Strangers in a Strange Land (miami), Four Japanese Baseball Players Find It Tough Getting to First Base

updated 07/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

On a hot Sunday afternoon during a recent Class A, Florida State League baseball game, the home plate umpire walked over to the water cooler in the Miami Marlins' dugout to get a drink of water. A Miami player was sprawled on the bench, his cap pulled low over his eyes. The umpire smiled at him. "How ya doin', kid?" he asked.

The player tipped back his cap and replied, "Kiss my—." Then he smiled and made a slight bow of his head to show respect, as he was taught to do on the baseball diamonds of Japan, where he grew up. The startled umpire stalked away, leaving the ballplayer, who knew little English, somewhat confused. After all, he had only been repeating an expression he had heard his American teammates use so many times before.

The newcomer is one of a group of Japanese baseball players sent to the Marlins by the Tokyo Giants for American seasoning. Fading and unwanted ballplayers from this country often prolong their careers in Japan. But this is the first year that the Japanese have used America as a training ground for their future superstars.

The current four—pitcher Yasushi Matsubara, 22, outfielder Mamoru Sugiura, 19, first baseman Shuji Inagaki, 23, and pitcher Hideharu Matsuo, 22—have major league ambitions but right now are the cream of the Giants' minor league crop. (A fifth, pitcher Masahito Watanabe, was just recalled to Japan by the Giants.) In Japan they were taught respect for umpires, tranquillity and the value of having a kind heart. In America they are being taught how to play tough—how to slide into second base with their spikes high to break up a double play, how to throw to back a batter off the plate and how to come onto pretty American girls with a lascivious grin and, "Ooooh, looking sweet, baby!"

The four were chosen to come to the U.S. because they are bright (Matsuo is an electronics expert, and his teammates are always asking him to fix their Sony TVs), big (all stand around 6' tall, making it easier for them to adapt to the powerful American style of baseball) and sorely in need of playing time. Japanese minor leagues play less than 50 games in a season; the FSL schedule calls for 142. The Marlins simply provide a playing field and instruction, while the Giants pick up their salaries (averaging $100 a month), rent and meal money, which is considerably cheaper now that the four eat at Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken instead of Benihana's sushi bar, which they did when they first arrived in April.

Home away from home is an apartment complex overlooking Miami Beach, where they are watched over by their coach, Toshimitsu Suetsugu. Suetsugu, in his 40s, was a legend in Japanese baseball when he played in the outfield with Sadaharu Oh, the Babe Ruth of Japan. Called "Coach Sweat Socks" (a very rough phonetic pronunciation of his name) by the American Marlins, he is a proud man, and yet he was willing to swallow his pride when he was given a Marlins' uniform number that would have been a disgrace in Japan. The team, which didn't have a number high enough to suit his status, gave him the number 42. "He got this terrible look on his face," recalls Kevin Koffman, the team's assistant general manager. "A Giants representative told me that the number 42 meant 'dead person' in Japan. He was worried people would think he came to America and died."

Coach Sweat Socks's job is to make sure his young charges learn only those aspects of the American game and life-style that are compatible with Japanese ways. It is a tight rope his players must walk, and sometimes they fall off.

When the youths were introduced three months ago at a press conference at Benihana's in Miami Beach, they were scared, unsmiling and did not speak. A photographer posed them for a picture. They fingered their hats in their laps. Coach told them to put on their hats. They did. He told them to smile. They did, in unison. Click. The coach told them to take off their hats. They did. Their smiles broke, in unison.

These days the players have tried experimenting with mustaches, which are frowned upon in Japan. Where once they suited up in coats and ties, they now favor jeans and T-shirts. Their attempts to learn English, however, have not met with much success. When Sugiura says goodbye, he yells out, "Hasta manana."

When they first moved into their two-bedroom apartment, they refused to go out very much. "They'd seen too many episodes of Miami Vice," says Koffman. "Now they spend their days walking up and down the beach, shopping and staring at the girls in bikinis."

No matter how often the guys leer at the ladies, however, they are still afraid of them. "They are too aggressive," Watanabe once explained. When asked if he could date an American girl, he said, "No way, José."

The communications gap can reach comical proportions. In their first game, one of the four instinctively made a little bow to the umpires before he caught himself. Now they no longer bow to umpires, nor are the pitchers afraid to brush back batters, another Japanese no-no. The first time manager Dan Norman told Watanabe to throw inside to a batter, he plunked the player in the back and then smiled at Norman for approval. Norman didn't have the heart to tell him he had only wanted a brush-back pitch.

Yet that is precisely the kind of savvy Coach Sweat Socks wants the players to learn. When they arrived, says Norman, "they didn't play an aggressive game. The batters waited for the pitcher to make a mistake instead of taking the initiative."

Now they play with as much gusto as any American player—up to a point. They will slide hard into second base, but when they are tagged hard, they make no response. "They don't throw tantrums," says Koffman. "They don't kick water coolers. That would be a loss of their 'wa,' tranquility."

No matter how Americanized the players have become, they still can't shake some of their traditional ways. They still eat a ritual meal of rice and steamed vegetables, cooked by Coach Sweat Socks, before every game. They all meditate in their apartment. When they get to the stadium they do many stretching exercises and often, in the bullpen, Matsuo will go through an elaborate martial arts routine while the opposition is taking batting practice. Koffman says it doesn't hurt for the other team to see that in case a rhubarb develops.

Matsuo and Watanabe have been the most successful of the players. The two batters, Inagaki and Sugiura, have had their share of problems with American pitchers, who throw much harder than their Japanese counterparts. They are struggling with batting averages around .230, while Matsuo, a sidearm, sinker-ball pitcher, has an ERA of 2.83 and a 3-2 record.

Their most painful problem is a universal one: homesickness. "They miss their girlfriends and their mothers," explains Shoko Brown, a 30-year-old former teacher of Japanese at the Berlitz School of Languages in Fort Lauderdale. "Japanese boys are very close to their mothers," Brown says. "I feel so sorry for these boys. They are so naive here. They can't tell what people are thinking. In Japan certain situations are understood. There are rules. In America everything is so open.

"When I talk to Coach Suetsugu," Brown continues, "I ask him what he expects his boys to learn. He says, 'I want them to learn all the physical things Americans can do, but retain all the mental things of Japan. I want them not to lose respect.' "

That isn't about to happen. In one recent game Inagaki slid into third with a triple. While he dusted himself off, the fans cheered. So he did what he had been taught to do: He bowed to them. The fans bowed back. He bowed. They bowed. Coach Sweat Socks finally yelled something from the dugout and the bowing stopped. Tradition is a hard habit to break.

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