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Ballgames expose cultural differences

A fan's notes

Posted: Wednesday, July 12, 2000

Whether it's played in the Dominican Republic, America or Japan, baseball is baseball, right?

Wrong.

The two-game series concluded Tuesday between the Peninsula Oilers and Japan's Aichi Institute of Technology was as interesting for its sociology as it was for its baseball.

Baseball may be a game with litany of rules stipulating things like nine fielders aside, three strikes and you're out and 90 feet between the bases, but all those rules aren't enough to keep nations from soaking the game with their own culture.

Take Monday's game. Both teams approached it with the best of intentions, exchanging gifts before the first pitch, but the nuance of culture caused unintended offensive actions by both sides.

Aichi, a university of 5,000 students located in Toyota City, had a 10-run lead on the Oilers by the sixth inning.

There's an unwritten rule in America -- but not in baseball -- that such a large lead late in the game means things like stealing and bunting stop.

There's no such unwritten rule in Japan. In fact, through an interpreter, Aichi general manager and physics teacher Shizuo Okada said Japanese feel the exact opposite about big leads.

To show the opponent the disrespect of stopping the little things in the game, like bunting and stealing, is to "rub an opponent's face in the dirt."

As strange as it may sound to the ethnocentrics in the crowd, Monday Aichi showed the Oilers respect by stealing second with a large lead when the first baseman wasn't even holding the runner on.

Baseball is baseball, huh?

"It was just a clash of cultures on the baseball field," said Christian Huggett, an English teacher at Aichi who served as the team's interpreter.

And even after Aichi's bunting and stealing, the cultures weren't done clashing yet.

In the ninth inning, Oilers manager Gary Adcock, who used to pitch for UCLA, inserted himself into the game against Aichi.

Looking at it from the Oilers perspective, the move made sense. Using another pitcher would have thrown off the Oilers rotation for today's and Thursday's two-game series against the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, the Oilers closest pursuer in the Alaska Baseball League.

"I didn't want to overuse and hurt any of my pitchers," Adcock said. "At the same time, I told (catcher) Joe (Hietpas) to stay right in the center of the plate.

"My biggest concern was hitting somebody. It was the last inning of an exhibition game. You don't want anyone to get hurt."

Aichi didn't see it that way.

"It's unthinkable," Okada said through Huggett. "I've never seen anything like that before."

Fortunately, both teams showed a cultural snafu here and there can be overcome with good intent and understanding.

The best example of good fellowship came in Monday's game came when Randall Shelley of the Oilers fouled a ball of the top of his foot.

An Aichi player immediately popped out of the dugout and applied some of the spray that numbs the skin to Shelley's foot, receiving a round of applause from the crowd.

"He was surprised to get applause for that," Huggett said. "In Japan, showing respect like that for the other team is automatic."

The series threw a curve into many of the daily routines at the ballpark, but in the end most welcomed a change from the daily routine.

"I think I'd give myself an 'A' for effort, but a 'C,' or maybe a 'D,' for results," said Oilers public address announcer Dennis Smith of his efforts at pronouncing Aichi's names. "At least there were only about 27 people in the park who knew how bad of a job I was doing."

It was also a busy couple of days for Elmer Luck, who sells souvenirs at the ballpark. Aichi loaded up on T-shirts, bats and hats. Huggett said the players will have to bestow gifts on people in Japan who helped make the trip possible upon returning home.

"They buy more things than our own fans," Luck said. "I had to stay open an extra hour the first day they were here."

Despite Monday's misunderstandings, Aichi players will associate those souvenirs with fine memories and hospitality.

Hugget said Mike Baxter, the baseball operations manager for the Oilers, even went back to the Bingo Hall before the game to fetch a pair of cleats outfielder Keisuke Shimizu forgot.

"We'd like the Oilers for their kindness, fellowship and generosity," Hugget said. "They've went out of their way to help us."

For the reminder that baseball isn't merely baseball, the hospitality was well worth it.

Jeff Helminiak is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He can be reached at clarion@alaska.net



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