Baseball connects with two cultures
'Can you believe those Red Sox have lost seven in a row?!" exclaimed the baker as I reached for a chocolate doughnut.
This might be daily conversation in any downtown Boston coffee shop, but since I've worked in Tokyo for the past three years after growing up in Massachusetts, I thought I might be spared this bad news that Red Sox fans just can't seem to avoid.
Not in Japan, where baseball is the most popular pro and amateur sport. An active pro league and the long history of the game make morning talk about baseball almost as common as it is in the offices in Boston's North End, where I worked briefly after college. The Japanese have been playing baseball since the 1800s (when an American professor introduced it to his students in Tokyo), and in 1934, the first pro team was established.
As an American, I appreciate the Japanese passion for baseball, because it helps me pass the summer as I would at home - watching, playing, and reading about baseball. But more important, it allows me to make connections with Japanese colleagues, neighbors, and even strangers.
When I arrived in Tokyo, I immediately joined the company baseball team, the Citigroup Baysharks, named after the pro team in nearby Yokohama, the Baystars. Playing with colleagues has made the summer an easy season to strike up conversation at the office, because we can talk about our last company game or the pro league contests of the week.
Recently, a colleague and I made a bet (for sushi) on which team would win the Japan League championship. We've been kidding each other daily, as our teams' standings rise and fall in the pennant race.
There is a long history of US-Japan baseball exchange. In 1934, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig led a US all-star team that came to Tokyo to challenge the top Japanese players. While foreign players have been coming to play in Japan for many years, Japanese players (such as Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners and Hideo Nomo of the Boston Red Sox) have recently gained recognition in the US, feeding the Japanese craze for American baseball.
Major-league baseball news is so popular here that when I return home from work, the headline of the evening papers is inevitably "ICHIRO gets another hit!"
It is said that baseball caught on in Japan because people found the battle between pitcher and batter similar in nature to their native sumo wrestling and martial arts. The fans certainly enjoy it; they are downright crazy! They can be louder than even the most raucous European soccer fans, with their organized chants, waving flags, and blaring trumpets. But the Japanese add a twist: Fans chant only when their team is batting (politeness is a must), and, of course, there are no fights.
When I went to a recent game, the crowd all stood and danced with green umbrellas held high after the home-team player hit one out of the park. The guy next to me demanded that I cheer as well, and lent me an extra green umbrella.
One day, while bicycling home after a Baysharks' victory, I stopped to watch a Little League game at a nearby field. The star player was a pitcher, taller and stronger than all the other 12-year-olds. As I was following a great play, one of the mothers approached me and said, "Pretty neat, huh, that the best player is a girl? She's the top athlete in the school."
The mother was from the same area where my wife and I live, so we then talked about how much we both enjoyed the neighborhood: the local park, the tofu store, the small Buddhist temple, the shopping arcade.
As I prepared to leave, the woman called out, "If you see us practicing in the park, please stop by and say hello."
Close to home, I made a final stop at the baker's shop, where he greeted me, as usual, with baseball talk, "How about that Barry Bonds, amazing!"
I knew where the conversation was headed (another Red Sox loss). I quickly jumped in with: "This year, the regular season is over and done with. The Red Sox will win it next year. Now I'm focused on the Japan League, rooting for the Yakult Swallows to win the championship."
The baker smiled and put an extra doughnut in the bag, seemingly understanding the sufferings of a Red Sox fan: "I know what you mean. I am a Tokyo Giants fan, but they aren't going to win, so I am cheering on the Seattle Mariners."
Seven thousand miles from home - a different culture, language, and traditions. But the baker, co-workers, Little League moms, fans in the crowd, and me, all share one common interest. What will I talk about when baseball season ends?