Japanese Baseball Team Gets Taste of the Southwest

An all-Japanese team just finished its first season in an independent minor league based in the American Southwest. The players were exposed to U.S.-style baseball and a significantly different culture. Mark Moran of member station KJZZ reports.

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It's not so much the rules as the feel of the game that the Samurai Bears are trying to understand. They're the first team of Japanese baseball players to compete for a season in the US. The Samurai Bears are part of the Golden Baseball League, an independent collection of eight fledgling pro teams in Arizona and California. They didn't win the championship this year; that honor went to the San Diego Surf Dawgs. But they learned a lot about the American style of play. Mark Moran of member station KJZZ has more.

MARK MORAN reporting:

This is not the sound of big-time baseball.

(Soundbite of baseball game)

MORAN: This is a weeknight at a Golden Baseball League game between the Mesa Miners and Surprise Fighting Falcons. And that smattering of applause is all that the 26 fans in the stands could muster. There are no superstars here. In fact, the visiting team can't even use the locker room. The players have to change clothes in the dugout before the game and take a shower at the hotel after.

(Soundbite of music)

MORAN: They play the US and Japanese national anthems when the Japan Samurai Bears are on the schedule. The Bears are a collection of all-Japanese players with mostly minor-league talent, but the Golden Baseball League is their land of opportunity.

Mr. TOMOSHI AOKI (Japan Samurai Bears): Bringing baseball in the USA is my dream, so I'm very interested in American baseball, so that's why I'm here.

MORAN: Bears left fielder Tomoshi Aoki says back home, there's a much tighter focus on developing good fundamentals.

Mr. TOMOSHI: I like American baseball because I don't like bunting. Actually, I can't. American baseball is very offensive, and Japanese baseball is very defensive.

MORAN: Despite their strong fundamentals, the Bears have struggled against the bigger, stronger American players, especially when they come up to bat.

Mr. WARREN CROMARTIE (Coach, Japan Samurai Bears): To put it point-blankly here, at times my team has looked throughout the year overwhelmed.

MORAN: The Bears are coached by Warren Cromartie, a gregarious former big-leaguer who put together a respectable major-league career and then played in Japan for seven seasons. Cromartie says it's not just the style of play that's different between American and Japanese players, but the talent level as well.

Mr. CROMARTIE: More than anything, I mean, we don't have a lot of power. We got one guy who could take--a couple guys who could take the ball deep, but not like a lot of these guys come out and bang the ball out.

MORAN: The Japanese players say they're adjusting to the American game and to the US culture as well, except for the time when a player accidentally rushed into the first restaurant bathroom he saw after climbing off a long bus trip--it happened to be a women's room--and the `washing dishes in the hotel bathtub' incident. It's also common for the Bears to bow to other players, coaches and even the umpires. Cromartie can't imagine that ever happening in American baseball, but he says he's begun to soften.

Mr. CROMARTIE: Took me about a month to realize, listen, this is what I got. You know, some of these kids, this is the way these kids were taught. So back off a little bit, show them how--the way to do this and hope that they can, you know, become a sponge and learn from this.

MORAN: Though the chances are slim and the pay is terrible--about $700 a month for a rookie--19-year-old pitcher Keisuke is not deterred from his dream.

KEISUKE (Japan Samurai Bears): (Japanese spoken)

MORAN: `I can't put it into a percentage or a number,' Kei says, but I believe in my God-given gift, and one day I'll play in the major leagues.

Word of the Samurai Bears has gotten out back home, and already Japanese players are lining up for a shot to play here next season. For NPR News, I'm Mark Moran in Phoenix.

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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