- Eric Neel, Page 2 columnist
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Sometime this spring (maybe it's already happened), Daisuke Matsuzaka, the apple of every Beantown eye, the superstar in waiting, the man of a thousand pitches, is going to feel like a fish out of water. Sometime this spring, when the cameras aren't rolling and the crowds have thinned, he's going to feel like what he is: a stranger in a strange land, a kid trying to find his way in a new baseball world, a lonesome guy who'd kill for a really good piece of sushi and the flavor of his homeland.
And in that moment, Alex Ochoa, an eight-season major league veteran who recently signed a minor league deal with the Red Sox, is going to be Matsuzaka's best friend. Because in that moment, Alex Ochoa is going to be the only guy in Matsuzaka's new world who really knows how the big guy feels.
Ochoa began playing for the Chunichi Dragons in Nagoya, Japan, in the spring of 2003 (he would play four seasons there), and he remembers the disorientation of arriving in an unfamiliar country to play a very familiar game like it was yesterday.
"That feeling, at first, it's like you're just lost," he says. "The language, the customs, the approach to baseball -- it's all so different from anything you've ever experienced."
Like dozens of American-born players in the last 40 years, Ochoa was a gaijin (the Japanese word for foreigner), one of a handful of non-Japanese players imported each season by the 12 teams in Nippon Professional Baseball's two leagues. And as a gaijin, he experienced the highs and lows of following the game you love anywhere it takes you, even if that's across the Pacific and into the unknown.
"I felt I had to relearn the game I knew, and that was difficult," he says. "But there is such a passion for baseball there, with the fans chanting and singing throughout every game, that at the same time I felt lucky just to be a part of things."
If baseball in the States, even at the major league level, is associated with a kind of poetry and romance (the thrill of the grass, the pastoral sanctuary), in Japan -- for Japanese players, managers and teams -- the game is a mission, something always to be approached seriously, rigorously, relentlessly.
"From the first day of spring training, you see these guys throw two- and three-hundred pitch bullpens," says Kansas City Royals left-hander John Bale, who's played parts of four seasons in the bigs and spent three years with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp between 2004 and 2006. "The intensity of it blows you away."
If the West thinks of its players in terms of their desire, their individual striving, the East tends to privilege responsibility and commitment to the aims of the collective.
"It's more of a culture than a game," says Leon Lee, father of Chicago Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee, and a career .308 hitter in nine seasons in NPB between 1978 and 1987. "You have a duty, a duty to mentally and physically prepare yourself to play the game, a duty to work as a part of the group. The team concept, the wa [a Japanese term meaning harmony, peace, balance], is everything."
Such duty means practice is the prime directive and drills are the coin of the realm -- a regimented emphasis that sometimes mystifies gaijin ballplayers for whom practice is a prelude to the real thing, the game.
"It was wild; we never played a game in Japan unless we could take a full batting practice and a full infield practice. If it rained and BP was rained out, the game was called," says Terry Bross, who appeared in 12 games for the Mets and Giants between 1991 and 1993, and later pitched a no-hitter and won two games in the 1995 Japan Series as a member of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows (he spent four seasons with them).
The days are long, sometimes eight or 10 hours worth of drills, and the season is long, beginning with a 10-week spring training in early February and ending with the Japan Series in late October. Along the way, in pursuit of formal perfection and absolute harmony -- the ideal swing, the flawlessly executed double play, the unhittable backdoor slider, the foolproof bunt -- Japanese players and coaches repeat motions and methods, again and again and again, and they expect the gaijin to understand and appreciate the reasons why.
"It was different than anything I'd ever seen back home," Bross says. "You had to be very fluid and flexible in your approach to things to be over there. You couldn't come in with a chip on your shoulder. You had to accept that you didn't know everything there was to know, that you could learn from the experience."
"It's more of a culture than a game. You have a duty, a duty to mentally and physically prepare yourself to play the game, a duty to work as a part of the group. The team concept, the wa, is everything."
-- Leon Lee
Lee points to Japan's recent win in the inaugural World Baseball Classic and suggests there is something fundamentally appealing, something old-school rewarding, about the Japanese approach. What the gaijin are exposed to can provide something of a lesson for players back in the States, he thinks.
"The way they go out there and take practice time seriously, and do their work in the fundamentals, is great to see," Lee says. "If teams in the majors would approach it that way, they would each be fundamentally strong every time out."
It's not just fundamentals, either. Ochoa brings back a willingness to think outside the box.
"I think about the pitchers, a lot of them with four pitches or more, and I think about how they'll use them all so aggressively, throwing forkballs, drop pitches, when they're down in the count 3-1 or 2-0. They don't do the expected -- ever," he says. "You have to change your mind-set to hit them. You have to throw everything out the window and relearn. You have to clear your mind. And playing their way gives me new ways to think about my options at the plate back here."
If gaijin have historically been asked to fit in, to surrender some part of themselves and their expectations to the experience of a new culture, on and off the field, they have also been asked, expected, to stand out. There is a Japanese term, suketto, which translates roughly to "helper." The American-born players are suketto, hired to be difference makers, to produce. As is the case with Matsuzaka in Boston, the expectations are high for gaijin in Japan from the jump.
"They didn't have a whole lot of patience, I remember," says Blue Jays first baseman Matt Stairs, who played 60 games for Chunichi in 1993. "You have all these adjustments to make in terms of learning the pitchers and the fields and all that, and if you're not hitting the way they expect you to, you're sitting. There was a lot of pressure to contribute every day, every at-bat."
Balancing the pressure to conform and the pressure to shine can help develop a player into a better all-around talent during his Japanese baseball experience.
"It's intense," Ochoa says. "You feel as if losses are your fault almost. But playing every day with those expectations -- from the clubhouse, from the media -- it makes your mind strong. You turn in. You rely on yourself and believe in yourself. And you come out of it thinking there's nothing you can't do."
Bale describes it as productive isolation. His coaches and manager presumed, because he came from the U.S. and had pitched in the major leagues, that he had the pitching thing wired. They didn't approach him. They didn't talk strategy or technique. They simply, quietly demanded performance.
"I didn't have a pitching coach for three years," he says. "It was frustrating at times, but it really matured me, too. I learned to coach myself, watch my own video and make adjustments on my own."
The flip-side of the pressure is the Japanese adoration of gaijin. Bross remembers getting off the plane at Tokyo's Narita Airport for the first time and being welcomed by a crowd of fans, reporters and local dignitaries that he was certain must have gathered for someone else.
"I was a mop-up guy, someone who'd only gotten a cup of coffee in the bigs. And here I was treated like royalty or some kind of hero. It was incredible to me. And it did amazing things for my confidence to feel so welcomed, and to have the faith and the attention of the people with me like that from the very beginning. I think I pitched better over there because of the way I was received. In the States, I was always the twelfth man, never good enough. But in Japan, I was celebrated."
Most players who've spent time in Japan come away raving about the way they were received, the connections they made with the people and the place. Bross describes a kind of cultural immersion in which he became so enamored that he studied the language, stayed in the traditional Japanese hotels, slept on mats with the rest of the team and ate the customary raw-fish breakfasts. Stairs remembers late-night card games with teammates after games. Ochoa loved hitting the sushi spots with guys from the team. Lee says he and his brother Leron (perhaps the greatest gaijin hitter in the history of NPB) felt like rock stars when they walked the city streets. The country and its people love baseball and adore the players who play it.
At the same time, gaijin traditionally and consistently have been made to feel like outsiders.
"You're a minority. You're different," Bale says. "And that never really changes."
Japan is a homogeneous culture, radically different than the United States' melting-pot model precisely because it is so radically the same. Gaijin represent a kind of exceptionalism with which the country makes an awkward peace. Bross, for example, was a Japan Series hero, but he was never marketed or promoted by the Swallows and their corporate owners, Yakult Yogurt.
"If the best player on a team is an American player, Japanese fans and Japanese media will be somewhat cool with him," says Wane Graczyk, ex-pat columnist for the Japan Times since 1976. "They want a Japanese player to be the team leader. They want their own heroes."
As time passes, as the season of Ichiro becomes the season of Daisuke becomes the season of Uehara and Aoki, these kinds of divisions -- between inside and out, between Japan and the U.S. -- are beginning to fade some.
"Gaijin used to mean 'outsider,'" Lee recalls. "But it's softened over the years to mean 'foreigner' instead."
He anticipates the softening will continue in years to come. With the Japanese game gaining credibility on the global stage (with the WBC title) and in the major league world (with the high-priced bidding for Matsuzaka and others), Lee sees a time in the not-too-distant future when there'll be a free and open exchange between the two cultures: "Years from now, maybe nobody will know the difference at all."
Significant differences -- in language, cuisine, geography, and culture -- will no doubt remain, but there are signs of a new baseball world that might forever expand the experiences and possibilities for gaijin (as well as transplants like Matsuzaka). Four Americans now manage NPB teams, and they bring with them non-traditional approaches to training and strategy. Their presence and their success has begun to alter local players' attachment to the old, regimented ways. And it's becoming much more acceptable for foreign players playing in Japan to pursue their own methods of training and preparation.
Things are less insular on almost every level, and there is a sense, with young Japanese players now speaking openly of their desire to play in the major leagues, like Matsuzaka, that we might be watching the dawning of a new day in Japanese baseball, one in which NPB cannot afford to keep itself isolated and to isolate its gaijin "helpers."
The gaijin have had to learn and change over the years in order to make their way in a challenging new world. Lee says the same is true, now more than ever, for Japanese baseball itself: "I think there's a happy medium to be found. The mentality towards outsiders has changed over the years and continues to change, I think. There are still big barriers, no doubt, but the Japanese game is opening up. They've realized that without the Western influence, they're never going to fully realize their potential, as individual players and as a league."
Some baseball people, on both sides of the Pacific, see a near future when NPB becomes a glorified farm system for the major leagues. But the American-born players who've played in Japan, and experienced the country's love of the game, and competed against the country's highly-skilled, intensely motivated players, have another vision. They see a relationship that someday soon flows in both directions.
"It used to be that only players at the end of their careers in the U.S. went to Japan, to play out the string," Stairs says. "But now it's more young guys coming over just looking for a chance to show what they can do, and why shouldn't that continue?"
If Japan continues to open itself up, and if young foreign players in the U.S. and other parts of the world continue to gain respect for the quality of ball played in the island nation, why indeed?
"The baseball in Japan is high-quality," Ochoa says: "The pitchers are excellent. There are some very good hitters and defenders. People are starting to learn that. Korean players are wanting to come to Japan. American players may soon want to come to Japan to play. And a lot of Japanese players are now more outspoken in their desire to come to the United States to play. We should see more crossovers in every direction. And at some point, maybe we won't be talking about gaijin ballplayers, we'll just be talking about ballplayers."
Eric Neel is a columnist for ESPN.com.
There are signs of a new baseball world in Japan that might forever expand the possibilities for ballplayers everywhere.