Sure as leaves flutter to the ground and turkey gobbles fill the air, a fall baseball tradition, too, is about to be renewed.
The twelve teams of Nippon Professional Baseball have begun their annual courting of foreign talent to play in Japan next season. Many who accept offers will surely prepare for the experience the same way those before them have for 30 years, by watching “Mr. Baseball.”
The comedy stars Tom Selleck as Jack Elliot, a former superstar for the Yankees who is struggling to recapture his greatness. He is called into his manager’s office and told they shopped him around but there was only one taker, the Chunichi Dragons in Japan.
“I’m a Major Leaguer,” Elliot declares. “There’s no way I’m going to play in Japan.”
He does and thus begins his journey into a peculiar new world, where shoes are not permitted in the clubhouse, toilet seats are too small for him and sluggers are sometimes expected to bunt, all of which, according to an unscientific poll of foreigners who played there recently, is still true today.
The film was released to limited success thirty years ago this fall, but it has evolved into a go-to resource for players wanting to know what they are getting themselves into.
While the image of a washed-up player being jettisoned to Japan does not match up well with the realities of foreign players in Japan — Miles Mikolas, Ryan Brasier and Colby Lewis are among recent examples of young players who went to Japan and returned to American baseball with success — the portrayal of a world that seems topsy-turvy at first glance to Selleck’s Elliot is right on according to those who watched the movie to prepare for their journey.
“Absolutely,” said Nick Martinez, a relief pitcher who spent multiple seasons in Japan before signing with the San Diego Padres this season and playing a starring role in the bullpen that led San Diego to the National League Championship Series.
In one scene from “Mr. Baseball,” Selleck’s character questions the value of a conditioning drill he has never seen in which players squat low and try to advance across the field by kicking their legs out.
“What’s this?” he asks Hammer, his team’s veteran suketto, or foreign player, played by Dennis Haysbert. When told it was a common drill, he retorts, “For what, a Russian dance contest?”
Martinez confessed similar doubt before reaching acceptance in the way things were done there.
“They had some really unique transfer-of-balance drills where you use a bar or a stick across your shoulders and you shuffle side to side and land on one leg, putting your glute in kind of a power position,” Martinez recalled. “When you first do it, it looks really silly, so you’re kind of doing it half-ass because it just seems like eyewash. But when you take the time to learn it and get into a groove doing it, you’re like, ‘Man, I can feel my glute.’ It makes you more aware of your balance and where your power is coming from. It’s pretty cool.”
Rex Hudler is most likely the first player who was able to use the film as a resource. He signed with the Yakult Swallows following the 1992 season, just after the movie was released. His introduction to it was as the in-flight entertainment on the plane taking him to Tokyo to become a real-life version of Jack Elliot.
“I used it as a reference big time,” Hudler said. “Nobody else on the plane was going over there to play Japanese baseball, so they were all laughing. I was guarded and soaking it all in like a sponge.”
In eight major league seasons to that point, Hudler had played for the Hall of Fame managers Yogi Berra, Earl Weaver, Whitey Herzog and Joe Torre. That did little to prepare him for Katsuya Nomura, his manager in Japan and a Hall of Fame catcher notorious for his biting frankness and distrust of foreign players.
Hudler recalled being astonished when Nomura would dispatch the interpreter to the on-deck circle with ill-timed reminders about hitting. Hudler relied on just the kind of ingenuity and diplomacy necessary for face-saving survival in Japan.
“I said to the interpreter, ‘Hey, look, I’m a little offended by this right here,’” Hudler said. “‘I’m a professional baseball player, I have been for 15 years, so next time he sends you out here, don’t you dare tell me what he says. Just say, ‘Hey, Hud, get a big hit. He’ll never know what you told me.’ From then on, whenever he’d come out, that’s what he would say and everyone was satisfied.”
Hudler survived some early struggles, batted .300, and helped the Swallows to their first championship in 15 years. Suketto are expected to hit home runs, however, and his 14 were not enough. He was not re-signed. Even so, he says he cherishes his time in Japan and considers it one of the best experiences of his life.
‘I used it as a reference big time.’
Rex Hudler, who watched the movie on his flight to Japan before joining the Yakult Swallows for the 1993 season.
Amusingly, the featured film on the return flight to the United States was, once again, “Mr. Baseball.”
“The second time, I laughed my ass off,” Hudler said. “I was like, Oh my gosh, this is so close to what I experienced, a little fabricated but close. Instead of being guarded, now I had just lived it, and I totally got it. It’s my favorite baseball movie.”
That sentiment is a tribute to Leon Lee, whose name appears twice in the film’s credits: as an actor portraying a suketto from another team and, more significantly, as the film’s baseball adviser. Lee played 10 seasons for three teams in a Japan career that ended in 1987. His 1,436 hits are fourth all-time among foreigners in N.P.B.
Lee fought for authenticity in the film’s baseball scenes. He argued with the Australian director Fred Schepisi that baseball fans would not believe a runner on first could score on a line drive up the middle or the trajectory of a batted ball discernible as a pop up could be edited as a wall clearing home run. The scenes were reshot and in the latter case, Selleck actually hit one out that made the final cut. Lee earned the trust of Selleck, a noted Detroit Tigers fan, who valued such authenticity.
That allowed Lee to make perhaps his greatest contribution, and the one that likely has resonated most with players using the film as a resource to prepare for their own journey. When Selleck and Haysbert would ask for character perspective, Lee consciously dispensed it with a feeling of appreciation and fulfillment from his time in Japan.
“Mr. Baseball” is not based on one real-life player’s career. However, it certainly is influenced by Lee’s experiences, which were rewarding and positive despite moments that proved befuddling, like when he was released by the Taiyo Whales after a typically productive season of 31 home runs, 110 runs batted in, and a .303 batting average. According to Lee, the team believed he had not been clutch.
‘I was not going to be a part of something that made fun of the Japanese game.’
Leon Lee, a veteran of Japanese baseball who served as a consultant on the film.
“I was not going to be a part of something that made fun of the Japanese game,” Lee said of the film. “I played 10 years there, and I wasn’t going to belittle it. For Americans going over there, it’s easy to let your ego get in the way and say, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I doing that?’ But when you get back home, you realize you actually became a better ballplayer. The Japanese also really emphasize teamwork. Any human being from any part of the world is going to find real joy in the camaraderie that comes from being part of a team in Japan.”
At the end of the film, it is Haysbert’s Hammer who gets an offer to return to American baseball while Selleck’s Elliot is happy to stay.
Lee thinks he understands why even after thirty years, “Mr. Baseball” remains a resource for players going to Japan.
“Sure, Japan’s different, but different is not always bad,” Lee said. “If you get anything out of the movie, you see that Jack Elliot makes an adjustment and you realize you, too, can adapt and adjust to a different culture.”