Column: Can Baseball Change?
By Clay Andrews '13, Staff Writer
Bobby Valentine came to Amherst last Wednesday. The former Mets manager turned ESPN analyst graced the campus as part of an event focusing on baseball in Japan in collaboration with Yale University’s William Kelly ’68, Professor of Anthropology, Sumitomo Professor of Japanese Studies and baseball aficionado. The long-planned event sponsored by Amherst Athletics and the Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations with support from a host of other interested individuals and groups proved to be a thrilling success as Kelly provided a comprehensive and enthusiastic history of baseball in Japan. Valentine and former bench coach Frank Ramppen followed, sharing humorous stories of their time spent managing and coaching for the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan.

Valentine and Ramppen reminisced about the beauty of the country and the passion the fans have for baseball there. They recounted awkward cultural misunderstandings and striking differences between the American game and the Japanese game. Both Valentine and Ramppen harped on the work ethic and dedication Japanese players have for the game, recalling the team practicing after dinner and refusing to take days off, things you would never see here in American baseball.

Valentine even touched on more serious matters, criticizing the Japanese Baseball League for its failure to come together and pick up the nation in the wake of the recent devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Valentine also addressed the restricting politics of the Japanese league, which doesn’t allow for much player development or team cooperation. Finally, Valentine lamented the influx of Japanese stars into the MLB, explaining that this movement is killing the culture of baseball in Japan and comparing it to the way The Negro League was poached of its talent after the color barrier was broken in baseball. Bobby V offered an alternative, suggesting an MLB that includes a division in Japan, which would send a representative to play for the World Series in October.

Although the event was entertaining, informative and undoubtedly a triumphant success, the final take-away seemed less than optimistic. Valentine painted a picture of an MLB unconcerned with baseball in Japan other than its stars and a Japanese league too mired in its own power-hungry politicians to actively progress. It seemed like Valentine had seen both sides, only to understand how impossible it would be to create a truly global baseball community and a World Series that actually includes one of the best baseball-playing countries in the world.

Instead of providing hope for the future of baseball, Valentine’s message seemed only to remind of a reoccurring theme for the sport: a failure to adapt.

As America’s pastime, baseball is expected to run deep with our history and traditions, but at times this national expectation prevents baseball in America from making the adjustments necessary to fit in this day and age. Last year’s realization of the need for instant replay in baseball illustrates this disconnect. As other sports adjust to the shifting consciousness, technology and globalization of our growing world, albeit unwillingly at times, baseball refuses to budge, rooted to and hiding behind the tradition of the game.

With respect to Japanese baseball, the World Baseball Classic represents the greatest effort made to recognize the quality of baseball outside of the United States and accommodate baseball as a global sport. However, the attitude towards the tournament in the U.S. seems to suggest that the world tournament hasn’t exactly achieved its goal. The WBC generally features American players complaining about the lack of practice time and loss of spring training, rather than generating the nationalistic fervor that the Olympics or World Cup generates for Americans. In the U.S., the WBC is an afterthought to the World Series. So far, baseball in the U.S. has rejected the idea of a meaningful international baseball experience, instead opting for a World Series between two teams from either the U.S. or Toronto.

American baseball doesn’t only resist change when it comes to the rest of the world but in terms of image as well. For instance, in a country where athletes are the ultimate role models for children and where the detrimental effects of tobacco have long been known, it seems weird that chewing and dipping tobacco are still common habits in dugouts, bullpens and even on the field during the game in the MLB. Chewing tobacco while playing baseball is a custom that originates in a time when people thought smoking was good for you, yet it continues. Baseball in the U.S. has somehow managed to withstand all attacks from anti-tobacco activists, refusing to acknowledge that some traditions shouldn’t survive into the 21st century.

Another instance of American baseball’s inflexibility became apparent just after Valentine’s event at Amherst. When Valentine and Ramppen were discussing differences between the American game and the Japanese game, they highlighted the profound respect Japanese players have for their opponents. However, Ramppen introduced the Japanese emphasis on respect in a negative light, claiming that the American coaches tried to teach the Japanese players not to be so polite.

It seemed to bother Ramppen and Valentine that Japanese pitchers would tip their caps to batters that they hit with a pitch in a demonstration of apology. Ramppen especially didn’t like that Japanese base runners wouldn’t take out a second baseman or shortstop turning a double play out of respect when sliding into second base. Ramppen at one point turned to Valentine and said something along the lines of, “I think we taught them to slide a little harder by the end.” Well, they may have taught those Japanese players to slide “a little harder,” but apparently not enough to get them ready for the American game. The newest Japanese superstar to come stateside, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Twin’s second baseman and former player for Valentine and Ramppen on the Marines, broke his leg in his fifth game in the MLB after being taken out trying to turn a double play.

Valentine and Ramppen are not to fault for this support of questionably “hard” baseball. It is rather the strict traditions of the American game that still adhere to the attitude of Ty Cobb’s era in the 1910s.

When it comes to image, safety and inclusion of the rest of the world in American professional baseball, our national pastime remains out-of-touch with the expectations of modernity. Valentine only alluded to the true problem at Stirn on Wednesday: the problem that rests in American baseball’s unwillingness to change.

Issue 22, Submitted 2011-04-13 20:14:19