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For Japanese, playing ball against US is more than just a game. It's a chance to beat US at one more thing (though they didn't)

The two former teammates, now managers, met on the field where they had once won a championship together. One was Japanese, the other American. The American, Davey Johnson, skipper of the world-champion New York Mets, was back in Tokyo's Korakuen Stadium for the first time in 10 years. In the twilight of his playing career, Mr. Johnson was the first Westerner to play for the Yomiuri Giants, Japan's first and foremost baseball team.

``Congratulations,'' his friend told him. The friend was Sadaharu Oh, Japan's legendary slugger who, during his career with the Yomiuri Giants, hit more home runs than Hank Aaron. Mr. Oh was referring to Mr. Johnson's most recent season.

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``Almost,'' Johnson responded, consoling Mr. Oh because the Giants, whom Oh is now managing, had just missed winning a league title by a few percentage points.

Johnson recently returned to Japan leading a team of American major-league all-stars. They were, in his words, ``the strongest team ever assembled.'' In a seven-game ``super series,'' his team took on an equally highly touted assemblage of star athletes from Japan's two six-team professional leagues.

For the Japanese, such a contest cannot simply be a game. It is an opportunity to measure themselves against others, particularly Americans. Making comparisons, maybe more than talking baseball, is the national pastime here.

The Japanese do not conceal their pleasure at having overtaken their American mentors in so many arenas. Book like Harvard Prof. Ezra Vogel's ``Japan as Number One'' is a guaranteed best seller here. From high technology to education, the Japanese are eager to know how they stack up with the rest of the world.

Even Oh and Johnson could not resist comparing notes: ``We had a lot of heart and a good young pitching staff,'' Johnson said about the Mets. ``How was your pitching?''

``We were No. 2 in the league,'' Oh said. ``And second in hitting too.'' Johnson couldn't suppress a smile. ``My team was ichiban [No. 1] in both hitting and batting.''

Baseball occupies a special place in this sport of pondering parallels. The game was one of the many Western things Japan imported in the Meiji era (which began in 1868), when the country engaged in a national effort to ``catch up.'' Few Western phenomena have been adopted with as much fervor, and baseball has become an ingrained part of Japanese life and lore.

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The Japanese collective memory has enshrined one such moment during the 1934 visit of an American all-star squad that included Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Charlie Gehringer. The fact that this powerful group breezed to a record of 17 wins and 0 defeats is not well remembered. But all Japanese fans know the tale of Eijii Sawamura, a 19-year-old pitcher who struck out the four American players in succession. Japan's version of the Cy Young award for the year's best pitcher is named after Sawamura.

As with every other enterprise here, the Japanese have attempted to conquer baseball through sheer effort. Endless practice sessions accompanied by iron team discipline are their style. They often disdain what they see as the anarchic and lazy ways of the Americans who play for their professional clubs.

``Playing here,'' Johnson remembered less than enthusiastically, ``I learned what it's like to be in shape.''

American baseball remains a standard against which Japanese players gauge themselves, but the Japanese are irritated by their continued role as followers.

``In the past we studied the Americans in baseball,'' Koji Yamamoto, one of Japan's most revered players, told this writer as the series began. ``Now we want to lead,'' he said simply. ``That is our goal.''

Periodically, American teams have come for post-season tours to Japan. ``About 20 years ago it was very hard to beat American teams,'' commented Kuni Ogawa, an ex-pitcher, now a baseball scribe. ``Now Japanese skills are getting much better,'' he observed.

The Japanese had reason to hope they could do well against Johnson's all-stars. In 1981, the Kansas City Royals had to win five straight to end a series here with a 9-7 record.

``If they [the US stars] feel that they are here on a sightseeing tour, they may be in for a shock,'' Sadao Kondo, the manager of the Japanese squad, warned before this year's series began.

The Americans, who came with their wives, could be forgiven for not seeing things quite the same way. Atlanta's Dale Murphy carried his video camera to pre-game practices, while Houston's Glenn Davis had his camera around his neck except when in the batting cage.

``I don't feel like it's our country against their country,'' Detroit hurler Jack Morris said, speaking for many.

And the Americans had a secret weapon: Davey Johnson. By his own account, he spent ``two long years'' playing baseball in Japan. During his first year, plagued by injuries and culture shock, unable to talk to his teammates in their language, he did not even hit .200. Once hailed as a savior for the sinking fortunes of the Giants, Japan's most revered team, he was castigated in the sports media as ``dame [bad] Johnson.''

``Playing here,'' Johnson told Oh at their meeting, ``It was very easy to go to New York City.'' He rebounded his second year and helped the Giants win a championship. Still he left on a sour note when the Giants released him despite his wish to stay.

Johnson's personal pride and his knowledge of what this contest meant to the Japanese set a distinctly different tone. ``This should be a good test to see how far they've come along,'' he said when the series began. ``I'm excited to see what happens.''

When it was all over, the mustachioed manager admitted that he was worried his players would ``come over and take it easy.'' But his pride was communicated well to all-stars who also - for personal, not national, reasons - did not want to do badly.

In this contest between American and Japanese ways, America still turned out to be ichiban. Johnson's players started the first inning of the first game with two home runs and never looked back. Sometimes with lopsided scores, the Americans won all but one game. American power and speed, manager Kondo lamented, ``made the games look one-sided.''

With the burden of national expectation gone, the players settled down to enjoy each other. Yamamoto, who retired at the end of the season, hit the first home run of the series for Japan in Game 6.

``I've enjoyed this series, seeing some of my old friends from the States, so I'm swinging relaxed, and the ball just made it into the stands,'' he said graciously.

Perhaps the moral of this story is that in baseball, at least, let us leave the comparisons aside and ``play ball.''

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