaka.

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