Book Review – Throwback


I have tried to focus on NPB and specifically the Hanshin Tigers as much as possible since last year. However, as someone who has mostly followed the game on paper for the better part of the last two decades, I thought I needed to get an education from someone who played the game on the field for nearly that length of time. Jason Kendall teamed up with Lee Judge to write Throwback: A Big-League Catcher Tells How the Game Is Really Played. While some of what he says is basic and known to most observant fans, he also goes into a decent amount of detail about some of the finer aspects of the game that go unnoticed by fans, especially those watching on TV whose angle is limited by what the camera shows us.

Jason Kendall was a catcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Oakland Athletics, Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers and Kansas City Royals from 1996 to 2010. Catchers, as you may know, understand the game better than almost any other position player, thanks to their vantage point and the need for them to know many more details than the rest of the team.

Through the book, Kendall mixes anecdotes with actual practical things for fans to look for whether in attendance at a game or watching on TV. He starts with pitchers (starters and relievers alike), how they like to have the game called for them, what makes a tough pitcher, what makes it easy for catchers to work with pitchers, etc. He then goes into the catchers’ mentality, followed by the infield, outfield, hitters, base runners, managers and the rest.

Each section gives the reader some new insight into how the game is really played, and how it goes beyond one man throwing the ball, another trying to hit it hard, and everyone trying to score runs. The amount of detail and thinking that goes into baseball is beyond what many of us think about as we watch the game.

考える野球術coverI actually read this in conjunction with a Japanese book called 考える野球術 (Thinking Baseball Techniques), which talked about many similar topics but just from a much more mechanical, impersonal perspective. It was interspersed with the thoughts and ideas of other professionals – mostly Japanese players with experience in the majors – but it definitely felt a lot less intriguing than Kendall’s thoughts.

Still, reading the two books simultaneously helped solidify some of the more solid ideas. It definitely brought my baseball knowledge up a few notches. If you have a chance to pick up Kendall’s “Throwback” I recommend it. Only two things about the book prevent it from being a full five-stars: a lot of ideas/anecdotes get repeated several times, and his final point –  “if you get anything out of this book, remember to protect your kids at games because you don’t want them to get hit by a foul ball” – seemed completely unrelated to anything else he said.

Book Review – Hanshin Tigers: Actually Strong

torigoebookThe original title of this book is 本当は強い 阪神タイガース (Honto wa Tsuyoi Hanshin Tigers) and its author is Norio Torigoe. It was published in April 2013, so its contents reflect the team up to the end of the 2012 season. What interested me in this book before I even started reading it was its analysis of the team based on sabermetrics. I wish I had known more about these “new age stats” before I picked up this book, although the author does a good job of explaining most of them in layman’s terms. In fact, he not only explains what they measure, but also why they are important in judging a player’s talent, and how they are calculated as well. The mathematician in me loved that aspect of the book.

Torigoe uses all sorts of data to determine the greatest manager in team history, as well as its best hitter, pitcher and pinch hitter. He then looks at whether or not the team has been successful at training its players. This section includes analyses of drafting strategies and picks, trades, and free agent signings (particular foreigners). The third section examines how the Tigers can become a winning franchise again, It focuses primarily on ideal hitting order (based largely on OBP), defensive placement (using UZR – Ultimate Zone Rating), using Koshien Stadium’s uniqueness to the team’s advantage, and how to win in a stadium where the Tigers have always struggled – Nagoya Dome. The book concludes with a lengthy interview between the author and former Tigers owner Katsuyoshi Nozaki, who is credited with bringing the team out of its “Dark Ages”. While this section dragged on at times, it also was a good eye-opener. Nozaki reveals how teams rate players and determine their salaries, as well as many aspects of the Tigers management and front office that have hindered the team from being successful.

The book was a fairly quick read, despite its meaty content. One thing the author does well is to boldface the main point of each subsection, allowing the reader to focus exactly on what he wants to get across. I enjoyed learning more about sabermetrics and how they are calculated, although I am not sure I will ever calculate these stats on my own. Still, Mr. Torigoe showed empirically that the Hanshin Tigers are not as weak as people have made them out to be, and gives great suggestions on how the team can prosper in the future to truly become strong.

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Book Review – Slugging it Out in Japan

sluggingTo purchase and read this book, I had to put away my dislike of the Yomiuri Giants. After all, the subject and co-author starred for them during the most interesting years of my Hanshin Tigers’ history. He was a perfect foil to then-star Tiger Randy Bass, who enamored the fanatics at Koshien from the time he arrived in Japan.

Contrary to Ba-su sama, Warren Cromartie spent many turbulent, inconsistent years with the club before he finally accepted his fate and position within the team, thriving at last only when he started to genuinely like Japan. While other Robert Whiting (co-author) books are chalk full of anecdotes about the lives of several players, this one focuses exclusively on the man they called ‘Cro. This allows for a much deeper, personal and gripping read than the others Whiting penned, which technically could be enjoyed a chapter at a time, and put away for weeks or months without fear of breaking the flow of the story.

Cromartie was born and raised in Miami Beach, Florida. His rough childhood seems to have shaped his stoic, rebellious demeanor right through to this day. He played several years in the Montreal Expos organization before taking up the Yomiuri Giants on their generous offer, but only after the Expos shafted him and the American (SF) Giants reneged on an offer they had informally made him.

This book takes us through Cromartie’s dislike of camp, struggles with living arrangements, disgust with Korakuen Stadium locker rooms, beefs with coaches and teammates (he particularly mocks then-pretty boy Tatsunori Hara), and his love and respect for Sadaharu Oh, who actually gave him private hitting lessons when he was struggling early on. It also opens many readers’ eyes to the racism he faced as a black man in Tokyo as well as on a team whose ownership and upper management refused to acknowledge his contributions to championship teams.

It also pointed out to me that Cro was (is?) a skilled musician who had a band in Japan, appeared on TV, and even practiced drums and recorded an album while sitting out an injury late in his Japanese baseball career.

Most of all, reading this book endeared me to this fireball of a man, who holds back no punches (literally), criticizing even himself at times. It gave me a clearer look into what American baseball players in Japan experienced and thought back in the 80s. I recommend this book to everyone, even my fellow Tigers fans. Trust me, there’s lots of good in this book, and Randy Bass makes a few appearances as well.

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Book Review – Kyojin-Hanshin Discourse


If only there were more books like this. If only I had been a fan of Japanese baseball when these two faced each other. If only I had had time to actually finish reading the book! (It was a loaner from the library, and I will take it out again after I’ve read a handful of other books on my list.)

Kyojin-Hanshin Discourse is simply a guided discussion between two longtime rivals and legends of their respective teams. Giants’ ace Suguru Egawa (1979-1987) and Tigers’ cleanup hitter Masayuki Kakefu (1974-1988) sit down and talk about a great variety of topics, including the circumstances surrounding their respective drafting experience (quite different from one another), first appearances on their teams, major accomplishments, personal showdowns, retirements, post-retirement years, and what they would do if they were managers of their respective teams. Of course, the thread that ties the whole thing together is the great tradition that both teams have, and the differing philosophies that make them so endearing to generations of fans.

egawakakefuThis book is written in such a way that the players talk mostly uninterrupted about their playing days, memories of each other, and so on. An interviewer (facilitator?) occasionally breaks the dialogue up with a question, correction or change of topic. Otherwise, it feels as though you got to sit down at the booth right behind two great baseball players (and friends?) at a family restaurant as they talked about baseball. Who could ask for anything more?

I can honestly say that this book has helped inspire me to learn more about the history of this game, particularly of these two teams, and of course mostly of the Hanshin Tigers. I’d love to read a similar book between other rivals or even teammates. Suggestions include: Yutaka Enatsu and Sadaharu Oh, Akinobu Okada and Tatsunori Hara, Randy Bass and Warren Cromartie. Got any others you’d like to read about? (I personally want to write one of these with Gene Bacque!)

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Book Review – The Meaning of Ichiro

meaningichiroIt is hard to believe Robert Whiting waited 15 years after publishing the groundbreaking You Gotta Have Wa (1989), but with all the changes in professional baseball, The Meaning of Ichiro presents several new angles on the Japanese-American relationship as seen on and around the baseball field. Instead of looking at how Americans adjusted (or didn’t) to Japanese baseball, this number does the opposite. The book formerly known as The Samurai Way of Baseball shows us that this new age of baseball, one in which the Japanese game continues to gain ground on the American one, is just as exciting — and controversial — as ages past.

The book starts with a look at Ichiro’s childhood and baseball training, conducted largely by his father, and then his transition to the major leagues. Before Ichiro made his big splash in 2001, another pioneer of Japanese ball players moved to America. The man who put Japanese baseball on the map was Hideo Nomo, and Whiting covers his story just as thoroughly as Ichiro’s. From Nomo’s personality on-field exploits to the hype surrounding his debut in America, the reader can easily get a good idea of what both Japan and America were like in the mid 1990s.

Sandwiched between these two segments is a look at the history of baseball in Japan. It is not vastly different from what Wa has to say, but it is also not a copy-paste job, so it is an enjoyable read. It goes into a little more detail about the effect US teams’ tours of Japan had on the popularity of the game. Furthermore, it talks about how the first Japanese player to play in the majors (Masanori Murakami) got caught in the middle of a cultural misunderstanding about the interpretation of contracts. Quite eye-opening.

One particularly fascinating chapter covered the troubled lives of two “half” (biracial) players. Neither of these men’s stories is very well covered elsewhere (to the best of my knowledge), and neither could have been more emotionally heart-rending. Don Nomura, now a famous player agent, and the late Hideki Irabu, of New York Yankees infamy, have their stories told in ways that will help you appreciate the struggles that “impure” Japanese faced.

Other chapters talk about some of the alleged racism and discrimination that players experienced in Japan (such as the seeming unwillingness of Sadaharu Oh and all of NPB to have his hallowed home run record broken by Randy Bass, Tuffy Rhodes, Alex Ramirez and others). Also, Whiting gives more attention to the experiences of foreign managers like Don “Blazer” Blasingame and Bobby Valentine.

The penultimate chapter looks at some of the less hyped names that made their way to the USA in the late 1990s and early 2000s: Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Masato Yoshii, Tomokazu Ohka, Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Kazuhisa Ishii. Each has his own interesting story, and Whiting retells them with aplomb and give you an appreciation for the bravery (and at times naievety) of these men.

It could be said that Hideki Matsui (Yomiuri Giants, New York Yankees) was the first player to leave a “dream job” to test his skills in America. All others played for lesser-known brand names in Japan, and while they also sometimes went to small-time MLB teams, the glory they left paled in comparison with Matsui’s. The book’s last chapter follows him from his youth through his years with the Yankees.

Overall, Whiting caps his trilogy well. If you have read the first two books – before Wa is The Chrysanthemum and the Bat (1977) – this is a must-read. Perhaps if you are an MLB fan first and foremost, this will be the best of the three. Regardless, when it comes to reading about Japanese baseball history, no one writes as candidly and thoroughly as Robert Whiting. I can’t recommend this one more highly. Go out and get it, and be prepared for a newfound appreciation for Japanese baseball and its athletes.

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Book Review – You Gotta Have Wa

YougottahaveWAIt is often said that the second part of trilogies is the hardest to write as an author and the least enjoyable for the viewer. Although not formally part of a trilogy, You Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting is the second of three major books he wrote on the subject of Japanese baseball. The gap between books is significant enough that there is not a lot of recycled material, and certainly each can be enjoyed on its own without the context of the others.

YGHW is easily the most famous of the three books (the others being The Chrysanthemum and the Bat and The Meaning of Ichiro), and the one I picked up first. It truly is the masterpiece and definitive book on Nippon yakyu that it has drawn accolades for being. I simply could not put it down from the moment I picked it up! Rich in historical detail and amusing (and incredibly insightul) personal anecdotes, Whiting’s second book shows a maturity that its precursor lacks at times.

The major theme of the book is that the Americans who have come over to Japan to play “their game” have often been surprised at how different the sport is played (and practiced) in the Land of the Rising Sun. While many have enjoyed their experience and had success, the vast majority have left frustrated, confused and disillusioned. Still, all of them leave with a new perspective on the game and a respect (albeit a cynical one at times) for the Japanese work ethic and philosophy towards the game.

The book touches on the stories of a lot of foreigners who played the game in Japan in the 1980s but also some of the Japanese players who added color or notoriety to the game. Not only that, but it also retells the game’s roots in Japan (including a fabulous biographical sketch of the “godfather of Japanese baseball” himself, Suishu Tobita), the Japanese philosophy of the game, the cheering squads and their mentality, and what it was like to play on teams like the Yomiuri Giants and Seibu Lions.

This book is a must-read for any fan of Nippon Professional Baseball, and even anyone who wants to better understand the Japanese-American relationship and the struggles it has undergone over the years, particularly in the 1980s. I highly recommend all of Whiting’s books (the two mentioned above, plus Slugging it Out in Japan – co-written with former Giants great Warren Cromartie – and Tokyo Underworld – completely unrelated to baseball but brilliant in its own right). You Gotta Have Wa, though, should be read first and most carefully, if you want to appreciate this fine author and the beautiful game of Japanese baseball.

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Book Review – The Bass Diaries

Of all the foreigners who have played on the Hanshin Tigers baseball club, undoubtedly the most popular and accomplished is first baseman Randy Bass. He played for the team from 1983 to 1988, and won the league Triple Crown two consecutive seasons (1985 and 1986) while establishing the NPB record for highest batting average in a single season (.389 in 1986). Why, then, at age 34, did he suddenly stop playing baseball? What precipitated his sudden departure from NPB? The Bass Diaries (バースの日記) seeks to explain this, as well as give the reader a look into the life of one of NPB’s greatest import players.

The book starts with a foreword from Bass, explaining why he has decided to have his personal diary translated into Japanese and published for people to read. He also explains that he loves the Hanshin Tigers and all of their fans, and has nothing but great memories of being a player for the organization. The book literally is Randy Bass’s diary from 1985 to 1988, although the order in which it is shown is slightly different (1988, 1985, 1986, 1987). The reason for the changed order is because the most important part of the diary is what happened to Bass in the year he was released.

Let’s cut to the chase. Near the start of the 1988 season, Bass’ son, Zach, was diagnosed with a rare type of brain tumor and needed to be treated in the United States. Being the dedicated father that he is, instead of playing out the season while his son underwent treatment, Bass received permission from the team to return to America to be with his son for a month, after which he would return to the team. Unfortunately, treatment became more and more complicated, and although Bass communicated to the team that he needed more time, and despite what he thought was permission to extend his leave, the Tigers suddenly cut their star player loose. Then they insisted they were not responsible for his son’s medical bills, despite the clause in Bass’ contract stating otherwise. These negotiations are quite clearly recorded in his diary, which makes it clear that the organization was in the wrong.

On June 28, 1988, Randy Bass was unconditionally released from the Hanshin Tigers. The reason: he did not return to the team as promised on June 17.

On June 27, 1988, Randy Bass was unconditionally released from the Hanshin Tigers. The reason: he did not return to the team as promised on June 17.

The next chapters detail his (and the team’s) triumphant title run in 1985, his Triple Crown wins, his post-game fun — don’t worry, nothing scandalous about the Oklahoman senator — his investments, his thoughts about various teammates, rivals and coaches. Standing out in particular are his affiliations with foreigners on other teams (Warren Cromartie of the Giants among others) and his disdain for 1988 club manager Minoru Murayama.

Overall, this was a good read. There were definitely parts that could have been left out, though. Even his expressway tolls are recorded, translated and published here — is that really necessary, other than for us to know that the man kept track of his expenses? I really think it would have been better if Bass had taken a little more time and sat down with his translator and turned this into an autobiography or memoirs, rather than a pure translation of his day-to-day thoughts. The diary itself could have been the best source material for the book, which could have used a change of format, really.

Still, I’m glad I was able to learn a little more about the team’s history from the perspective of a man who is still revered as the equivalent of God and Buddha among Tigers fans (神様、仏様、バース様 – Kamisama, Hotokesama, Ba-su sama).

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Book Review – Why the Tigers’ Golden Age Will Never Come (Katsuya Nomura)


Japanese Title: 阪神タイガースの黄金時代が永遠に来ない理由 – Hanshin Tigers no Ohgon Jidai ga Eien ni Konai Riyuu)

Originally I thought this was a book written specifically about this problem, but a co-worker told me that it was actually a compilation of former great catcher and manager Katsuya Nomura’s newspaper columns. So while the book does address what the title indicates, not every section of every chapter does.

Nomura played catcher for 27 seasons and managed for 16 (not counting the 8 he was a player-manager), giving him a total of 43 years directly involved with Japanese professional baseball. Three of those years as manager (1999-2001) came with the Hanshin Tigers. Clearly he has seen enough of the team to know what some of the big problems are.

Most of the general issues are dealt with in the first chapter, and include: a media that coddles the players (making them feel like superstars even if they are average players), a front office that is satisfied with winning one championship every 10 years (otherwise the fans expect too much – once in awhile just to keep their loyalty), poor drafting, too many scandals. As I read the first chapter, I definitely saw a side of the Tigers that I previously did not know of. Still, it was time to move on to what would be said in future chapters.

Every subsequent chapter seems to start with a premise that looks promising to analyze, but is also filled with digressions that do not come anywhere near addressing the main issue that the book is supposed to address. Chapter 2 is managerial incompetence (particularly incumbent manager Wada), chapter 3 talks of the need for a true ace of the pitching staff, chapter 4 of a born-and-bred cleanup hitter, chapter 5 of the need for a strong catcher, chapter 6 looks at “what-ifs” of the past generation or so, and chapter 7 gives advice on how the team can rebuild.

All sounds great, but when one section talks solely of whether or not Shohei Ohtani (of the Nippon Ham Fighters) really has the fastest fastball in the game, you’ve digressed too far. Talking about giving up 11 runs in a game when you scored 20 as being a big problem? Hardly reason that the Golden Age will never come! Ranting about the differences between your managerial days with the Swallows, Tigers and Eagles didn’t really make any of his points clearer.

This was the first Hanshin Tigers book I read, and as a true greenhorn, no less. A lot of what Nomura said shocked me, but much of it also had me shaking my head, wondering how this could be acceptable sports journalism, especially from someone who has spent 43 years on one team or another’s payroll. We get it, Mr. Nomura. You don’t like the Tigers. You didn’t enjoy your tenure with the team. You aren’t trying to endear yourself to the team’s fans. But this compilation of articles does not adequately answer the question you said you would address in the book’s title.

Some sections of the book were interesting reads when isolated from the rest, and if I get time to do so, I will try to translate some of the interesting ones. (Example: Fujinami at this stage of his career is better than Masahiro Tanaka was at the same stage; Is Murton a Selfish Player?, etc.)

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Book Review – The Chrysanthemum and the Bat

chrysanthemumcover“I was a big baseball fan in Japan and found that looking at the different way the Japanese approached the game provided a window into the Japanese culture as a whole. Friends encouraged me to write a book about it and so I did. Took a year to write 100,000 words. The result was The Chrysanthemum and the Bat. It was the first thing I’d ever written and it showed.” — Whiting on how he started writing

Written a full generation ago (1977) and covering players I had no clue about, this book was both entertaining and educational. Robert Whiting is now a renowned author most famously known for his late-80s masterpiece and follow-up to this book, You Gotta Have Wa. It really is not fair to compare the two books, but this one has a lot more direct quotes and long excerpts from other sources, and sounds a lot more like someone reporting what he has read or heard. ‘Wa’ sounds much more like a baseball guru telling the world what he already knows and has processed in his mind clearly.

That does not make this book less worthy or uninteresting, though. It takes me back to a time before I was even born and fills me in on the beautiful and quirky history of the game here in Japan, filled with colorful characters such as Sadaharu Oh, Shigeo Nagashima, Isao Harimoto, Katsuya Nomura, and more. It also looks closely at the life of a fan, the external expectations placed on the players, and the struggles that some foreign players (almost exclusively Americans in those days) had adjusting to life in Japan.

chrysanthemuminsideInterestingly, the book ends with a chapter speculating on how the Japanese would fare should there be a “real World Series”. Obviously this has, in a way, come to fruition with the World Baseball Classic having been played three times in the past decade, but it is interesting to read thoughts about it written nearly 40 years ago. All in all this book is a splendid read and a must-add to the library of any Japanese baseball fan who wants to know more about the game before they started following it.

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Book Review – Yoshida’s “Hanshin Tigers”


As I perused the baseball section at the local library, this book seemed like one I should read. Nothing about the cover or the title would compel anyone to read it, but the author’s name might make you feel like you should. Yoshio Yoshida was not only the manager of the 1985 championship team (the only one in the team’s 79 year history) but also quite possibly its best shortstop as well. Written in 2003 as the team was capturing its first Central League title in 18 years, Yoshida recounts the team’s then-70-year history from his perspective – one that included being involved with the club in some form for 50 years. This book is more than a chronicle of the team’s past – it serves as the memoirs of one of the most celebrated Hanshin Tigers ever.

Yoshida begins his book by talking about why the 2003 Tigers is the start of a new “Golden Age” for the team. He attributes this to the hiring of then-manager Sen’ichi Hoshino, who adopted more of a western approach to managing – giving his coaches plenty of opportunity to do what they are paid to do, and having the power to dictate which players he wanted ownership to pursue. This was rather uncommon at the time, and Yoshida believed it would usher in a prosperous run for the team, one that would possibly help the supplant the Yomiuri Giants as “the team to beat.”

From here, he begins his own story, one of a boy who grew up idolizing the Hanshin (Osaka) Tigers, helped lead his team to the All Japan High School tournament as a junior in high school, got drafted by the Tigers as a sophomore in college, and who won the starting position at shortstop in his rookie season. He spent the year carrying around legend Fumio Fujimura’s equipment bag, and learned a lot just by being in close proximity with the original “Mr. Tigers.”


Yoshio Yoshida’s #23 is one of three numbers retired by the club. The other two are Fumio Fujimura (10) and Minoru Murayama (11).

Each chapter introduces a new chapter in his own life, and he touches on his relationships with various players including the team’s best foreign and domestic pitchers, Gene Bacque and Minoru Murayama. Often the subject of rumors in the press, he addresses his real feelings about Murayama as well as his sentiments on the trade that sent the team’s “true ace” (in his opinion) Koyama to the Orions. He talks about various managers (namely Fujimura and Murayama) who failed to excel as they had on the field, and then moves on to his own three terms as manager.

The second of these was the one that brought the team its lone Nippon Series championship, and featured the fearsome lineup that included Masayuki Kakefu, Randy Bass, Akinobu Okada, and others. He gives special attention to Bass, who has arguably become the most famous player in team history. Bass was quite outspoken but Yoshida tolerated it as he knew his star player meant well and had some valuable input.

Overall, this book was an outstanding read. Yoshida was at the stage in his life where he could reflect on a variety of things quite calmly and frankly, and his writing style is easy to follow and really helps the reader feel what he feels. In fact, after borrowing the book once without even cracking open the cover, I took it out a second time, this time waiting until 3 days before it was due to open it up. I could not put it down though, got through the first ⅔ of it, and decided instead of renewing it, I would just buy it. It will serve as a great reference book for me.

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