Remember the 1992 sports comedy Mr. Baseball? It was about a fictional pro named Jack Elliot from the States (played by actor Tom Selleck) who gets traded to the Dragons, a team in Japan. There is plenty of drama both on and off the field as expected because Jack experiences major culture shock. He certainly finds out that baseball (known as be-su-bo-ru or “bay soo boh roo” in Japanese) is big in Japan.
A little background…
The sport first arrived in Japan way back in 1872. Today baseball is, by far, the #1 sport in Japan. It is far more popular than soccer or even Japan’s national sport, sumo wrestling. Although other sports are slowly eating away at baseball’s market share, Japan’s Central Research Services found in a survey completed in June 2018 that baseball was the favorite sport of 48.1% of respondents. Soccer and sumo wrestling tied for a distant second at only 24.8%. Japanese love their pro leagues, but they are especially fond of watching high school teams compete. The most-watched sporting event in the country remains, in fact, the National High School Baseball Tournament (known as “Koshien” in Japanese). It packs the stands (pre-Covid) with crowds of 50,000 in the stadium. Television viewership is measured in the millions.
Thus, Japanese people pay very close attention to news about their favorite baseball players. News about over-hyped players who, essentially, peaked in high school but fizzle after going pro is the kind of real-life drama that captures headlines in Japan. This week one such player, Yuki Saito, was all over the sports tabloids. Let’s explore why?
The Handkerchief Prince
Since 2004 upon entering high school, Yuki Saito (now 32) has been one of Japan’s most highly hyped pitchers. He certainly earned this reputation beginning as a freshman in high school when he was dubbed “The Handkerchief Prince” by the Japanese media. He used a blue handkerchief that he kept folded in his pocket to wipe sweat from his face while on the mound. Saito had a brilliant career in high school. In 2006 he led his team to a national championship after 948 pitches spanning 69 innings, the most in tournament history. He went on to play for Japan’s prestigious Waseda University, where he also distinguished himself on the field. Thus, it was no surprise that he was nominated as the #1 draft pick back in 2010.
Career as a Nippon Ham Fighter
First, an aside about the names of some of the pro Japanese baseball teams: Yes, they sound a little unconventional and are blatantly commercial. There are the Chunichi Dragons, home of the fictional Jack Elliot, the Hanshin Tigers, the Yomiuri Giants, the Chiba Lotte Marines, and the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, among several others, including the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. That last one may conjure up images of pigs wearing baseball hats fighting to the death against giant carp from Hiroshima.
The Fighters, a team owned by one of the largest producers of pork products in Japan called Nippon-Ham, are based in Sapporo (as in the beer) on the northern-most main island of Japan, Hokkaido. Yuki Saito currently belongs to this team.
Mr. Baseball to Major League’s Rick Vaughn?
Despite the over-the-top expectations as a rookie, to say the least Saito has not been doing much fighting for the Nippon Ham Fighters during the past decade. He has, instead, been “hamming it up” to earn a place toward the bottom of the roster. He is now much more like the fictional Rick Vaughn (played by Charlie Sheen in the movie Major League. The team’s owners are probably questioning the value of his annual contract which was worth 16 million JPY (approximately US $155K) in 2019.
Saito has, in fact, been in a long-term slump. He has not won a single victory in the last three years. He still pitched in 3 games in 2018 (2 starts) and 11 games in 2019 (1 start), but he didn’t pitch in 1 any games this season. Even on the farm, Saito has not achieved much success with only a single win and 3 losses with an ERA of 9.31 in 19 games. That’s bad. Keep in mind that an ERA between 4 and 5 is average. On top of all this, Saito currently has an injured elbow. It is said that he will aim for next season with conservative therapy without surgery. Thus, it seems highly unlikely that, as Vaughn did on camera, Saito will be able to transform into the next “Wild Thing” at any point soon.
What’s the latest brouhaha?
Given his lackluster performance, many fans openly wondered whether the team would be better off simply cutting their losses and kicking Saito off the team. After so many disappointing seasons, there are certainly plenty of other, much more promising players to groom. In a surprising move, the team decided, however, to extend his contract for another year. The Fighters did, reportedly, reduce Saito’s salary by 3.5 million JPY down to only 12.5 million JPY ($120K). Reaction from the Japanese media has not been kind.
A Greek tragedy in the court of public opinion…
Conventional wisdom is all over the place. Some baseball fans seem to think that the Fighters are simply trying to milk their long-term investment in Saito for as long as possible. Others believe that the Fighters should cut their losses by cutting Saito and simply move on. Nostalgic fans remember, of course, his glory days as The Handkerchief Prince and long for a revival of fortunes.
Some die-hard fans such as MDM are urging the Fighters simply to break Saito’s contract rather than extend the agony for yet another season by giving him a pay cut.
It seems like some fans on Twitter are, however, still supportive and want to see Saito finally succeed again. SorachanUmichan KSK wrote, “Oh, Yuki Saito. There was never a single “army” this year (referring to what the Fighters call a game). It was impossible until the end. ‘I want you to heal your elbows and get muddy next year.’”
The purists are, though, outraged that Saito has not yet been replaced by younger talent. Homebase doubts that he is worth his 12.5 million JPY salary. The tweet from Homebase gets right to the point with a screen print from a wildly popular Japanese TV drama called Hanzawa Naoki when the main character calls the person that he is addressing “Junk!” Homebase seems to be saying that Saito’s new salary of 12.5 million JPY is also a waste.
There is precedent for the Fighter’s reluctance to break from Saito. Back in the day, another big star of the Koshien high school tournament, Koji Ota, was retained by the Kintetsu Buffalo for 13 years with mediocre results. Ota could not even win a single game in his last three years before being traded across town (Osaka) to the Hanshin Tigers, where his performance improved a bit during his final two years as a pro.
The real problem…
The biggest problem with Nippon Ham is that it does not clearly explain the reason for keeping Saito. The lack of transparency has made everyone skeptical. Hideki Hashigami, a critic who has had management positioned on several pro teams in Japan, said, “It’s tough. Even if you transform him into a soft thrower, Saito’s ball is too weak and has no control. The atmosphere at the Fighters has become foul, which is in stark contrast to the principle of fierce competition at rival Softbank.” It is important to remember that it was as a Nippon Ham Fighter that U.S. major league sensation Shohei Ohtani got his start as a pro. Many fans and pundits in the media now believe that the Fighters have lost their way.
Peaked in high school?
In a way Saito is reminiscent of the controversial series of TV commercials that actor Rob Lowe made for DirecTV in the US in which a Rob played himself as a suave man who likes DirecTV and his alter-ego dubbed “Peaked in high school Rob Lowe” who hangs on to his glory days and watches cable.
At the end of the day you have got to feel a little sorry for Saito. Hey, maybe he’ll finally make a come back next season!
Mark Kennedy is a native of Chicago who has spent more than 20 years living, studying, and working in Japan. By day he is Country Head - Business Development, Nexdigm - Japan but becomes a writer after work. Mark is a lifelong student of the Japanese language and culture. He loves to travel throughout the country. Mark also is the author behind the "Real Gaijin" Substack, countryroadsjapan.com, as well as the Country Roads Japan and Coastal Sailing Japan YouTube channels. Photo supplied courtesy of the author who had stopped to check out the free-roaming horses and cows about half-way up to the summit of Mt. Aso, an active volcano in the center of Kyushu.