TOKYO — Unlike Major League Baseball, for whom Rawlings has been the official supplier of baseballs since 1977, Japan’s top league has long used multiple manufacturers.
This season, however, for the first time in the 75-year history of Nippon Professional Baseball, every team is using the same supplier.
In any given season, as many as nine manufacturers had supplied baseballs to Japan’s 12 teams. Many clubs, in fact, contracted with multiple suppliers and freely switched the balls they used in their home games depending on the series, the month or some other variable that had to be revealed in advance to the commissioner’s office.
Citing rising costs and declining domestic production, Commissioner Ryozo Kato began the tedious and touchy process of unifying Japan’s ball last year. Mizuno emerged as the lone supplier.
But old customs are hard to break, and in tradition-bound Japan, the move to a unified ball comes with a twist: it is required only for official games played between major league teams. Individual clubs can continue choosing their own baseballs for minor league games, spring training games and practices. According to the commissioner’s office, at least two teams that contracted with multiple baseball makers last year, the Hanshin Tigers and the Yakult Swallows, continue to use those balls in unsanctioned events.
In Japanese baseball, power has traditionally rested with the teams. Franchises have operated independently on a variety of issues, including deciding which ball manufacturers to contract with, much as players in the United States and Japan decide which manufacturers’ bats, gloves and spikes they use.
In Japan, a culture evolved in which sporting goods makers, especially smaller regional ones, became dependent on their relationships with local clubs to supply thousands of balls each year.
“In order to build relationships that stand the test of time, you have to be willing to endure lots of hardships on your customers’ behalf,” Katsuhisa Matsuzaki, a spokesman for N.P.B, said in Japanese, describing the traditional arrangement. “For a team to then turn around and say to a supplier that persevered, ‘Sorry, we don’t you need anymore,’ is not the Japanese way.”
So instead of trying to undo longstanding relationships, Japan’s commissioner’s office established standards over the years to attain a degree of uniformity among the game balls being produced by multiple manufacturers.
That began as far back as 1950, when the Central and Pacific Leagues came under one governing umbrella. Over the years, standards pertaining to the balls were gradually tightened. This happened, for example, in 1981, after a game was delayed by 20 minutes as one team accused another of using a suspicious ball with extra zip. But until this year, teams could use any ball that adhered to the standards.
The new Mizuno ball for this season has been called the noncarrying ball, a reference to the effect of the lower-elasticity rubber that encases the cork center. Not surprisingly, pitchers like the new ball for that and other subtle changes they can use to their advantage.
“It breaks better, moves more advantageously for the pitcher,” Hisashi Iwakuma of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, speaking in Japanese, said of the new ball. “Whether you throw a fork or a curve or a slider, the break is bigger. Even your fastball doesn’t have to be perfectly straight; you can make it miss the sweet spot of the bat.”
Iwakuma said pitchers could manipulate the slightly lower height of the red stitches and their slightly wider spread.
Japan’s regular season was extended until this week because of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March and unusually heavy rain. But the ball is believed to be responsible for an abundance of curiosities.
By Christopher Johnson – Special to The Washington Times
9:25 a.m., Monday, July 18, 2011
TOKYO — In one of the most dramatic victories in Japanese sports history, Japan won its first women’s World Cup on Sunday, upsetting the United States on penalty kicks after a 2-2 draw.
While 50,000 spectators packed a sold-out stadium in Frankfurt, Germany, fans crammed into sports bars in Tokyo and other cities throughout the night, and many across Japan got up at 3:45 a.m. to watch the historic match live on TV at home.
Though the victory won’t solve Japan’s problems, the courage and resilience of Japan’s team will inspire many who have been laden with bad news since the March 11 disasters.
“It shows the true bravery of Japanese women,” said Kumiko Fukushi, a musician and studio owner in Tokyo who watched the game at home. “Even when we are under intense pressure, in life or on the soccer field, we don’t panic. We just think about trying our best to reach our goal.”
Many in Japan said the gods of soccer were on their side, and some even prayed for victory at a shrine in Wakayama province dedicated to birds symbolized on the Japan Football Association’s official crests and uniforms.
The top-ranked Americans dominated play for most of the match, but Japan came from behind twice against the taller opponents, who had beaten Japan 26 times in a row.
Japan’s women scored two goals with the deft touch and creative wizardry around the net that Japan’s male strikers have often lacked in World Cup matches.
“It was amazing and unbelievable,” said Akihiro Koh, a Saitama province engineer who has traveled around the world to watch Japan’s national soccer teams.
Mr. Koh noted that the Japanese women developed their toughness and technique by training together from early ages with male national team players.
“There aren’t enough young girls playing soccer at the national level, so they have to play with the boys,” he said. “The women grow up to really believe that they can beat other women and men as well. It doesn’t matter how tall they are.”
He said the goals by Aya Miyama and Homare Sawa showed skill levels beyond most male players. Ms. Miyama tied the match 1-1 by punching home a loose ball with her left foot.