We're mercenaries, pure and simple. Our job is to do well and let the Japanese players have the glory, and to take the blame when things go bad. – Leon Lee
October 1987. He sat there in the cramped and crowded dining room a Kawasaki Stadium, surrounded by buckwheat noodle-slurping teammates, his 6'1" 200-pound frame dwarfing all but two or three of them. He has always marveled at how they would go out and run themselves silly for two hours, then come in and gorge themselves with soba just before a game. It was one of the many things he still didn't understand about Japan.
For 11 years now, American Leron Lee had been coming to this decrepit park redolent of liniment and soy sauce and other stronger odors. (The Kawasaki team toilet had only recently been used as a set in a prison movie. Its squalor, said one screenwriter, was magnificent.) He had endured the park, its perpetually empty stands, and the haze of industrial smog that constantly engulfed it to become one of the best baseball players in the history of the Japanese game – as well as one of its least recognized stars.
Since joining the Lotte Orions in 1977, Lee, a left handed outfielder-designated hitter, has won every major batting title there was to win. He had the highest career batting average of any player to play the game in Japan: .320. He had hit .300 for 10 consecutive seasons. He also had more hits (1579), more home runs (283) and more RBI's (912) than any other foreigner.
Warren Cromartie once called him the Godfather of the Gaijin – the one everyone turned to for advice. Now, at age 39, he had had his first bad year. There had been injuries, his average had dropped to .272, his home runs to nine. Lotte's grim-faced rookie manager, Michiyo Aritoh, had made it clear there was no room for Lee in his future plans.
Tonight would be his last game. Everyone knew it. But there would be no farewell ceremony, no Leron Lee Day, no one from the front office to come down before the game to say thanks for all the memories. The announcement of his release would not be made until later, when, hopefully, Lee would be out of the country and an unpleasant confrontation would be avoided.
It was typical, he thought, of the way he had been treated throughout his entire stay. In his first season, he had won the home run and RBI titles, with 34 and 109, respectively, barely missing out in the batting average category. A Lotte executive had said the team might have won the pennant if only Lee had won the Triple Crown.
Lee won a batting title in 1980, to become at the time only the fifth American in the history of the Japanese game to do so. But that too had been a distasteful experience. "Only five people in the Lotte organization congratulated me," he said, "One was my brother Leon, who also played on the team; another was my interpreter. The following spring when they gave me my silver bat for being the batting champion, they did it in the clubhouse. No presentation at home plate in front of the fans. They just handed it to me. They seemed ashamed."
Over the years, team posters for Lotte fames frequently omitted Lee's name in order to stress the "Japaneseness" of the team. There were autograph parties for the Japanese Orion stars but never for Lee. "I guess I'm what you'd call a necessary evil," he said.
Perhaps the biggest blow came when a Tokyo advertising executive told Lee flatly that Japanese did not want black role models. Blonds, maybe. But no blacks. Unless, of course, you were Carl Lewis or Mike Tyson. In all his years in Japan, Lee had no commercial endorsements. Unlike other players of his stature, he had no equipment contracts either. He even had to buy his own bats.
Not that he didn't have his moments. When the Orions won a first-half pennant in 1980 (the Pacific League employed a split-season format from 1973 to 1981), stadium police had to rescue him from a delirious mob that stormed the field. At the end of that year, Kawasaki fans chose him "Mr. Orion" in a season-end poll, and he and his brother Leon (who had joined the team in 1978) recorded a song, "Baseball Boogie." The tune reached Number 12 on the Japanese charts.
That was the year the great Tetsuharu Kawakami, a former Yomiuri Giants star and manager, had come out to the ballpark to meet Lee the great American hitter. They stood there in front of the dugout, with all the reporters looking on, and the avuncular Kawakami told Lee that as a player, standing in the batter's box, he had been able to see the heart of the ball as it came hurtling toward him at 85 miles per hour. Lee replied that that was interesting, because he could, too. Kawakami liked that. Then Kawakami said that the ball used to stop for him also, just before he swung his bat. And Lee asked why he thought that was so.
Kawakami smiled...and walked away. A star like Lee would already know the answer.
Far too often, however, Lee felt like the outsider that he was. There was the time he had struck out to end a ninth-inning rally and an irate, very inebriated fan somehow worked his way through to the row of flimsy wire mesh cubbyholes that served as the Orion locker room. "Ree Bakayaro!" (Lee, you stupid SOB!) he yelled several times. He stood there and kept yelling – and Lee's teammates did nothing. They all stared awkwardly, embarrassed by the behavior of a fellow Japanese, until finally Lee himself escorted the man out. To Lee, the incident seemed to symbolize his career.
He knew Japan was not a bed of lotus blossoms, and although he was an unassuming, rather taciturn man, he was deeply proud of what he had done there. On good days, he rated Lotte the equal of a major league second-division team. On bad days, only Triple A (minor league). But with the different pitching, strike zones and inconsistent umpires, a man had to change his swing, his way of thinking, and his whole style of play to succeed. Hell, there was no guarantee that even Pete Rose could have made it in Japan.
Lee had always considered himself as good as many major league name players, but felt that he had never been given a decent opportunity to demonstrate his ability. "In every stretch I played regularly in the majors," he said, "I hit .300. I did it at St. Louis and at Cleveland, but I was always filling in for a starter and eventually I'd wind up back on the bench pinch hitting and my average would fall. At San Diego I had an argument with Don Zimmer in my capacity as player representative and wound up getting traded. It seemed I was always in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Jim Lefebvre, who had married a Japanese woman, a translator he had met in Tokyo, and had two daughters by her. He wasn't crazy about the idea of putting his girls through the Japanese school system, given the exam hells and the custom of requiring young children to wear short pants to school even in the dead of winter as a means of strengthening their spirit. Nor did he care for the patronizing attitude many Japanese had toward those with mixed blood, especially black mixed blood. But, all in all, there were fewer hassles. People traveled through life at a slower speed. The society was well organized. It was safe and relatively drug-free. The taxis and subways were immaculate. More important, he had worked his salary up to $600,000 a year and had put two million dollars in the bank.
THE JAPANESE LIKED LEE WELL ENOUGH, too. They thought he and his brother comported themselves with dignity and restraint. But they did not treat him like a star ad that bothered him the most. He wanted the perks that were supposed to accrue from having the highest lifetime batting average in the Japanese game. He wanted the press to solicit his opinions as they did all the other big Japanese stars. He wanted to be asked to manage or coach when he retired, or at least have his own newspaper column like Kawakami and Koji Yamamoto. But Japan was not disposed to provide any of that for him.
"I can't believe this," he said, his voice dripping bitterness, "You don't hit .320 for 10 years and then get shoved aside. You don't treat a guy that way."
Aahhh, but they did. His brother Leon, a first baseman from the Cardinal chain, had hit an impressive .308 with 268 home runs over 10 years in Japan, including a season in 1980 where he hit 41 homers and batted .340. He was as strong as a sumo wrestler and could hit the ball 500 feet. But Lotte had shipped him to the Taiyo Whales in 1983 when a young player named Ochiai began to show his stuff. Leon went on to have three good years with Taiyo; he set a new Central League record for RBI's in one game (10) and hit a ball completely out of Yokohama Stadium. But after batting .303 with 31 homers and 110 RBI's in 1985, he was released. Whales manager Sadaaki Kondo said Leon didn't hit when the team really needed him to.
Leon and Leron, however, thought they knew the real reason. The Whales had finished low in the standings and someone had to take the blame. It was always easier in harmony-conscious Japan to point the finger at the gaijin. That way no one would be upset. No one that counted, that is.
Lee hated the way the Japanese fawned over any American player with a reputation in the big leagues and ignored people like him and his brother who consistently compiled better statistics than almost anyone. It was disgusting, he thought, the way the Swallows had rolled out the red carpet for major league slugger Bob Horner. When Horner's parents visited Japan in the summer of 1987, the front office had supplied them with an interpreter and had paid the air freight back to Dallas for all the souvenirs, gifts, and other things they wound up buying. No one had ever done anything like that for Lee, and his debut in Japan had been even more striking than Horner's: 20 home runs in his first 40 games (Horner had 16).
Lee's position on Lotte had begun to deteriorate when Lotte's longtime first baseman and captain Michiyo Aritoh was appointed manager. Aritoh ran a tightly disciplined ship. He put an end to the special treatment Lee had received over the years from other managers, which included first-class hotels on the road, and carte blanche in practice. Lee would henceforth be compelled to act like everyone else, he declared. At an early spring workout, Lee took his batting practice, did his running and when he was finished, he picked up his gear and started to go home, as he had always done.
"You can't leave now," snapped one of Aritoh's new coaches, "you'll disturb the team's harmony." So with nothing else to do, Lee spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the bench watching the reserves sweat and groan.
A hip injury kept Lee out of action for several weeks during the middle of the season. The team sank in the standings and when he came back, Aritoh used him sparingly. In the middle of one game, Aritoh took him out for a pinch hitter. Lee, insulted, had a rare attack of temper and threw his bat in anger at the bench. For this, Aritoh fined him a million yen and forced him to apologize in front of the entire team for upsetting its harmony.
Lee felt that perhaps a heart-to-heart talk could have helped matters, but this was Japan and managers did not usually have to hear-to-heart talks with their players. Especially a manager like Aritoh.
"He hasn't talked to me my entire career," said Lee, "I've been on the same team with this man for 11 years. I've traveled with him. I batted next to him in the lineup, but I've never spent a social evening with him. After all these years, I don't even know who he is."
The front office had been no help. The Lotte Orions were run by people from Lotte Gum, the parent company, who did not know much about baseball. Once Lee was introduced to a newly appointed club executive and the man said, "Oh, I know you. I've seen you on TV once or twice." Another team official once asked Lee what a batting average of .300 meant.
In 1986, he was hitting .321 with 10 games left and the general manager told him that the remainder of the season would be a "test" for Lee to see if he could still play baseball. If he did well then they would bring him back another year. Lee hit six homers and drove 18 runs in those 10 games to finish with .331, 31 homers and 94 RBI's. He won a new contract, but sometimes he wondered about his employers. He really did.
"Playing in Japan, " he said, "is a real test of what you have inside. You learn the meaning of the Japanese word gaman (forbearance) when you live here."
Lee spent his last evening in a Japanese uniform thinking about gaman and sitting on the bench. The stadium was a chilly 55 degrees. The sparse crowd watched half-heartedly as the Lotte cheerleaders, four men wearing brightly colored coats bearing the Orions crest, rhythmically waved banners and chanted "Goooooo-Gooooo-Gooooo." Every now and then a diminutive miniskirted girl scurried out to hand the plate umpire some new balls. Occasionally, someone yelled Lee's name.
He sat there shivering, staring at the neon-lit Sapporo beer sign winking atop the left field stands in the October night. He thought he might be asked to pinch hit, at least. But Aritoh never looked his way. Not even with the score tied 3-3 in the 10th inning. The Orions scored a sayonara run without Lee's help amidst a din of pounding taiko drums, shrieking whistles, and tooting horns. And thus did one of the most sparkling careers in Japanese baseball come to an end.
In the locker room, Lee's teammates packed their gear for autumn camp. A couple of them stopped by his cubicle to say goodbye. A few days later Lotte officially informed the baseball world of Lee's release.
Sometime that winter, the team announced the signing of Bill Madlock, the 37-year-old four-time U.S. batting champion, to a million-dollar contract and set about building him a $30,000 private dressing room. They also made arrangements to put Madlock up at the plushest hotels available when the Orions went on the road. As Aritoh said of his new gaijin, "Madlock is a big leaguer." (In 1988, Madlock hit .263 with 19 home runs and was released at the end of the season."
Snobbery thrives in every society and Japan is no exception, despite the fact that everyone in Japan believes he belongs to the middle class. One's status is derived primarily from what organizations one belongs to. Todai beats Keio and Waseda as far as universities go, for example. The Foreign Ministry outranks Mitsubishi in job prestige. And the Central League is considered superior to the Pacific League in baseball.
Although the Pacific League dominated the first 40 years of all-star competition, the Central League won 60 percent of the Japan Series in that timespan. It was the league of the Giants and thus it was thought to have more class. When Shigeo Nagashima, the famous Giants third baseman, became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 1987, he was voted in over former Nankai Hawk catcher Katsuya Nomura, even though he had been the spiritual leader of the "all-Japanese" Giants. Nagashima had been able to see the heart of the ball. Nomura had only been able to hit it.
In the public's perception, therefore, PL title winners were not held in as high regard as those of the CL. Adding to the Central League's overall snob appeal was the fact that although Americans Wally Yonamine and Felix Millan had won CL batting titles, no gaijin had ever won a home run title in that league. Since the CL home run crown was the most coveted of all titles in Japanese ball, the fans could take some measure of comfort in knowing that there was at least one important area of their game that was still "pure."
In fact, American players in Japan had long considered it an impossibility for any one of them to capture that particular prize. They believed the league pitchers, and the umpires, would simply never allow this gem to fall into foreign hands.
That is, until an American named Randy Bass came along.
Bass was a blond-haired, bearded first baseman who came to the Hanshin Tigers at age 28 in 1983. At 6'1" and an adipose 210 pounds, Bass was a left handed power hitter who had hit many home runs in the minor leagues, but only nine in the majors where he warmed the bench for several teams. "I don't want to be like those other guys and complain that I never got my chance," he said on coming to Japan, "I got called up six times. A lot of guys never get called up once. I just didn't do it."
In Japan, Bass shortened his big American-style stroke to adjust to the slower, breaking-ball style of pitching and also learned to poke the ball into the opposite field stands. In 1983, he hit .288 with 35 homers and 83 RBI's, and in 1984, he hit .326 with 27 homers and 73 RBI's, despite missing several weeks of the season due to his father's death. Said Warren Cromartie, with whom Bass played briefly on the Expos, "In America, Bass was a good hitter who never got much of a chance to show what he could do. But he improved a hell of a lot in Japan. In my opinion, right now he could be the starting first baseman for any number of major league teams."
Bass really burst forth in 1985. By the All-Star break of that year, he had 30 home runs and his Tigers were in first place for the first time in nearly a decade. Because of their perennial bridesmaid status, some people had compared Hanshin to the Chicago Cubs. Now that they were winning, much of the country was struck with Tiger fever. Moreover, Bass was several games ahead of the home-run pace set by Sadaharu Oh when he established the Japan single-season home-run mark of 55 in 1964 – a state of affairs which caused far more than a little alarm among Japanese baseball purists.
One day in July, over lunch at Tokyo's Trader Vic's in the Hotel New Otani, Cromartie turned to Bass and said, "You know, Randy, the Japanese will hate you if you break Oh's record."
Bass nodded and stared out the window at the stone lanterns in the Otani garden, deep in thought. "But they'll never let me do it," he said finally, "I'll get to 54 and they'll start walking me. You'll see. They'll never let a gaijin break a record like that."
In the second half of the season, Bass continued hitting home runs, helping the Tigers stay atop the league. By September 15, he had 46. Although he hit only one more in the next two weeks, he was still ahead of Oh's pace because there were still many rained-out games to be made up.
When Bass hit home run number 49 in Hiroshima on October 12, there were still eight games left on the schedule. He hit four more home runs in the next five days as the Tigers clinched the pennant and after hitting number 53, Bass confided to a friend that he was getting a little scared. "As a foreigner," he said, "I don't know if this is the proper thing to do."
On October 20th, Bass hit number 54, putting him one behind Oh with two games left – which was fate would have it were against the Giants, now managed by Oh. In the penultimate game on October 22 before 58,000 spectators at Koshien Stadium near Osaka, he singled in his first at bat, walked his second and popped out his third versus Giant starter Suguru Egawa. Egawa tipped his cap to show Bass the walk was not intentional, but a Giant reliever was less accommodating, making four straight deliveries to the American which were nearly out of the catcher's reach.
The stage was thus set for the final game on October 24th at Korakuen Stadium, Tokyo. On a clear, crisp autumn afternoon with 30,000 people leaning forward in eager anticipation, Bass stepped up to bat in the first inning. High atop the centerfield scoreboard, the Giant flag snapped and fluttered in the wind. Sunlight glinted off the bust of Oh in the right field stands.
Bass took four straight balls on pitches so far outside the strike zone they were un-hittable. Tiger fans in the outfield cheering section screamed their disapproval and angrily brandished their yellow megaphones. Oh watched expressionless from the bench.
Bass's next at bat in the third inning was a repeat of the first. So was the one after that in the sixth inning. After looking at three consecutive balls in that particular trip to the batter's box, Bass lunged in frustration at an outside curve which a Giant relief pitcher had accidentally thrown too close to the plate and poked a fluke single to center field. It was the only time he reached base on a hit. In his final two appearances, even a boat oar would not have helped him hit the ball. After Bass's final walk, angry Tiger fans pelted the field with beer cans, bottles and other missiles, but no one else in the park seemed to be very upset. Giants supporters, wearing their orange and black cheering uniforms, giggled their approval in the right field cheering section.
All of the newspapers the next morning ran factual accounts of Bass's failure to break the record, along with Oh's denial that he had ordered his pitchers to walk Bass. They did not carry any outraged editorials on fairness in sport or any suggestion that Bass's 54 home runs in a 130-game season be regarded as special because Oh had hit his 55 when the league played a 140-game schedule.
Also missing was any mention of something Keith Comstock, an American pitching for the Giants that year, told Bass. Prior to the final game, Comstock had said a certain Giants coach had taken his pitchers aside and threatened them with a hefty $1,000 fine for every strike they threw to Bass. "I lost respect for Oh when I heard that," said Bass, bitterly dejected. "Perhaps he himself didn't directly order his pitchers to walk me. But then again, I'm sure that in the back of his mind he didn't want his record broken."
Bass won more titles in that year than Baskin-Robbins Japan has ice cream flavors. He led in average (.350), home runs (54), RBI's (134), hits (176), doubles (54), game-winning hits (22) – also a new Japan record, slugging percentage (.718), on-base percentage (.428) and total bases (357). He also led in post-game celebratory beers consumed.
Bass was voted the Central League's Most Valuable Player, and after hitting three homers in six games to lead the Tigers over the Seibu Lions in the Japan Series, he won the Japan Series MVP as well. He was feted at a number of off-season award ceremonies, which were more lucrative than he had ever dreamed. "Every time I turned around someone was trying to give me money," said Bass, "One man took me in a back room and said, 'Randy, I'll give you $10,000 in cash right now, if you'll stay here one more day.' He counted it out right in front of me."
Bass's batting exploits even won him recognition in the U.S. He was a guest on "Nightline" and on the David Letterman Show, where he deadpanned, "It's just as well they walked me. If I had broken Oh's record, they probably would have taken away my visa."
In the wake of the Tigers' Cinderella year and his own profligacy, Bass became more popular than anyone ever imagined an American ballplayer in Japan could become. The following year Bass T-shirts debuted on the market, along with a Bass candy bar. There was even a "Bass Kit" for kids which contained a glove, a bat, a uniform with Bass's number 44 on the back, and a fake blond beard.
Bass also appeared in a number of commercials, including one for Gillette in which he shaved off his now-famous beard, and another one for a life insurance company in which he waltzed with his wife in formal ballroom attire.
Many of the younger generation sympathized with him for the cavalier way in which the Giants had denied him his chance at the home run mark. A leading talk show host openly condemned the Giants. "If Bass has the ability to break the record," he said, "Then give him the opportunity." Added writer Masayuki Tamaki, then 33, "People like me grew up watching foreigners. We're not prejudiced like our fathers were. It's time to accept gaijin as equals." Said one young secretary, summing up the general attitude of the New Breed, "Oh's a wimp."
The fans took to Bass for his quiet, unassuming manner, his lack of condescension and the way he always gave credit to his teammates. "Shucks," he would say in his Oklahoma drawl, "if it hadn't been for a great leadoff hitter like Mayumi always on base when I came up and home run hitters like Kakefu and Okada behind me, I never would have gotten so many good pitches to hit and I wouldn't have won all those titles."
Teammate Kozo Kawato had great admiration for Bass. "We call him 'Sky' because he's so big and sunny," he told an Asahi Shimbun reporter. "When he asked me to teach him to play shogi (Japanese chess), I told him he'd have to treat me like a teacher then and give me a proper bow. He did. He understands Japanese feelings."
Such praise was touching. Bass, however, was not about to apply for permanent residency. He made it clear, in his open, honest way, that baseball, Japanese or otherwise, was not the top priority in his life. He did not like to travel and the frequent separations from his family. It was not a pleasant life, he said, and if it weren't for the enormous sums of money that ballplayers were paid he did not see how anyone would want to play baseball for a living.
In Japan it was even worse, he would say. The games were longer, the season dragged on, and the press was always there. One reporter broke into his new house atop Mt. Rokko to get photos for a magazine. Another flew all the way to his home in Lawton, Oklahoma, in the dead of winter and camped outside his front door waiting for "photo opportunities." It wore on his nerves.
"I like and respect the Japanese people," Bass said, "But frankly, back home I can't impress anyone with what I have done because no one knows anything about the Japanese game. They think the only thing is the major leagues. I can't even talk to them about Japan because they just wouldn't understand. Hell, they wouldn't believe me if I told them half of the things that happened here."
One of the things they would not comprehend was the way Bass had been criticized for leaving the team in midyear to be at his father's deathbed in 1981. He was called irresponsible and self-centered. When he returned to Japan, an incredulous Bass replied, "How the hell can you put a game ahead of someone you love?"
Bass's wife Linda was even more dubious about life in Japan. "Before coming, I had expected that everything would be pretty and green because when you read about Japan in magazines back in the U.S., you see pictures of tea gardens and nice trees. But they put us up in a hotel. The room was real small and the bed so short Randy's legs stuck out. We kept telling ourselves it was better in Mexico.
"Randy was never home. I only saw him a couple of hours a day when the Tigers were on a home stand. The worst day I can remember was the time I got sick. I had a fever of 103 degrees. I was in bed. I couldn't get up. And I had a 9-month-old baby and a two-year-old boy to take care of. There was nobody to help me. That particular day there was no game, but there was a practice session. I asked Randy if he could take the day off. But the team refused. They wouldn't let him come home. I thought that was too much.
"I thought I would meet more of the wives of the Tiger players than I did, but none of them go to the games.
"The club didn't really want me to come anyway. The first year I was here, I asked about getting tickets to the games, and a Hanshin official told me not to come. He said that in Japan, it's not the custom for the wife to go to the ballpark.
"When I finally did go to the stadium, they gave me a seat far away from the infield by myself back up behind some post where it was hard to see.
"I got to like it better, though, the more I stayed. The Japanese people are nice people and everything, but we still felt lost. All in all, Oklahoma is better."
The rapidity with which Bass went from hero to scapegoat in 1986 amazed even veteran observers who were used to seeing violent oscillations in the fortunes of foreign imports. When Bass asked for a three-year contract worth over a million dollars a year, along with permission to arrive in camp two weeks late, team officials reluctantly acquiesced, but did not hide their dismay at his "extravagant" demands. In training, when he half-heartedly shuffled through workouts because it was "too cold," then headed for the golf course, coaches accused him of getting a big head. His arrival 17 minutes late for one morning practice was headline news in Osaka sports dailies.
When the Tigers faltered at the starting gate, it was Bass, hitting in the low .200's, who was singled out by his manager Yoshio Yoshida for blame. Although others on the team were not performing well either, Yoshida told reporters, "It's all up to Bass. When he starts hitting, we'll start hitting."
TV commentators made frequent reference to Bass's new salary, wondering out loud what incentive he could possibly have now that he was wealthy beyond anyone's wildest dreams. When word got out that Bass owned an Apple IIC computer, which he would toy with each night after the game, one writer said, "This shows Bass is not really serious about baseball. Serious ballplayers are supposed to come home at night, watch the baseball news, then go directly to sleep, their minds strictly on the game."
It was almost as if the previous summer had never happened.
Because of a mix-up in communications in one early-season game, Bass, who had been nursing a bad leg, thought he had been taken out for defense in the final inning. As he began picking up his gear, Yoshida yelled at him, "Where do you think you're going?"
The next day, a sports daily played up Bass's Great Escape attempt on page one. "WAGAMAMA (Selfish!) BASU!" the headlines howled. "Yoshida Furious!" No reporter had bothered to ask Bass his side of the story, nor had Yoshida felt obliged to take Bass's part.
All of this set the stage for Bass to counterattack in a highly controversial magazine interview later that season. In it, Bass took exception to Yoshida for benching many of the veteran players who helped the Tigers win their pennant the previous year and for bunting so much. Said Bass, "If there's a runner on first and I'm in the on-deck circle, Yoshida sacrifice bunts him to second and that automatically ensures that I get walked. It's stupid. I've never seen a manager make so many mistakes. He doesn't seem to care whether we win or lose."
For this, Bass was fined several thousand dollars and once more bombarded by righteous newspaper editors. "VERBAL POLLUTION!" screeched a headline in the Daily Sports. According to teammate Rich Gale, however, when Bass walked into the clubhouse the day after the interview appeared, many of his Japanese teammates broke out into grateful applause.
Some publications contrived ways of getting at Bass. Focus Magazine ran a mock ad of a new product, "BASU-CLEAN" (Bass and bath are homonyms in the Japanese language). It featured a photo-shop paste-up of Bass sitting in a Western-style bath, pouring "BASU-CLEAN" liquid soap into the water. Underneath ran the following copy:
"Had a hard day hitting home runs in tiny stadiums and then being walked by gutless pitchers? That's the time to put 'BASU-CLEAN' in your bath and sit back and think about those days in the major leagues when you sat on the bench.
"When you do that, you realize that Japan is not such a bad place after all. In press interviews, all you have to do is say you're thinking only of the team, even if you really aren't. Then you can take your money back to the U.S. and start a new business. For making money, you'll find there's no better place than Japan."
BASS RECOVERED FROM HIS APRIL SLUMP (although his teammates did not). He hit the .400 mark in June and stayed there for the next three months. Now he threatened the Japan single season mark of .383 held by Isao Harimoto. A flurry of magazine articles appeared on how to get him out, replete with computerized graphs and statistical studies. One story, written by retired star pitcher Yutaka Enatsu, was entitled, "If Bass hits .400, it will be the shame of the Central League."
Bass was nonplussed: "How come all anyone talks about is how to stop me?" he asked acerbically. "If the Japanese Self-Defense Force worked as hard as everyone in the media has been working to find my batting weaknesses, then Japan would have the strongest military force in the world."
As it turned out, Bass had learned something from his experience of the previous year. When his batting average fell below .400 in the final days of the season, he made a private vow to remove himself from the lineup if and when he dipped to a .384. As Bass put it, "I knew that once I fell below Harimoto's mark, the pitchers wouldn't pitch to me and I'd never get back up. So I had decided to bench myself for the rest of the year to protect the record. You might say I learned the Japanese style."
Bass's last stand proved unnecessary, however, as he finished with a new mark of .389. He also led the league with 47 homers and 109 RBI's to win his second straight Triple Crown. The Japanese press tried hard not to pay attention. Bass's new mark was perhaps the least-covered record-breaking achievement in the history of Japanese sports journalism. When Bass left the Tigers two years later, the Nikkan Sports summed up his career in a page-one story. The paper listed his statistics and major achievements. But nowhere was there any mention of his league record of .389. As one fan put it, "I think lots of Japanese are blocking it out. They still think Harimoto holds the record."
Moreover, the writers voted the 1986 Most Valuable Player award to pitcher Manabu Kitabeppu of the pennant-winning Carp, who had a record of 18-4, with an ERA of 2.43. The Matsutaro Shoriki award, inaugurated in 1977 for "the most outstanding baseball figure of the year," went to Masahiko Mori, rookie manager of the Japan Champion Seibu Lions. As one spokesman for the award committee reportedly put it, "There were no splendid players this year, that's why we chose Mori."
Harimoto, now reduced to former-record-holder status, suggested closing the barn door. "Let's have Asian baseball for the Asians only," he said in a post-season TV interview. "The gaijin are going to take all of our records and that won't be very much fun."
Bass's trials and tribulations continued. Like a character in some tragicomic opera, controversy swirled around him. In March 1988, three days after his teammate Kakefu, a popular player who had once hit 48 home runs in a season, was arrested for drunk driving, Bass was stopped by a Kobe traffic cop for driving 11 miles over the speed limit in a 25-mile-per-hour zone and taken in for questioning. The news of his "apprehension" was flashed on TV in special bulletins along with his picture as if he had been on the Ten Most Wanted List. Said Bass, " By the time I arrived at the police station there was a crowd of reporters waiting for me. It seemed to me that the whole thing had been staged to take the heat off Kakefu."
Bass played much of 1987 with a bad back, hitting .320 with 37 homers. The Tigers fell to last place, 37.5 games out of first place, and Yoshida was forced to resign. New manager Minoru Murayama took over with a plan to revive the Tigers into a "bright team with hot blood." That meant no more special privileges for Bass and his teammate Matt Keough who had joined Hanshin in 1987.
"Bass and Keough are just gaijin suketto (helpers)," said Murayama, "That's all I'm viewing them as. It's only natural that they should do well since they are being paid more than Japanese players ever dream of. However, the real leaders of the team are Kakefu (who batted .227 with 12 home runs hitting in the cleanup spot all of the previous year) and Okada (who batted .225 with 14 home runs). It's strange in a general to rely on gaijin."
Murayama agreed with the newspaper columnist, a former Tiger star, who wrote, "A gaijin can never be the real leader of a Japanese team because his main interest is only money."
In May of that year, Bass's eight-year-old son Zachary was discovered to have a brain tumor and Bass took him to San Francisco for surgery on a "compassionate leave" granted by the Tigers – without pay. When Bass postponed his scheduled return a month later, the Tigers abruptly released him and announced the signing of a new American, Rupert Jones. A Tiger spokesman was quoted as saying: "There's no way Bass could be physically or mentally ready to play after so long away from the game. Even if he came back right now, he wouldn't be able to help the team."
Americans wondered how the Tiger management could do something like that. At the very least, they thought, Bass could have been kept on the inactive list in anticipation of his return the following year. Indeed, it would have been utterly inconceivable for a Japanese player of Bass' stature to be dropped in such circumstances. But then again, as many, many commentators were quick to point out, no Japanese player would ever have left his team for such a reason. In the corporate nation that is Japan, the company always comes first, even before a family crisis.
Many Japanese seemed deeply moved by Bass's plight. Cards and gifts from well-wishers flowed into his residence. One person sent a thousand hand-folded paper cranes. At the same time, it was difficult to many diehard Tiger fans to accept the fact that while their beloved Tigers were floundering in the second division their big American gun was several thousand miles away. No matter that Bass' son's life was in danger and that a "shunt" pipe had been inserted into his skull. Regardless of he reality, it looked like, once again, the gaijin was taking the Japanese lightly. As a result, several fan groups put pressure on the Tiger management to do something.
Hiring another big American home-run hitter with Bass still officially on the team would, it was felt, only make an awkward situation even more uncomfortable. So letting Bass go was deemed the best option.
As the story unfolded further, however, it turned out that Hanshin had other reasons for releasing Bass. One, it appeared, was a reluctance to pay the Bass family medical expenses which the team had contractually obligated itself to do. Tiger officials had originally made the agreement thinking, perhaps, that they would only be accountable for cold pills and the like. But Bass's son had begun undergoing regular radiation treatments which were potentially very expensive, and no one in the Hanshin organization had bothered to take out medical insurance.
Bass claimed he had been unfairly let go, that the team was legally bound to pay off his salary in full – all two year's worth – as well as the medical costs. The Tigers retorted that Bass had violated a written agreement he had signed prior to his departure that he would return to Japan by mid-June. Bass replied that a Tiger representative had told him by phone that he could stay in the U.S. until his son's condition stabilized. When the Tigers denied this, Bass produced a tape recording he had made of the phone conversation. Soon, Bass was talking through his lawyer.
Upon Bass's departure, some Japanese confessed respect and admiration for his decision to stick by his family at the risk of his job. In the wake of a recent survey which showed that most Japanese children prized their personal computers more than they did their fathers, prominent writers and commentators wondered if it wasn't time for Japanese to start rethinking their own values. Said one TV reporter, "Basu-san has taught us that there are things more important than work."
The response of the powers-that-be in Japanese baseball was less enlightened. There was much talk among upper management and certain newspaper columnists of "reconsidering" attitudes toward foreign ballplayers, which of course was the standard knee-jerk reaction in such cases. Sighed one team general manager, "There's always problems like this with the gaijin. It's tiring. We should spend our money developing young Japanese."
Added Harimoto: "Foreign players are just not a good example for young people. As a side attraction they might be OK, but they are too big and too muscular for kids to try to emulate."
ROBERT WHITING's new book You Gotta Have Wa follows his popular study of baseball and Japanese culture The Chrysanthemum and the Bat.
Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley