March 22, 2009

FACE-OFF AT THE RAVINE:

Mutual respect between US and Japan: Semifinal matchup features two nations with storied baseball history (John Schlegel, 3/22/09, MLB.com)

The U.S.-Japan relationship in baseball has seen players exported and imported each way over the last few decades, from the current wave of Japanese players making their mark on the Major Leagues dating back to when some American players -- called gaijin, or foreigners -- began extending their careers in Japan.

Players such as Davey Johnson, now manager of Team USA.

The former third baseman was the first gaijin ever to play for the storied Yomiuri Giants, joining them in 1975 and '76.

"I really had a good time playing for the Tokyo Giants. Many tomodachis, many friends," Johnson recalled Friday as his team began preparations to play the defending Classic champs in the semis. "It was a great experience. I had a great teammate in Oh-san [Japanese home-run king Sadaharu Oh], and a great manager in Nagashima-san [former star third baseman and manager Shigeo Nagashima]. And I know the team playing there now is managed by a great third baseman, Hara-san, currently managing the Tokyo Giants.

"I'm looking for it to be a great ballgame. A lot of my tomodachis now are doing other things, Takada-san, managing the Yakult Swallows, so I try to keep up with what they're doing over there, and I talked to Hara-san and wished him luck and he did the same to me."

Johnson -- who struggled through '75 but led the Giants to the postseason in '76 -- and Hara shared common ground that goes beyond their resumes as managers in international competition.

That would be the dirt surrounding third base at Korakuen Stadium, where the Giants played before Tokyo Dome opened in 1988. Hara was the team's third baseman starting in 1982 until he retired in 1996.

"I really don't know [Johnson] well myself, but I understand he was wearing the Tokyo Giants uniform in Japan, so in that sense he was an "old boy" of the Tokyo Giants. I feel familiar with him," Hara said. "And Reggie Smith [who played for the Giants for two seasons after his 17 years in the Majors] is also a coach on the U.S. team, so those are two people that I respect that we have to play against. So I would like to be able to fight against them, and Japan to be proud of us."

During the tournament, Hara has mentioned several times his respect for the American game, since, after all, that was where it all began.

And Hara remembers the star who caught his eye -- Babe Ruth, who incidentally made appearances in Japan as a player, helping the early internationalization of America's pastime.

"At first, I read the story about Babe Ruth," he said. "And, of course, before that, Major League Baseball, I knew about that. I had some knowledge about that. And then when I read the Babe Ruth book, and I was so interested about that, that was when I was in grade school, a student, maybe second grade, maybe third grade."

More to the present issue, there is a rivalry brewing on the international stage. In the last 13 meetings between the clubs, Japan has won six times. But Team USA's four-game winning streak includes a victory in the 2006 Classic and two wins in the 2008 Summer Olympic games in Beijing.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 22, 2009 9:13 AM
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