Mutual respect between US and Japan

Mutual respect between US and Japan

When the U.S. meets Japan on Sunday night, a bow of mutual respect is in order before the hardball starts flying and the bats start swinging.

With the two powerful baseball nations taking center stage at Dodger Stadium in a World Baseball Classic semifinal, the very heart of the internationalization of baseball will be on display. The two teams meet at 8 p.m. ET for the right to take on Korea for the 2009 Classic title Monday night.

The two nations certainly know each other better and longer than any other two, in a baseball sense. U.S. fans are very familiar with Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka and the rest of their Major League brethren from Japan, and certainly anyone interested in Japanese baseball has an understanding and an appreciation for American baseball.

In this context, the two teams have faced each other nine times since 1999, when professional players were first introduced to international play, with the U.S. winning six -- including the last four.

In a much larger sense, the U.S. and Japan are not strangers: These are the two centers of the professional baseball universe.

The U.S.-Japan relationship in baseball has seen players exported and imported each way over the last few decades, from the current wave of Japanese players making their mark on the Major Leagues dating back to when some American players -- called gaijin, or foreigners -- began extending their careers in Japan.

Players such as Davey Johnson, now manager of Team USA.

The former third baseman was the first gaijin ever to play for the storied Yomiuri Giants, joining them in 1975 and '76.

"I really had a good time playing for the Tokyo Giants. Many tomodachis, many friends," Johnson recalled Friday as his team began preparations to play the defending Classic champs in the semis. "It was a great experience. I had a great teammate in Oh-san [Japanese home-run king Sadaharu Oh], and a great manager in Nagashima-san [former star third baseman and manager Shigeo Nagashima]. And I know the team playing there now is managed by a great third baseman, Hara-san, currently managing the Tokyo Giants.

"I'm looking for it to be a great ballgame. A lot of my tomodachis now are doing other things, Takada-san, managing the Yakult Swallows, so I try to keep up with what they're doing over there, and I talked to Hara-san and wished him luck and he did the same to me."

Johnson -- who struggled through '75 but led the Giants to the postseason in '76 -- and Hara shared common ground that goes beyond their resumes as managers in international competition.

That would be the dirt surrounding third base at Korakuen Stadium, where the Giants played before Tokyo Dome opened in 1988. Hara was the team's third baseman starting in 1982 until he retired in 1996.

"I really don't know [Johnson] well myself, but I understand he was wearing the Tokyo Giants uniform in Japan, so in that sense he was an "old boy" of the Tokyo Giants. I feel familiar with him," Hara said. "And Reggie Smith [who played for the Giants for two seasons after his 17 years in the Majors] is also a coach on the U.S. team, so those are two people that I respect that we have to play against. So I would like to be able to fight against them, and Japan to be proud of us."

During the tournament, Hara has mentioned several times his respect for the American game, since, after all, that was where it all began.

And Hara remembers the star who caught his eye -- Babe Ruth, who incidentally made appearances in Japan as a player, helping the early internationalization of America's pastime.

"At first, I read the story about Babe Ruth," he said. "And, of course, before that, Major League Baseball, I knew about that. I had some knowledge about that. And then when I read the Babe Ruth book, and I was so interested about that, that was when I was in grade school, a student, maybe second grade, maybe third grade."

More to the present issue, there is a rivalry brewing on the international stage. In the last 13 meetings between the clubs, Japan has won six times. But Team USA's four-game winning streak includes a victory in the 2006 Classic and two wins in the 2008 Summer Olympic games in Beijing.

So while some might perceive this as a game in which the U.S. must avenge the fact that Japan took the Classic title the first time around, Johnson is more near-sighted.

"I think it's probably more revenge against us," Johnson said. "We beat their team in the Olympics, so I think they're looking for revenge more than we are."

Not only that, but Japan nearly didn't make it to the 2006 Classic semifinal round after losing to the U.S. in Anaheim, 4-3, in a second-round game that saw Japan have a run taken off the board on an umpiring reversal. So there's some Classic revenge in the works as well.

"The feeling is just different this time," Ichiro said. "Last time Japan came to the United States, we were looking up at them, but not this time. I don't know why, but that's how this team is feeling."

John Schlegel is a national reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.