I don't know whether the Japanese system is good or not. I just don't understand it. —Bob Horner
He walked off the plane at Narita Airport, wearied by his long flight, blinking in confusion at the waiting crush of cameras, lights, and microphones. Reporters on the scene that warm April afternoon remarked that no foreign visitor to Japan had ever received such a tremendous welcome—not Ronald Reagan, not Princess Diana, not even Michael Jackson.
The visitor was not a head of state or a movie star. He was only an American baseball player. Nevertheless, to many Japanese, his appearance in their country was an event of national proportions and historical significance.
Japan was at the height of its economic muscle. Japanese interests owned 54 percent of all the cash in the world's banks, 65 percent of all Manhattan real estate, and 3 per cent of the entire U.S. national debt. A staid Japanese insurance company had paid 39 million dollars for Van Gogh's painting Sunflower.
And now, in what one TV commentator had called the pièce de résistance, a Japanese baseball team had outbid the American major leagues for a prime American player: James Robert Horner.
Bsubru was unquestionably the country's national sport. It was the most talked about subject amongst Japanese after the weather, the yen-dollar rate, and sex. And while imported sluggers were by no means new to Japan—name players like Frank Howard, Dick Stuart, and Reggie Smith had all emigrated to the Land of the Rising Sun after their own suns set in the West—no one in Horner's class had ever deigned to come over.
Horner had hit 215 home runs in nine seasons with the Atlanta Braves. A player of All-Star proportions, at twenty-nine, he was at his peak. After decades of benchwarmers and faded stars, here, finally, was an American product worth paying for.
Horner had snob appeal among people who were notoriously finicky about buying foreign goods. The Japanese preferred only brand-name imports and did not care how much they cost. A bottle of Napoleon brandy sold for two hundred dollars after going through Japan's infamous, complex distribution system. A BMW cost a hundred thousand dollars, and a packet of glacial ice cubes went for twenty bucks. Yet there was never any lack of buyers because possessing such items brought one prestige.
To the Japanese, this bona fide major leaguer from Atlanta was the ultimate status symbol, for he gave their game a credibility it lacked and, at two million dollars a year, was also by far the most expensive player they had ever acquired.
That Horner had come to Japan was a simple matter of economics. After a reasonably good season with the Braves in 1986, in which he had hit .273, with 27 home runs and 87 RBIs, Horner tested his worth in the free-agent market.
When no club met his asking price of two million dollars, Horner turned to the Yakult Swallows of Japan's Central League, who did—at least for one season. It was the fattest single-year contract in the history of Japanese professional baseball, more than twice what the highest-paid Japanese star was getting. His signing was such gigantic news that the pilot of the JAL flight that carried him to Japan had personally requested his autograph.
The Swallows were based in Tokyo, a city of tremendous energy and enthusiasm for baseball. However, nearly all of its 12 million residents were fans of Yakult's crosstown neighbor, the Yomiuri Giants, Japan's oldest professional team, winner of thirty-three CL pennants, sixteen Japan Series titles, and something of a national institution.
The Swallows, with but one championship in their thirty-seven-year history, drew around twenty-seven thousand fans a game, far behind the Giants' nightly average of nearly fifty thousand.
Their owner, Hisami Matsuzono, was a flamboyant entrepreneur who had acquired a massive fortune purveying a yogurt health drink called Yakult. In 1965, he had bought the team from the Sankei Corporation, a major multimedia group, as a means of promoting his company His ideas about running a baseball team, however, were somewhat unorthodox. He was an unabashed Giants fan and was frequently quoted as saying the ideal situation would be for the Giants to finish first and the Swallows runner-up.
In the spring following the Swallows' lone victorious year of 1978, he called a team meeting to tell his players that he did not expect them to win again. Second place would be just fine. Said one outfielder, "He sort of implied that it was the Giants' turn to win."
There were, it appeared, practical reasons for Matsuzono's sentiments. Statistics showed that whenever the Swallows defeated the Giants, sales of Yakult products dropped. It was true with other teams as well. If the Swallows swept a series, say, from the Hiroshima Carp, sales would fall temporarily in the Hiroshima region. Beating the Giants, however, meant a business nosedive all over the land. Giants fans were everywhere.
The Swallows had finished last in 1986, which was, not coincidentally, a profitable year for the parent company. Thus when Matsuzono signed Horner and proclaimed he wanted nothing less than another flag, fans and reporters were not sure what to believe. "It's a PR stunt," said one writer, "That's all."
None of this was yet known to Horner, who, frazzled and nearly blinded by camera flashes, submitted to an impromptu press conference—facing nearly two hundred print and TV journalists. When it was over, a convoy of press cars followed his limousine the hour-and-a-half drive to his hotel in Tokyo, where they camped outside for the duration of the evening.
That first day was only a hint of what was to come. Horner later told a friend that if he had known what he was in for, he might never have signed.
Horner was not the only gaijin (foreigner, outsider) to play in Japan that year. There were a total of twenty-one others under contract to the twelve teams of the Central and Pacific leagues (two per varsity team was the limit). Many of them greeted the arrival of their illustrious colleague with skepticism. Said Warren Cromartie, a former Montreal Expo who had hit .363 for the Tokyo Giants the previous year:
"Guys like Horner don't know what adversity is. He never played in the minor leagues. He's used to chartered airplanes, big locker rooms, and at least one day off a week. It will take him five months to get over the shock."
It took a special kind of person to play in Japan. A man had to deal with a different type of pitching, a wider strike zone, and unpredictable umpires. The life of a ballplayer was so regimented by club rules that many Americans compared it to being in the army . . . or worse.
It required a certain emotional adjustment that many found difficult to make—as Ben Oglivie would attest. A former American League home run champion who was no longer wanted by the Milwaukee Brewers, he had signed on as a free agent with the Kintetsu Buffaloes in 1987. But Oglivie, thirty-eight, was traumatized by the move. One day in late March after he returned to his new apartment in Osaka from a long preseason road trip, he packed his bags and, without a word to anyone, boarded a plane for his home in Phoenix.
Oglivie, a serious, introspective man who read Thoreau and Kierkegaard, told a writer that he was just not "mentally ready" for it all.
It was a terrible time. My whole life had been a commitment to the major leagues and I had no other ambition than to stay there. I would have played for Milwaukee or any other big-league team for half of the money I had been making. But the Brewers wouldn't even talk to me. The owners were clamping down and they didn't want to pay my salary of $500,000 when they could get ten younger guys for the same money. I kept waiting for some kind of offer. Then the Kintetsu Buffaloes approached me in January.
I really didn't want to be in Japan. It was totally off the wall. I went through a period when I couldn't figure out what was going on. It was just so different.
Everything built up and it all hit me that day. I was super-tired, more mentally fatigued than physically from being in such an alien environment. I'd been training since early February. And I just said to myself, "I don't belong here." So I left and I wasn't planning to come back.
Harried Kintetsu officials flew to Arizona and enticed Oglivie to return. Just exactly how, no one would say, but speculation had it that a significant increase in Oglivie's half-million-dollar salary helped make a difference.
Although most Japanese put Horner's arrival in the same category as the Second Coming of Christ, and assumed there would be no Oglivie-like problems, there was peevish opposition in some quarters, especially when it was discovered that Horner had not practiced in seven months.
It did not take long for reporters to dredge up Horner's reputation for weight problems, for chronic injuries, and for being something of a swillpot. One TV morning talk show host pounced on him: "He says he's six feet one inch, ninety-seven kilograms. Hmmmm. He looks a lot heavier to me. He looks like a pro wrestler if you want to know the truth. He also looks like he likes to drink. We hear he's been hurt a lot, that he has a bad elbow, that he has broken his wrist twice. It makes me ask the question, Why is he here? It must be because he's not wanted in the United States."
Owner Matsuzono ignored such criticism and made it clear he expected Horner to hit fifty home runs, even though a month of the season had already gone by, and issued him a uniform with the number 50 on the back, lest Horner forget his assignment.
Tokyo's Jingu Stadium, home of the Swallows, is located in Meiji Shrine Park, a grove of trees that forms one of the rare havens of green in an overcrowded, polluted city. Once a decaying prewar relic redolent of fried squid, the stadium was renovated in 1982. New seating was installed, along with artificial grass and a giant million-dollar electronic marvel of a scoreboard that lit up with "Guts Baseball" and other inspiring slogans.
The dimensions of Jingu, however, stayed the same. Like other stadiums in Japan, it seemed designed for Homu ran hitters like Horner—298 down the foul lines and 394 to center. Thus it was that forty-eight thousand expectant fans had filled the stands on the brisk evening of May 6, for the debut of Yakult's chunky, blond-haired American.
In right field, the Swallows' long-time cheerleader, a bespectacled sign painter in his fifties named Masayasu Okada, had passed out his usual assortment of colorfully painted frying pans, drumsticks, and other noisemakers to fans in the stands. Several thousand strong, they stood, swaying and chanting cheers as the game began. Each of them carried a transparent pastel-colored umbrella to be waved in unison in the event of a Yakult home run.
They didn't have to wait long. In the fifth inning, Horner belted a homer into the right field cheering section. "Fure! Fure!" (Hooray! Hooray!) screamed the fans, their jubilant cries reverberating around the stadium. His blast propelled the Swallows to a 5-3 win over the Hanshin Tigers and the next night, he smacked three more home runs, two over the left field fence and one off the wall in center, in yet another Yakult victory, 6-3.
By this time, Okada had composed a special Horner cheer for his followers to yell: "Go-go Ho-nah. Rettsu-go Ho-nah!" And Tiger left fielder Noriyoshi Sano had devised a special plan to rescue the battered Tiger pitching staff. "I'll put springs on my spikes," he said, "and leap up and catch the ball before it goes out."
By the end of his first week, Horner had two more home runs, he was hitting .533, and the Swallows had climbed to .500, two-and-a-half games out of first. More important, the team was drawing capacity crowds every night.
"He can hit a pitch in any location," exclaimed former star Tetsuharu Kawakami, Japan's equivalent of Ted Williams. "He's got perfect form," gushed Shigeo Nagashima, Japan's equivalent of Joe DiMaggio. Swallows manager Junzo Sekine, a warm-faced, kindly man with a lifetime losing record, could only keep repeating, "Sugoi," a Japanese word that means both "terrible" and "wonderful."
Swallows fans were even more emphatic. "I'm so happy I could die," one said. "I've never seen a foreigner like this before. He'll hit fifty home runs and we'll win the pennant." Banners appeared at the park which read, "Don't ever go back to America!"
It seemed as if the entire Japanese archipelago had suddenly stopped to watch Bob Horner. His face graced the front pages of every sports daily for a solid week. Three different networks interrupted telecasts of other games for video updates on Horner's latest at-bat. Horner Corner features became a regular part of the evening news and one TV station ran an hour-long Bob Horner special on a Sunday night in prime time--all this before he had even played ten games.
Moreover, on Tokyo's bustling stock exchange, Yakult stock shot up several points, while noodle sales at the colorful stalls underneath the Jingu grandstand plummeted. No one wanted to leave his seat and miss seeing Horner in action.
The newspapers gave Horner a nickname: Akaoni (the Red Devil), after a mythical creature from Buddhist lore--a red-skinned, horned ogre, capable of awful and awesome deeds. It was high praise. And although his bat cooled in his second week, as the opposition began pitching him more cautiously, Honah kokka (the Horner Effect) became the latest addition to the Japanese baseball lexicon. It was in reference to a vigorous new mood of confidence on the Swallows team. "With Honah-san in the lineup," said one player, "we can beat anyone."
A story appearing in the Nikkan Sports, a leading daily, completed the canonization of St. Horner.
There is no need to worry about Horner going home suddenly or causing trouble like the other gaijin. He won't be like Oglivie. He is trying to get as accustomed to the team as fast as possible, assimilating the Japanese culture and trying his hardest to be like a Japanese. In the short time he has been here, Horner has taken on the "challenge" of Japanese food. He has mastered the use of chopsticks.
The other day at dinner with a correspondent from the Atlanta Constitution, Horner assumed the role of teacher of Japanese table manners. "Never pour your own glass until you fill that of others," he told his fellow American.
In pregame practice, he calls out to his teammates by name—Watanabe, Hirosawa, Sugiura. He pats them on the shoulder.
When the Atlanta reporter made reference to "your Braves," Horner quickly corrected him. "I'm a Yakult Swallow," he said, thereby emphasizing that he has forgotten his major league pride and is thinking only of the team.