Having a Ball in Japan

Having a Ball in Japan

Larry Rocca helps stoke the rising interest in Japanese baseball.

By Paul Karr


 

Maine Roots

The origins of Japanese baseball, believe it not, are in Maine. Horace Wilson, an English professor from Gorham, taught the game to a group of university students in Tokyo in the 1870s. It didn’t really catch on until after World War I, when increasing university populations (and Japanese spectators with new leisure time on their hands) created a boom of interest in a sport that requires little expense, land, or materials to practice and play.

Universities began to play, then high schools, and finally pro teams. When a team of All-Stars (including Babe Ruth) toured Japan in the 1930s to huge crowds, a light bulb went on in the head of newspaper executive Matsutaro Shoriki. Shoriki and his newspaper firm formed the first club, the Dai Nippon Tokyo Yakyu Kurabu, now known as the Yomiuri Giants. A four-team league soon followed.

“He knew people would buy his papers just to read about the baseball,” Rocca said. “He saw the power of baseball.”

Today, just as in the United States, there are two leagues. In Japan, the Central and Pacific leagues have slightly different rules. The champion of each meets in a best-of-seven fall Japan Series that closely mirrors Major League Baseball’s World Series in format. (The national high school tournament, known as Koshien and played twice a year, also creates a national fever and a television ratings spike similar to ‘March Madness’ in U.S. college basketball.)

The game itself is a bit different from the American version. The baseballs are smaller, and they’re wrapped in aluminum foil until just prior to game time to protect their surfaces. No grass grows in the stadium infields; they’re completely dirt. Teams play each other far more often. Pitchers start one game per week.

In-game strategy is different, as well. There’s far more bunting, base stealing, and situational hitting, far less power hitting and power pitching. Pitchers train themselves to throw any pitch to any location in any situation, relying on guile rather than speed to trick the hitters. The result is something roughly approximate to National League-style play in the United States. (Only a handful of Japanese league hitters have batting averages above .300 each season.) On the other hand, Japanese players’ endurance, hand-eye coordination, and conditioning are considered among the best in the world.

In fact, weeks after the 2007 season had ended, the ball club was still hard at work. At a practice in a field house near the club’s seaside stadium, players were stretching and chanting intensely, firing baseballs around, cracking whistling line drives off batting-practice pitchers, and listening to spirited pep talks from manager Bobby Valentine.

These rigorous workouts are among many intriguing facets of Japan’s version of the American pastime, and they’re often cited as one of the chief reasons Japanese players like Ichiro Suzuki (an seven-time All-Star in his seven seasons in the major leagues so far) and Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka are enjoying such success in the United States.

While he may be immersed in another culture, Rocca says it was his Colby connection that kick-started a recently forged alliance between Chiba Lotte’s operations and the 2007 “world” champion Boston Red Sox.

It happened like this: Leafing through an issue of Colby magazine back in his New York newspaper days, Rocca noticed an item in the class notes about Galen Carr ’97, a Major League scout for the Red Sox. Rocca got in touch, and the two stayed in contact. Then, in June 2006, Rocca broached the idea of a partnership. Red Sox management (which includes Director of Baseball Operations Brian O’Halloran ’93) was enthusiastic, as was Valentine, and the two clubs now share scouting and marketing resources.

“Larry was the catalyst for this partnership,” Carr said. “Both sides look at it as something positive. Obviously the market for Japanese players coming over to the U.S. has never been better, so it’s useful for us. But we can also provide valuable information to them, about both major- and minor-league players that might have an interest in playing in Japan.

“If this alliance is going to be really successful on their side, it’s going to be mostly because of Larry. He’s outgoing, with a good sense of humor. He’s a hard guy not to like.”

That sense of humor has helped Rocca ease into a culture where bowing rather than bravado, and ballpark sushi rather than hotdogs and Cokes, are the norms. When a still-green Rocca suggested to a table of straight-faced Japanese executives (he is still the only foreigner among 60 front-office staffers) that the Chiba club create a clownish character to race fans around the base path during seventh-inning stretches, they had a quick response.

You do it.

So Rocca donned a shimmering gold lamé suit, rainbow wig, and Elton John glasses and nervously performed live karaoke before 30,000 enthusiastic—if slightly stunned—fans. His bewigged “M-crash” character became a hugely popular staple of late-inning Chiba home games for the next two years. Sadly, business responsibilities now take up too much of Rocca’s time, he said, and the wig has been retired (though not forgotten).

“I’ve done a lot of different things in my life,” he said. Japanese baseball “has to be one of the very best.”

 
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