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Byung-Hyun Kim and “You Gotta Have Wa”

As I listened to Arizona Diamondbacks General Manager Joe Garagiola Jr. being interviewed on sports radio this morning (mostly in relation to Randy Johnson pitching a perfect game last night), and the topic turned to Korean pitcher Byung-Hyun Kim, currently with the Boston Red sox, I was reminded of Robert Whiting’s 1990 classic book on Japanese baseball, You Gotta Have Wa.

Garagiola was outlining one of the Diamondbacks’ biggest grievances while Kim was with them — his intense workout regime that some observers have called “insane,” and most agree is over-the-top.  Certainly the Red Sox seem to share this latter view of Kim’s habits of late night sprints in the outfield at Fenway long after the rest of the team has left, constant throwing and a devotion to repetition and overwork that leaves most observers with their heads shaking.

While Kim is Korean, not Japanese, there are certainly echoes of You Gotta Have Wa in Kim’s approach.  In particular, the insistence of Japanese pitchers to throw upwards of 200 pitches a day on their off-days and the repetitive 1,000 fungo workouts point to a similar philosophy of training in terms of excess and repetition.

In You Gotta Have Wa, Whiting, a journalist living in Japan, discusses many of the nuances, and what US readers (and baseball players) would view to be eccentricities, of Japanese baseball.  Along the way, Whiting exposes a lot of insights into Japanese society as well.  It is a great read with some passages that I recall made me laugh out loud.

As big as the culture clash may be for non-US players to come to the US to play professional baseball, by all acounts this experience pales in comparison with the culture clash of non-Japanese who play in Japan.  Deviation from the Japanese concept of team, and always putting the greater good of the team before oneself, along with the total lack of understanding of teammates’, fans’ and society’s expectations, is natural with the utter lack of exposure that US and Latin American players have of Japanese baseball before arriving there (unlike the Japanese conception of American baseball, because there is much more US baseball shown in Japan).  The intense media scrutiny in Japan overwhelms most US players who have played there.  Even the rabid Boston baseball media cannot hold a candle to the tenacity, viciousness and no-holds-barred style of their Japanese counterparts.  In the US we have seen the spillover of the Japanese media effect with the packs of Japanese reporters who swarm around Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Kaz Matsui, but this media frenzy is only an offshoot of what is an extreme devotion to their players and teams by Japanese baseball fans.

Whether Byung-Hyun Kim is going through big time culture shock, has lost his velocity due to overwork, is a real loner who shrugs off the overtures of his colleagues, hasn’t shaken his infamous showing in the 2001 World Series, or is just having a bad season, isn’t clear, but in terms of difficult transitions and eye-popping differences in basic philosophies of how to play the game, there is a yawning chasm between Asian and US baseball, and Kim is caught right smack in the middle of it.  You Gotta Have Wa is a great introduction to some of these differences.

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