Ahead in the Count

6th Inning…a Foreign Affair

written by Matt Whiteside


6th inning…..


It was toward the middle of the 2002 season, I was in Triple A, Colorado Springs, with the Rockies organization  when I was approached by a team from Japan.  The Yokahama Baystars wanted me to go to Japan and pitch for them in the 2003 season.  Some look at leaving the country as ending your career in the states.  I looked at it as an opportunity of a lifetime.  I packed my bags on January 29th of 2003 and 17 hours later I found myself landing in the Tokyo airport ready for the adventure.


There are many different topics I could choose to discuss from my experience over seas. However, what I found most enlightening was the purity of the country, the respectful nature of the people, and the unrelenting, disciplined work ethic of the people there.  I had always prided myself on the conditioning aspect of being a professional athlete.  When I made the decision to play in Japan, I reached out to people I knew who had traveled that road.  The one consistent message I heard was that the conditioning was nuts over there.  I put in more time that offseason training than ever before, but when Spring Training began the first week of February, I learned first hand what the Japanese think of as conditioning. By the end of the “active warm up”, a 45 minute “ warm up”, we had accomplished what most Major League teams do for post practice conditioning..  One of the Japanese league favorites is to have their pitchers jog with a car tire attached to a rope, that is placed around your waist, and pull it along the out skirts of the sand infields.  You can imagine how heavy those were as they began to fill with sand.  Then consider this was taking place after being on the field for 7 hours already.  Good times.  Needless to say, I would end up in bed at the end of each day with ice packs on both shins, my right shoulder and elbow.  Off the field, the work ethic is evident in that there is no tipping.  Cab drivers, waitresses, and door men do their required service without allowing you to tip them. Imagine that, doing a job to the best of your ability because you have pride in yourself, not because you think you will get extra compensation. It was an experience for sure.


As eye opening as the conditioning, was the respectful nature of the people. The Japanese consider it an honor and a privilege to be able to play the game of baseball.  They demonstrate this in many ways.  In the dugouts there is no spitting of seeds or tobacco on the floor or ground. They use a cup and dispose of it. When leaving the field of play the players stop, turn to the field, remove their cap and bow.  It is a way of saying thanks for letting us participate. With age comes respect in Japan.  Being 36 at the time, I was considered a veteran ( senpai), even though I had never played in Japan.  This stature gave you special treatment from the trainers, translators, coaches and players.  You were placed first in line for dinner, at the training table for ice, and when boarding a plane, or train, when with the team.  In their business world that is how you climbed the corporate ladder, by age.  When an “older” business man, within your company, asks you to go to dinner, it is considered a privilege, but also mandatory, regardless of what ever else is going on around you.  In other words if your sons birthday falls on the same day that a senior business man requests your presence at dinner, the dinner takes precedent. 


As much as I was impressed with areas of the Japanese culture, I think I was most taken back by the fact that their culture is unique to them.  In the US, we are a sort of melting pot of cultures.   In Japan so many aspects of their culture is unique to them.  When entering a home from the outside world, the Japanese remove their shoes. They do not want to bring any uncleanliness into the home, which is considered sacred,  similar to the dugout.  The cuisine in Japan is unique to say the least.  First, nothing is wasted. Everything you see grown above the ground is suitable to be consumed, as well as the root system holding it in the ground.  When an animal is killed, there are no wasted parts here either.  I tried to take in the whole experience of being in Japan. I can say that I tried parts of a cow, ( tongue, throat, rib cartilage, ear, to name a few) that I had no idea could be used for dietary purposes.


When I left Japan, and returned to the states, I had a new sense of appreciation for people and the cultures that they come from.  I am fortunate and grateful for the opportunity they afforded me to play, and live in Japan.  It is another example of how relationships and experiences you encounter shape your future.  My pitching line from Japan lacked something to be desired, but my line on life lessons and traits of successful people took a turn for the better.

December 29, 2008 - Posted by | On the Field, Sports Around the World, written by Matt Whiteside

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