The quality of baseball in japan is high but the fun factor is low
The standard of the game in the Land ofthe Rising Sun is impressive, but enjoyment doesn't seem to run parallel
There is nowhere more efficient and predictable than Japan. It's next to impossible to get a bad meal in this country and the beer, particularly up here in Sapporo, is ridiculously refreshing and delicious while the people are unfailingly courteous.
Of course, there is also a downside to all that predictability. As edifying as this place may be, there is nary an ounce of spontaneity and for a perfect microcosm of modern Japan all you have to do is go to a baseball game. Luckily, I happened to be in town for a marquee pitching match-up between the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters and the visiting Hiroshima Carp at the Sapporo Dome.
The stadium's most memorable moment remains England beating Argentina 1-0 thanks to a David Beckham penalty in the 2002 World Cup. Merchants in Sapporo still talk about that night and how the town was basically in lockdown mode over fears of English football fans running amok.
But tonight there isn't even the slightest hint of acrimony among fans. And while there is a constant din with the endless pounding of drums and roaring loudspeakers, it's a contrived and controlled raucousness which makes me yearn for a couple of leather-lung heckling drunks, the type found in most American ballparks. But not here, not tonight, so I calmly settle in to enjoy the match-up of two of the game's top hurlers.
The Carp's Kenta Maeda is generally conceded to be the best pitcher in Japan now that Masahiro Tanaka has left to play for the New York Yankees.
At 26 years of age, he has made no secret of his desire to pitch in the major leagues and will probably be following Tanaka to North America next season. There is a scout sitting in front of me with a mini-cam and a clipboard to chart every pitch. He won't give me his name or the team he represents, he won't even let me buy him a beer because he's working. He does say there are a few other major league scouts here tonight, and why not?
Japanese pitching has never been in higher demand. All Tanaka has done in his Major League Baseball debut is win nine games and lose one while posting the best earned-run average in the American League. He is arguably the best pitcher in baseball and the Texas Rangers' Yu Darvish, who was the ace of the Ham Fighters for years, is not far behind him.
But far more noteworthy, at least for me, is the guy pitching against Maeda. Shohei Otani is the future of Japanese baseball in more ways than one. As an 18-year-old, he caused a national furore last year by saying he wished to go directly to the US even if it meant spending a couple of years toiling in the minors.
Eventually he was convinced to stay in Japan to start his career but his initial repudiation of domestic baseball was rooted in the fact that not only did he want to play against the best competition but he wanted to enjoy the game as well.
For far too long, baseball in Japan has been run by antiquated fossils who over-work and over-coach players. Even little league is a series of endless drills and while it is great to instil fundamentals, you have to let kids be kids. You have to let them play baseball and there is so little spontaneity in the Japanese brand that it's predictable to a fault.
A towering 193cm, Otani is an imposing presence. In the first inning, his fastball reaches a speed of 160km/h for the first time, breaking baseball's mythical 100-mile per hour barrier. There are less than a dozen people on the face of the earth who can throw that fast and even fewer are still teenagers. Otani seems bored at times. No one can touch his fastball so he throws some nasty off-speed pitches that have hitters both terrified and confused.
In five innings he strikes out 10 before departing with a sore ankle. Maeda no-hits the Fighters until his defence deserts him in the fifth inning and he suffers a rare 6-2 loss.
Otani also plays in the outfield on the days he is not pitching and is a very solid .285 hitter. It's pretty clear he is already worthy of a higher league and the scout doesn't even bother tracking his pitches. He won't be coming to the majors for a few years and they already know what he can do. Still, I ask the scout what he thought of Otani's performance . "Efficient," he grunts.
Of course, this is still Japan after all.