The Hot Corner Archive
I have been writing the Hot Corner for The Daily Yomiuri since February
1999. The following columns have survived the test of time. In this case
the biggest test is avoiding accidental erasure or hard disk failure...
Week by week, I'll be adding more oldies to the archive.
Is Kazuo Matsui for real? Here is a guy who has all the physical talent
in the world as well as the brains and discipline to make it come together.
After the most irregular and unappealing season in over 10 years, the Yokohama
BayStars have brought in a pitcher whose biggest ambition is consistency.
Hideki Matsui never likes to cause a fuss unless it's with his home runs.
But like the misunderstood monster Godzilla, whose coarse complexion prompted
Matsui's nickname as a youngster, the left-handed power hitter has created
a reputation for leaving chaos in his wake.
Instead of a majestic array of major league stars, Japanese fans have witnessed
the signs of a whole constellation collapsing in one monumental cataclysm.
Hideki Matsui has left the Yomiuri Giants for the major leagues, and if
things go his way, left-handed pitcher Kimiyasu Kudo may be next. "I'm
38--the same age as Randy Johnson," said the 39-year-old Kudo, who was
right about the second fact while perhaps in self denial about the first.
The disturbance, correctly identified as a sonic boom, was indeed created
by the local speed merchants: not maverick ASDF jet jockeys but the Seibu
Lions, who were busy falling out of the Japan Series at the speed of sound.
Even fans of other teams are drawn to a Series with the Giants, you want
to see if they can be beaten--and if they are beaten, how badly and embarrassingly.
Simply put, there is a fascination with the Giants' fate.
After all is done and later said, Alex Cabrera did not hit that magic 56th
home run and admitted on Monday that given another chance he would have
gone about it in a different way.
Last year, Tuffy Rhodes mounted the first serious challenge to the 55-home
run barrier since 1985, and fans ate up the excitement his pursuit generated.
In an effort to jack No. 56 out of the park, Rhodes started swinging at
every pitch within spitting distance, and Fukuoka pitchers furthered his
frustration by testing how far Rhodes could spit. The scenario, with a
few modifications, was replayed last weekend in the Seibu Lions' Alex Cabrera's
hunt for Homer 56.
Although they still have games to play, the vivid images of the Tigers'
terrific season was one of the electric currents running through the Central
League this year.
...You don't see a crowd of this size--Koshien was packed to the rafters--staying
till the end of a five-hour game for nothing. No disrespect for the great
fans who support the other 10 teams, but this was Japanese baseball at
its best: Tigers and Giants, extra innings in a game where the Tigers could
make a statement by preventing the Giants from rolling to the pennant in
the middle of an eight-game winning streak.
Training techniques can become so well established that function no longer
dictates their form and activities that were once goal-oriented tasks become
With the Yomiuri Giants playing mediocre baseball, the Yakult Swallows
are back in the Central League pennant race. There's no question which
team has been more impressive this season. The Giants have been the class
of the league ever since midseason, when the wind left the Hanshin Tigers'
sails like the air leaving 45,000 balloons before the bottom of the seventh
inning at Koshien.
The level of baseball will always be handicapped as long as the umpiring
is poor and managers and coaches are free to run roughshod over the overmatched
umps with little fear of league discipline. While the past week has been
blessfully free of the brand of hooliganism most recently displayed by
Tigers head coach Koichi Tabuchi, it was pretty typical in terms of bad
decisions on the part of the men in blue.
However awkward the Seibu Lions' Kazuhiro Wada looks teeter tottering as
he tries to time pitchers' deliveries, once the ball leaves the pitcher's
hand, it's in jeopardy of being hit and hit hard.
A strike will harm everyone. However, the solution being hammered out,
a luxury tax to curb spending, has nothing to do with the problem. Major
League baseball derives enormous profits from its monopoly status. These
are then divided between the owners who own the most lucrative territories
and the players.
Imbalance is caused by owners owning exclusive rights to local revenue
in vastly different markets--not paying free market salaries to players.
If Hawks rookie Hayato Terahara or Lions ace Daisuke Matsuzaka throws two
straight shutouts, it's taken as confirmation of the greatness we expect
from them. But when the perpetrator is Hayato Nakamura or Takashi Aiki,
the first impulse is to write it off as a curiosity.
Last year, Nakamura was the proverbial flash in the pan. But his spark
was easily overlooked with Nippon Ham already out of the frying pan and
well on the way to its rendezvous with the fire.
With the threat of becoming a satellite of Major League Baseball Inc.,
looming as a distinct possibility, Japanese owners badly need to revive
Matsutaro Shoriki's ambitious dream as a model for re-making baseball here--not
as a junior partner to the North American game but as a vibrant, dynamic
rival that competes on equal terms for the most talented players in the
Baseball lost one of its great characters on Tuesday, when Masayasu Okada,
the man who brought green plastic umbrellas and the Tokyo Ondo to Jingu
Stadium, died of pneumonia at the age of 71.
OK. Joaquin Andujar is not pitching in Fukuoka, at least not in person.
But his legacy lives on in Hawks pitcher Kenichi Wakatabe's multiple personalites.
For once, two All-Star games seemed like a perfect number. For this summer
at least, Japanese baseball had the greatest show on Earth. Not long after
the major league All-Star managers provided the anticlimax for the ages
with a tie game, fans here got a double dose of the real thing.
The great thing about the All-Star Game, or rather All-Star games, is the
tradition of confrontation between each league's best players. Unlike the
regular season, when play is often dictated by gamesmanship, the summer
series is more about a show of individual skills. But this great and entertaining
tradition is colliding with another: the tiresome habit of ignoring pitchers'
overwork in Japan.
As the world changes and sports marketing becomes increasingly global,
baseball leagues, like the top soccer leagues, can make money from selling
their televised product around the world--but only if there is someone
who wants to pay to watch. Organizing meaningful international competition
is the way to build that interest.
Just as injuries to a team's big names provides an artless answer to a
manager's critics, they also create opportunities to experiment. As often
as not, teams lack the talent they need to be much more competitive because
the organization lacks the vision or creativity to see what it's players
can actually do.
The Lion King has thrown in the towel in the battle for Sapporo. For three
months, Seibu owner Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, in an effort to protect his club's
modest investments in the Hokkaido metropolis, had tried to block the Nippon
Ham Fighters from pulling up stakes in Tokyo and emigrating to Hokkaido.
Tsutsumi had insisted all along that the last thing Sapporo needed was
a baseball team to call its own--unless, of course, that team was the Lions,
who were planning to play up to a third of their home games at Sapporo
Why are baseball owners saying, "There will be PKs in OUR time"--thus taking
a page out of Neville Chamberlain's play book? What fans do they hope to
gain? What's next, appointing FIFA to organize ticket sales? One look at
a Nippon Ham Fighters' weeknight crowd might suggest this is already occurring.
Are those blocks of uniformed students actually paying to get in as part
of school excursions, or are they there for show in the same way South
Korean Cup organizers have taken to packing empty seats with school kids?
In a perfect world, if you have a 32-year-old veteran who is barely good
enough to play everyday and a 24-year-old who is exactly as good, then--barring
evidence to the contrary--you'd play the 24-year-old and tell the veteran
to either accept a part-time role or find a new occupation. The world doesn't
work like that, of course, whether it's baseball, yakyu or your workplace.
It might not be any more pronounced in Japan than in the majors, but it
sure seems like it some times.
OK. The games are faster, slightly. The 64,000 yen question is whether
or not they are better. For a lot of people, a better game means pitchers
working quickly, the defense making great plays and runners challenging
fielders' arms. Watching batters going to the plate knowing they are in
a hole to begin with is no one's idea of fun, at least not unless one is
a pitching coach.
Baseball lost a passionate voice on Monday, when paleontologist Stephen
Jay Gould died at the age of 60 from cancer. A Harvard professor best known
for his prolific and popular writings on science and evolution, Gould focused
his keen insight on baseball in numerous articles about the sport he loved.
Of all the wonderful ideas and concepts that analyst Bill James has contributed
over the years, one of the easiest to overlook is his assertion that a
lot of what we think of as pitching is actually defense. Nowhere was this
more apparent than in last weekend's battle for first place in the Central
League between the Yomiuri Giants and the Hanshin Tigers at Tokyo Dome.
After starting off the pennant race on the wrong foot, the Yomiuri Giants
have been on a roll. For Giants fans, this is a welcome change from the
first two weeks of the season, when freshman skipper Tatsunori Hara was
outmanaged and outmaneuvered on a nightly basis.
Sooner or later it's going to dawn on the lords of the game that cutting
at-bats per game with a larger strike zone does little to eliminate dead
The new zone is here, but no one seems to know exactly what it is. It seems
that telling the umps to change their view of the world has caused them
to lose control of the one thing most of them were good at--calling pitches
inside and outside.
Why should anyone care how the Hawks use Terahara? Hideo Nomo is a good
pitcher now, but his best years were long gone before he ever threw a pitch
in the majors. The Kintetsu Buffaloes made sure of that by giving Nomo
abusive workloads for four straight seasons.
Talk about a fast start. The Hanshin Tigers sprinted out of the gate like
their uniforms were on fire. Their 7-0 start was the club's first since
the Japan League played two seasons a year, one in the spring and one in
the fall, back when Korea was a part of the Japanese empire.
Despite his image as a cold autocrat, Seibu Lions owner Yoshiaki Tsutsumi,
proved last week that he has a soft spot for Hokkaido. He demonstrated
his fondness for the people of Sapporo by warning them of the dangers of
having their own baseball team.
The Nippon Ham Fighters stunned many in the baseball world with the announcement
last Wednesday that they were making plans to move the team to Sapporo.
While there has been talk for years that one of three PL teams, the Fighters,
Orix BlueWave and Seibu Lions would head take up residence in Sapporo,
the Lions had appeared to have the lead in the race.
The fans of the Hanshin Tigers aren't the only ones who wish the season
could start yesterday. Long-time Dragon lord Senichi Hoshino has breathed
some fire into his new charges. And his Koshien cats, whom many thought
were extinct, have been on the prowl
Hope springs eternal, but it takes a lot of optimism to see order, let
alone hope, springing from the chaos that surrounds the Pacific League's
Nippon Ham Fighters.
It's time to say goodbye to sky rocketing franchise values, and Daiei,
a name famous for bargain prices, is leading the deflationary spiral.
In addition to having to shell out for transporting farm team underlings
around the country, teams are also faced with the cost of maintaining dormitories,
practice grounds and dining halls. In addition to this is the cost of staff
needed to cook, clean and see that the youngsters brush their teeth as
well as bunt.
Warehousing players in farm systems is now the established and expected
practice, but that doesn't make it right. It is a detriment to the development
of both players and the game itself. If an organization keeps players it
cannot use and under employs them on the bench or in a less competitive
league, those players are unable to seek work elsewhere, where they can
rise as high as their ability--as opposed to their organization's depth
chart--will take them.
Although the rabbit ball is an urban myth of impressive proportions in
the U.S., there is documented evidence of the creature in Japan.
Unfortunately, every time major league owners have acted in unison, something
bad has resulted. Owner unity has resulted in preserving the color barrier
until 1947, a collusive boycott of free agents, and a disastrous strike
in 1994. So, when major league owners agree on something, it's time to
check if you can't smell a rat.
Although society has continued to rush onward like Kazuo Matsui lighting
out for second base, baseball games have become mired in details, discussion
and delays. The action is there but in between there are numbing numbers
of throws to first base, batters standing out of the batters box adjusting
themselves, and more conferences at the mound than a U.N. convention.
Despite the swirling cloud of debt that is rising around the headquarters
of the Daiei supermarket chain, don't expect to see the Hawks go on the
auction block anytime soon. Daiei has reportedly been looking for a purchaser
for several years, but the company is no closer to finding a buyer for
the Hawks than it is of making customers at its discount-oriented supermarkets
feel like they're shopping at Harrods.
While the posting system enables Japanese clubs to enrich themselves by
selling players before they can go to the majors as free agents, you would
be hard pressed to find anyone with a good word to say about it.
Seeing Mets GM Steve Phillips in action this winter, one gets the impression
he spent his formative years separating suckers from their cash by running
three-card Monte and shell games. The story we didn't read from the recently
concluded winter meetings in Boston was that Phillips spent most of his
time in a hotel hallway while suspicious but greedy GMs hovered around
his card table.
Serious trouble is brewing for baseball on both sides of the Pacific this
winter. Major league owners have decided that contraction is a viable method
to blackmail its host communities, while in Japan, the Yokohama BayStars
are now owned by a company that has a minority interest in the Yakult Swallows.
Tired of having a draft system that satisfied no one, baseball's best and
brightest have tied a Gordian knot that will infuriate everyone. For anyone
who remembers being frustrated by new math, the new draft will bring a
wave of nostalgia, nausea or both.
Now we have seen it all. Nothing seemed too unusual when manager Kazuhiro
Yamauchi rushed out of the visitors dugout at Tokyo Dome last Thursday.
But instead of complaining about a call by the umpires, Yamauchi was questioning
the ages of the home players. The hosts were fielding four players under
the age of 40--in clear violation of the rules...
Iriki was as big a mystery to the Buffaloes hitters as he is to everyone
else. It's as if he were a southpaw in a previous existence. Asked for
a response to his first Japan Series win, Iriki answered, "My first win?
Well it's the first time I've done that in my life."
What a year for records. You have to love what Barry Bonds did, even if
you dislike Bonds for his history of treating people indifferently. Some
major league idiots said Bonds didn't deserve the record because the San
Francisco Giants slugger was not a very nice person.
So what if Shigeo Nagashima was not the greatest of managers, there's no
denying his appeal. Nagashima was an unbelievably popular superstar and
as generous and likable a guy as you'll ever find. Anybody who tells you
that Nagashima was in the dugout for his managing prowess needs his head
Now that wasn't so painful. On Monday, Sadaharu Oh, king of Japanese baseball,
was joined in the home run record book by Tuffy Rhodes of the Osaka Kintetsu
Buffaloes. After the tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth that surrounded
Randy Bass' 1985 quest for Oh's home run record, the feeling this year
seems to be that Rhodes' effort is a pretty impressive achievement--rather
than a disgrace for Japanese baseball.
Figuratively speaking, getting beat is part of the game. But in Japan,
a boy's education in the real world of baseball is based largely on arbitrary
beatings. "It's very much like the military tradition in Japan," said Kenichi
Yazawa, who was a Waseda University captain and later star first baseman
for the Chunichi Dragons...
For the umbrella-toting Tokyo Ondo-singing fans of the Yakult Swallows,
last weekend's sweep at the hands of the Yomiuri Giants put some doubts
about their club's Japan Series future.
The best thing about the Pacific League this year is how the home run race
between Alex Cabrera of the Seibu Lions and Tuffy Rhodes of the Osaka Kintetsu
Buffaloes is central to the discussion of which team will win the pennant.
Great numbers accomplished in the effort to win games are meaningful. But
accomplishing them in order to help your team win the biggest prize, that's
something else altogether.
There is a dimension beyond those known to baseball fans. It is a dimension
as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between
light and shadow, between science and superstition. With apologies to the
late great Rod Serling, this place is not the Twilight Zone, but rather
a black hole in Yokohama, a phenomenon that has been identified as the
cause for gaping holes in the BayStars' logic.
Call it what you like: mediocrity, inconsistency or parity. Whatever you
call it, fans are getting it in spades. With more than a month left in
the pennant races, nobody is laying a solid claim to a title. The Yakult
Swallows are this year's chief culprits in the Central League, while the
Fukuoka Daiei Hawks and Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes have to shoulder the blame
for making the Pacific League race as exciting as it is.
Everyone wants to talk about what it's like in first place. For the Osaka
Kintetsu Buffaloes' Tuffy Rhodes, it's an exhilarating feeling. But being
in last place, as the Buffaloes have done three times in Rhodes' last five
Yomiuri Giants manager Shigeo Nagashima does--or perhaps it's just his
fondness for oddball phrases.
As every horror-movie fan knows, the best intentions have a way of turning
out horribly wrong. Swallows manager Tsutomu Wakamatsu misplaced his secret
formula this season. Instead of reproducing the friendly inoffensive lineup
that reminded fans of the team's chubby mascot, he created a monster. The
Swallows have mutated into birds of prey.
If the pennant race comes down to motivation, it may be hard to beat the
Buffs, who know that Nakamura will not be with them much longer. The Osaka
native is set to go to the majors next season and the feeling on the team
is that this may be their best chance of winning a league title.
They come from out of the west, with a sound of thundering hoof beats,
a cloud of dust and a hearty hi-yo silver...OK, scratch the high hi-yo
silver, but like the Lone Ranger, the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes have been
one of the more mysterious stories this season.
The Chiba Lotte Marines have stolen a march on the rest of the Pacific
League in recent weeks. With a slew of well-pitched games and some clutch
hitting, Koji Yamamoto and his battalion have landed in the pennant race.
The Hiroshima Carp appear to be in a state of flux this season. They've
been hovering around .500 for most of the year with a team whose starters
have largely been determined by each day's casualty count.
It's hard to say why, but the silly season has come early. Some people
will no doubt tell you that Japan's baseball silly season begins each year
on Feb. 1 and ends on Jan. 31. Whenever it is, you know we are in the midst
"You never hear me say 'Can't miss,'" Greg "Boomer" Wells told this writer
last Saturday in a telephone interview. The subject was Ichiro Suzuki,
and Boomer, a 10-year veteran of Japanese ball says he was an early believer.
Contact Jim at email@example.com