Time Machine: 2009 interview with FCCJ's No. 1 Shimbun
This interview with Robert Whiting was published in a 2009 edition of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan’s No. 1 Shimbun.
Q. It's been more than two decades and thousands of printed copies in multiple languages, but set the scene for when the You Gotta Have Wa was first published and the expectations you had for it?
A. Japan was at the peak of its economic power at the time. Japanese firms were flooding the U.S. market and buying up iconic American properties like Rockefeller Center and Columbia Pictures. The two countries were on the verge of a trade war and Americans were paying more attention to Japan than at anytime since World War II.
I had written a long piece about baseball in Japan for Smithsonian Magazine in 1987— how the game, imported from the U.S. more than a century before, had been transformed over the years so that it served as a window into the Japanese culture. On the basis of that article, Rick Wolff at Macmillan in New York offered me a contract to do a book expanding on the theme. You Gotta Have Wa was intended as a easy way to explain Japan to ordinary Americans, even people who did not know much about baseball. The book was more successful than I imagined. It got a lot of nationwide attention. The New York Times did three glowing reviews in a year and a half. Time Magazine did a full page. I went on Larry King and several other TV and radio shows. It was a Book of the Month Club selection and Macmillan even submitted it to the Pulitzer Committee. The Japan Desk in the State Department made it required reading for those Foreign Service personnel assigned to Japan. It enabled me to get a big contract for my next book, which was Tokyo Underworld.
Q. As a business or from a fan perspective, is Japanese baseball stronger or weaker now than then?
A. I’m tempted to say weaker. Back in the 80’s, the Yomiuri Giants, Japan’s oldest, winningest and historically most popular team, were on nationwide TV every night with ratings in the 20’s. Now, their ratings are in single digits and if you don’t have cable or satellite it’s hard to find their games. Moreover, 20 years ago, unlike now, there was no J. League to siphon off fans and players. On the other hand, attendance these days appears to be up (although teams have lied about their gate for so long it is hard to know what the truth is) and the popularity of Ichiro and the WBC appears to be spawning a whole new wave of interest in baseball among kids. So things are looking up. As for pure talent, players are bigger and stronger now than they were 20 years ago. That’s for sure.
Q. What level of foreign interest was there in Japanese players or baseball then and was it thought the local side might once or twice, be the best nine in the world?
A: There was zero interest. Most people bought You Gotta Have Wa to understand the culture. Most Americans did not even know the Japanese played baseball. Those who did assumed the Japanese game was second or third rate. But ex-major leaguers who actually played in Japan recognized that there was talent. They all said that a team of Japanese All-Stars could hold its own in the States.
Q. Was there any negative publicity or reaction to the book and if so did that actually help sell it?
A: Not in the States. The Japanese translation of Wa was a best-seller and got generally good reviews, but some people here objected my descriptions of the physical abuse that went on in training camp and the descriptions of the discrimination against foreigners that existed. My landlord called me a Japan basher and tried to have me evicted. But I think that had more to do with the rise in the price of real estate at the time.
Q. This was the pre-Nomo era when exports almost exclusively came to this side of the Pacific. Who were your best foreign and Japanese sources then and what insights or scoops did they provide?
A; American ballplayers Leron Lee, Warren Cromartie, Reggie Smith, Davey Johnson., and Clyde Wright. Sportswriter Masayuki Tamaki. A well-connected Bungei Shunju editor named Kiyondo Matsui, whose wife translated some of my books. A gangster novelist named Joji Abe. Baseball interpreters Luigi Nakajima, Tadahiro Ushigome and Toyo Fumimitsu. And I had several interesting conversations with Japanese baseball players Hiromitsu Ochiai, Shinichi Eto, Yutaka Enatsu, Choji Murata, Karotu Betto and Jumbo Nakane.
Tamaki told me he suspected that the Yomiuri Giants were lying about their attendance and the capacity of the Tokyo Dome. For years, since the Dome opened in 1988, the Giants had announced sellout crowds of 56,000 for every home game. So that inspired me to go count the seats. It turned out that there were 42,761 seats. Then another Japanese reporter and I went out and counted the standing room crowd during a full house. It turned out that there were less than 4,000. I wrote about that and was invited not to come to the Dome anymore by a Giants representative. It wasn’t until 2005 that the Giants were forced to come clean.
Davey Johnson told me about the time Giants manager Shigeo Nagashima, angry about Johnson’s plan to fly to the States during the All-Star break to consult with a doctor about an injury that wouldn’t heal, ripped a towel off him in the dressing room, pointed to his private parts and screamed that he was nothing but a woman. Clyde Wright told me about Giants coach Yukunobu Kuroe grabbing at his genitalia in the team shower. Both Reggie Smith and Warren Cromartie told me about racism and prejudice towards Koreans, and how the coaches would punch and kick younger players, as part of their “education.” I wrote about that and was banned from the Giants games for two years. I also did an interview with Randy Bass in which he called his manager an idiot. That got me suspended from Koshien Stadium for a season or two.
I’ve been to Sadaharu Oh’s house, which was notable for its lack of ostentation and for the presence of a big easy chair in the living room that was shaped like a baseball glove. I’ve also been to Nagashima’s house on more than one occasion, and his house was far more deluxe. You could say the difference reflected their respective personalities. Once I went to Nagashima’s house with Gary Carter, a player from the Montreal Expos. In Carter’s honor, Nagashima’s wife had placed a photo of her husband shaking hands with Canadian PM at the time Pierre Trudeau, in the genkan, for Carter to see as he came in the front door. Then, since Montreal was a predominantly Roman Catholic town, Carter was ushered into the place of honor, a chair in the living room, next to which was a photograph of Nagashima having an audience with the Pope. That was class. I could only imagine the welcome the Nagashima household had prepared for other visiting celebrities.
Then there was Joji Abe who told me about the game-fixing that went on in some meaningless games. He said I was free to write about it, if I was prepared to die.
Q. Peter Gammons’ Beyond the Sixth Game comes to mind not only because it chronicles my beloved Red Sox, but because it captures the impact that free agency had on the sport. What major issue, be it talent flight ahead or a new “business” model — or the need for one — did your book foreshadow about Japanese baseball?
A: I pointed out the weakness in the player development system — that whereas American big league teams operated with a highly-competitive, multi-tiered franchised farm system of some 150 players, each waiting to take the spot of a player on the parent team, Japanese teams, by contrast, had but one farm club. Whereas each MLB team signs 100 players a year in the MLB Draft, each NPB team signs 12. This system puts the NPB at a decided disadvantage in producing top level ballplayers. But, I’m far from the only person to point this out. In fast past few years, Japan has seen the creation of three independent professional baseball leagues, which will only help in the development of talent for the NPB.
I also pointed out there were a number of players who could have been big stars in the big leagues had they been given a chance. Among them were Sadaharu Oh, Choji Murata and Koji Yamamoto. That wasn’t something you read about in the U.S. media. So maybe someone was paying attention. Who knows?
Q. You have noted how ethnicity for Japan-born players has been an issue, be it Sadaharu Oh or those of Korean heritage and how the usually carnivorous media tiptoes around this. Is the Yu Darvish story and a more international game in any way making this less important?
A: There are players who will admit their Korean heritage, but there are also still players who refuse to talk about their ancestry, particularly if it involves North Korea. They will blackball journalists who write about it. One of them is playing in MLB now.
Q. You were involved in the Tom Selleck film Mr. Baseball, which has my favorite line “I led the league in doubles with two out after the seventh inning,” or something similar, along with a few Nagoya zingers. Forget the beautiful manager’s (Takakura Ken’s) daughter, are there actual “sukketo” stories that became part of that script or character?
A: Just about everything that happened in the first half of the movie was based on actual events. The Lee Brothers, Warren Cromartie, Bob Horner, Reggie Smith, Boomer Wells, Randy Bass, all think Mr. Baseball was based, at least in part, on their experience in Japan.
Q. What is easier to work on — a book or a script? Do baseball books or movies sell better?
A: They’re both very hard. Non-fiction is the hardest thing to do in my opinion because of the research that is required, the interviewing, the re-interviewing, the checking and double-checking, avoiding lawsuits, etc. The advent of Google has made researching easier, but non-fiction is still hard, harder than fiction, because it is so time-consuming. It’s much faster to write a movie script. On the other hand, writing a screenplay requires a special talent. People who can write well are not necessarily qualified to write a film script. You need the ability to think visually, to imagine two hours of screen time, and you have to be able to condense several lines of dialogue into a few words, without losing any meaning. That’s not an easy thing. Movies sell better than books. There’s much more money in film scripts (unless your name is Stephen King) and I think the disparity will continue to grow.
Q. There have been a number of baseball and other books, including one with Warren Cromartie, whom I will always consider my favorite foreign player, based on clutch hitting and fan appreciation, unlike some quick returnees. Who have been some of your favorites?
A: Eight Men Out. Willie’s Time. Lords of the Realm. All great classics.
As for a favorite player, or rather, favorite player interviewee, I liked Reggie Smith the best. He was everything you would want in an interview. He was observant, perceptive, thoughtful, intelligent, articulate and passionate. He was also very candid. Davey Johnson was like that too. I also liked Warren Cromartie. He had a great sense of humor and was a good story teller.
Q. We last spoke during the WBC when Ichiro was slumping, and then with the game on the line he has an epic at bat in the championship that even Hollywood might find far-fetched. Even if you hadn’t written a book about his impact, have his accomplishments in MLB cemented that at least one Japanese enters Cooperstown as a Hall of Famer?
A: Roger Maris hit 61 homers to break Babe Ruth’s record and he hasn’t made it into the HOF, so that fact that Ichiro broke George Sisler’s single-season hits record will probably not be enough to get him in either, nor is the fact that he will break the record sometime later this year for consecutive seasons for 200 or more hits, with nine. But he will probably last long enough to get 3,000 MLB hits and that, combined with everything else, will be enough to get him elected on the first ballot.
Q: How about Nomo?
A; Nomo deserves to be in for the same reason that Jackie Robinson deserved to be inducted. Nomo did not suffer anywhere near the abuse Robinson did when he broke the color barrier. But it took an enormous amount of courage for Nomo to defy the system in Japan and sign with the Dodgers in 1995. That was no mean thing. The entire nation was against him — until he started winning, that is, and then it was, “Hey, that’s our boy over there beating those Americans.” Nomo opened the door for every other Japanese to go to the States. Without Nomo, there would have been no Ichiro, no Hideki Matsui, no Dice-K. There would be no posting system, no MLB Opening Day games played in Japan, and probably no WBC. He should be a special first ballot shoo-in.
Q. Did the Matsuzaka posting and the $50 million Seibu payout for the rights to chat early change how teams will cultivate their own talent? What will Hisashi Iwakuma or Darvish bring once able to go to MLB to their clubs?
A; I don’t see any big change in the NPB Modus Operandi. They still operate as PR vehicles for the parent company, and are content to operate at a loss. The baseball team is considered a tax write off and there is comparatively little investment in farm systems or infrastructure. They are at a disadvantage vis a vis the MLB, which benefits from taxpayer funded stadiums and an anti-trust exemption which allows it to operate as a legal monopoly. The SoftBank Hawks, just to cite one example, have to pay $50 million a year in rent to use the Yahoo Dome. That’s $50 million they are not able to spent on players. That’s not exactly fair.
As for Darvish and Iwakuma, I would expect them both to bring as much, if not a lot more, than Matsuzaka did in posting, assuming of course that both guys don’t blow their arms out from the stress their putting on their arms now, and assuming that the MLB economic bubble doesn’t burst in the U.S. recession. Darvish keeps saying he wants to stay in Japan rather than go to the MLB, to help rebuild the NPB. But maybe that’s more of a reflection of his Iranian father’s feeling about the U.S., which is where the elder Darvish studied and where, he says, he was discriminated against.
Q. Looking ahead, what changes do you expect for the Japanese game, particularly in regard to keeping or supporting its popularity? Did you ever think Japanese players would strike, even timidly?
A: I know that the new Commissioner Kato is trying hard to restore the NPB to its former glory. He went to the Ministry of Industry to see if the NPB could file at claim versus MLB over unfair trade practices, but was told the WTO doesn’t deal with sports organizations. Apparently they are not aware what a huge business MLB has become. The leagues are trying to come up with an integrated merchandise and TV rights program of the kind which has benefited American baseball so much, but Yomiuri and Hanshin are refusing to cooperate, so that probably won’t happen. My guess is that the NPB will continued to muddle through.
As for a strike, the NPB Players Association has already struck once, in 2004, to block a proposed Pacific League contraction from 6 teams to 5. But they were pushed into that strike by a public that was angry about the move. Even the Prime Minister had criticized the owners for doing it. They struck for two whole days, apologized profusely and held special autograph sessions and baseball clinics for those fans who held tickets to the canceled games, which was quite a contrast to the way the MLB Players Association conducted its walkouts. The strike worked. The owners, embarrassed by all the bad publicity, agreed to the creation of a new team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles.
But the NPB union doesn’t seem eager to repeat the experience. There’s a whole host of issues they could press, much as the MLBPA has done — such as the rights to their own image and related merchandise, and lowering their free agency time from the present 8-9 years, which at present, is a form of modern day slavery. But the NJPB seems more interested in preserving “wa” than causing anymore strife. As far as the NPB’s popularity, as I indicated earlier, I used to think baseball was losing ground in Japan, especially after seeing the Giants TV ratings nosedive. But the enormous popularity of the WBC, thanks to Japan’s two victories, which got some of the highest TV ratings in history in Japan, makes me think otherwise. Kids all over Japan are playing baseball. They all want to be Ichiro. I think there is some kind of new boom going on. I don’t have any data to back that up, just my own observation, however.
Q. Steroids were not an issue then in Japan and still is seen as a “MLB” problem, but has there been a “doping era” in Japan or an equally serious issue?
A;I don’t think there are many steroid users in Japan. Just look at the players to confirm that. But there was a game-fixing scandal back in the late 60’s when I was a student here. Some players were banned for life. I wouldn’t be surprised if we had another one. Players salaries in the NPB have gone down. The Yamaguchi gumi needs to find a way to make money in the present economic downturn. The conditions are ripe.
Q. Finally, if there's one Japanese or foreign player whose story you would like to write or read, who would it be?
A: Hideki Irabu. Interesting guy. All the talent in the world. He won two monthly MVP’s in one season with the Yankees, something which I think no other pitcher has done. But he’s self-destructive, and has a drinking problem. When he is ready to tell the whole story I’d like to read it, if not write it. Among gaijin, I would choose Bobby Valentine. No manager in the history of the Lotte franchise has a better winning percentage. He has also quadruped attendance in his six years here. He was sitting on top of the world. Yet, he somehow managed to get himself essentially fired. There’s so much intrigue going on at Lotte, it’s worthy of Hamlet.