On Sunday, the day he had been scheduled to start the seventh game of the Japan Series, Yomiuri Giant pitcher Masumi Kuwata reported to the Tokyo Dome wearing something obviously less serious than his game face. He walked into a room off the Giants' clubhouse and, when asked how he felt, broke into a big smile and announced, "I am drunk." It was 11 o'clock in the morning. It had been eight hours since he flopped into his hotel bed to end a night of revelry.
There would be no Game 7. The Giants had seen to that the night before with a 3-1 clinching victory over the Seibu Lions, the aftereffects of which admittedly had not left Kuwata's system. If Kuwata's brazenness—delivered in perfect English, no less—appeared more American than Japanese, that's just part of his character.
A 26-year-old righthander, Kuwata is a free spirit who talks to the baseball when he pitches; who is an American-film buff and is bored by Japanese flicks; who refined his diet according to the suggestions of American teammates (no meat, including raw horse, on any of the three days before a start); and who chooses to tool around Tokyo's congested, drive-on-the-left streets in a Mercedes with the steering wheel on the lefthand side. Most unusual for a Japanese, he has yearned to play baseball in the U.S. ever since he traveled to California with his high school team and marveled at how his American peers practiced in T-shirts and shorts.
"That would never happen in Japan," he said. "We have to be suited up in full uniform. Americans, they just play the game. In Japan it's 'We must....' and 'We have to....' There are good things and bad things in Japan and in America. I really like the good things in America. I like the individualism." That explains why Kuwata intends to pursue a career in the U.S. major leagues after next season, when he can declare himself a free agent. "That is my dream," he said.
While working on going to America, Kuwata enhanced his already legendary reputation at home with a decidedly un-American style of pitching in the Japan Series: After throwing six innings in a Game 1 defeat, Kuwata came out of the bullpen in the 10th inning of Game 3 to save a 2-1 win, cranked out 167 pitches in a 9-3 complete-game victory in Game 5 and was scheduled to start the seventh game with two days' rest. It was a level of effort he welcomed, even though he's just 5'9" and 176 pounds.
"The body aches, but I would have been ready," he said. "When you come this far, it is mostly a mental challenge. In America, pitchers look for help when they get close to about 100 pitches. In Japan, we value a complete game more."
Kuwata and Hiromi Makihara, who took care of two complete-game wins himself, including the clincher, figured in all four of Yomiuri's victories. Makihara, another righty, won a Toyota (with the steering wheel on the righthand side) as the series' Most Valuable Player, but Kuwata's workload ranked as one of many curiosities that came in all shapes and sizes during the Giants' run to their 18th championship in 45 years and first since 1989. The oddities included the rotund figure of the jolly Giant, Hiromoto Ohkubo, who would be the John Kruk of Japan if he lost a few kilograms, as well as the lithe frame of teammate Koichi Ogata, who looks to be as weak as the U.S. dollar in his country but proved otherwise. Both players hit stunning home runs.
Workhorse though he is, it still came as a surprise when Kuwata, the Yomiuri ace, marched in from the bullpen at Lions Stadium needing two outs to close out Game 3. The second batter scheduled to hit against him in the one-run game was Kazuhiro Kiyohara, his former high school teammate. Kiyohara, who like most Japanese grew up a devout Giant fan, had broken down and cried when Yomiuri chose Kuwata instead of him in the 1985 draft. When the fellow alums met in Game 1, Kiyohara crushed a home run his first time up. Kuwata was able to keep Kiyohara in the park in Game 3, holding him to a single before getting the last out.
Seibu tied the series at two games each the next night with a 6-5 victory in 12 innings—just three innings short of the maximum permitted under Japanese rules, in which case the game would have ended in a draw. The fans accept this arrangement politely, as they do most everything else, such as the midgame garbage pickup at Seibu Lions Stadium. Ushers walk up the long aisles in the fifth inning with green plastic bags, whereupon the fans pass their trash to the ends of the rows to be deposited. And don't try this at home, major league clubs: Vendors roam the stands selling shots of whiskey, even as late as the 12th inning.
The pear-shaped Ohkubo forced the extra innings when, with two outs and two strikes in the ninth, he hacked a pinch-hit home run. Ohkubo is such a laid-back fellow he doesn't even mind his nickname: Dave. It's an Americanization of debu, the Japanese word for "fat."
Kuwata had himself a lead in Game 5 that was downright debu—8-2 with six outs to go—but he refused to leave the game, even knowing he might have to start again in Game 7. The Giants had broken open the game in the sixth on a grand slam by Ogata, a defensive specialist who chokes up half a foot on the bat and who had seven RBIs, a .230 average and no home runs in 174 at bats during the regular season. When Giant manager Shigeo Nagashima told Kuwata he wasn't going back out for the eighth, Kuwata protested.
"I'm going to finish," he said.
"O.K., then let's do it. Go for it," Nagashima said.
So Kuwata pushed his body some more and kept talking to the baseball. "Get a ground ball for a double play," he would say to the ball, or "Get a strikeout."
"It helps me concentrate," he said. "It was like I was back in high school at Koshien [the national tournament]. I threw complete games four straight days. So I'm used to that kind of brutal pitching."
Unlike in his high school days, Kuwata this time had to pitch to Kiyohara, who rocked him for two more solo home runs in Game 5. Both were towering drives to straightaway centerfield, and they gave him four homers altogether, tying the Japan Series record. "He likes the ball high and over the middle of the plate," Kuwata said. "I challenged him there. Home run, strikeout, pop fly—it didn't matter. I got to face him. That was very exciting."
The most jarring event of the series came last Saturday, when the Lions, while gathered for a team breakfast hours before the start of Game 6, read in the newspapers that their manager, Masaaki Mori, was quitting after the series. His likely replacement would be Hiromichi Ishige, the Seibu third baseman. "Wow," said Lion infielder Mike Pagliarulo, a former major leaguer with four teams, "I thought I was back in New York with the Yankees."
Mori had led Seibu to eight Pacific League titles in nine years, but Lion owner Yoshiaki Tsutsumi found his manager and his team too colorless. When Tsutsumi and Mori, whose contract was up, met before the series started to discuss the team, Tsutsumi hesitated to give Mori a new contract, so Mori took the hint and bailed. The story leaked before Game 6, and the uninspired Lions had only seven hits off Makihara.
"You've got to put Makihara and Kuwata in the same group as guys like Greg Maddux, David Cone and Jimmy Key," said Giant outfielder Henry Cotto, another former major leaguer, who rapped three hits, including a home run, in the final game. "When they're on their game, it's going to be hard for anyone to score off them. These guys can pitch in the big leagues, believe me."
Traditionally, Makihara said, Japanese players did not think much of playing in the major leagues because "we are familiar with the system here. To go to the States is seen as a risk. And in this culture people don't like to take risks."
The advent of free agency in Japan may change that. Although only four of 60 eligible Japanese players switched clubs last year, the first year the system was in place, Tokyo newspapers are predicting the trickle will grow to a stream this year. Kuwata, for one, has no trouble envisioning his move next year. "There are a lot of bigger pitchers in Japan, but my special ability is my mental strength," he said. "I can pitch every day if I have to and win 15 games."
At the Tokyo Dome the morning of Kuwata's unscheduled day off, a fan produced a Japan Series program for Kuwata to autograph. With a steady hand he signed his name not in Japanese characters but in a handsome English script. "I always do," he said with a smile. "I love America."