The Trenton Trib is a monthly publication, so I try to focus on a variety of topics and this month I tried not to write about baseball because I’ve written a number of them lately.
But I couldn’t avoid it with the tremendous success of our Trenton natives in professional baseball — not only here but around the world.
In 2016 the Land of the Rising Sun witnessed a rising star, 2005 Trenton High School graduate Anthony Bass. During this time I asked Anthony’s mother, Linda, what is the name of the team Anthony plays for in Japan? Her answer was the Hokkaido Nippon “Ham Fighters.”
With that reply I laughed hysterically and thought, “What’s a Ham Fighter?” Is it a Wild Boar with a machete? Is it a Warthog trained in Martial Arts? Later I discovered it was the nickname from a major Japanese food processing company.
The headline of this story is Anthony Bass was a hero in the 2016 Japanese World Series — it is only the third time the Ham Fighters have won it since the franchise began play in 1946.
Anthony would do everything asked for by his team — starting pitcher, long relief, closer, and, in the deciding game of the Japan series, pitched excellently and in the latter part of the game he also batted for himself and got a key hit that helped solidify the victory.
Professional baseball in Japan has some stark differences from baseball here, starting with the celebration of the championships. In Japan winning a title is rather subdued — no wild celebration, just a party at the hotel. Whereas here clinching of a division or advancing in the playoffs are met with huge silly celebrations of players donning goggles and the locker room lined in plastic, champagne splashed everywhere. It’s just a bit absurd, especially if there’s still rounds to go to be world champs.
Baseball is played in a more genteel fashion there. There’s more of a “one base at a time” mentality, or “small ball” as we know it here — as opposed to long ball. In Japan they bunt, steal bases and play more fundamental baseball. There is great emphasis on holding runners on base, especially critical to a right handed hurler such as Anthony Bass.
Appreciated also is the team manager, who is highly esteemed in Japan. He is like a father figure, and when he approaches the mound his decision is final.
In the United States baseball is referred to as our “National Pastime,” but not in real popularity. Statistics prove it’s more popular here. But in Japan it is without question the national pastime. The Japanese have great passion for the game. Each game is met with a festive atmosphere with fans dressing in costume and chanting in unison, more so than here.
There are some differences structurally in the way the pros play there — only144 games to our 162. The rosters are your basic 25, but you are allowed only four foreigners there (well that’s interesting. A little protectionism, wouldn’t you say?).
The four foreigners are often power hitters inserted in the meat of the batting order. Interestingly, the regular season games are a maximum of 12 innings, therefore games can end in a tie. I never thought tie games in hockey or football were a national tragedy, so they’re no problem with me.
The baseball used in Japan has a different feel and favors the picture on breaking balls, but the strike zone is smaller, and the fences are closer. You know what they say — six of one half dozen of the other. The professional Japanese Baseball league was originated in 1936, and many exhibition games were played against notables Babe Ruth, Jimmy Foxx, Charley Gehringer and Lou Gehrig.
Then along came this little thing called World War II, and the friendship was suspended. The relations were normalized after the war and recruitment of Americans became common.
Playing in Japan gave the American an opportunity to play full time and receive a healthy contract with special perks.
A familiar American export to Japan was Detroit Tigers’ Cecil Fielder, who played with the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1980s before opting out for a year in Japan. At first there was difficulty adjusting to his new environment, but he was accommodated with a chauffeur and full-time interpreter, and this helped him adjust.
By 1989 Cecil signed with the Tigers and a couple years later hit 51 home runs — remarkable in the pre-steroids era, and became a three-time all-star during his stint with Detroit.
Anthony Bass is seeking a similar scenario to come back home and help a major league team’s pitching staff — which already has occurred. On Feb. 11, just two weeks after getting married to girlfriend Sydney Rae James in Mexico, Anthony signed with the Texas Rangers. So, sayonara, Japan, and welcome back, Anthony.
Tony Mazzella welcomes readers to friend him on Facebook, where he frequently shares recollections about some of the interesting people and businesses in Trenton’s past.