Vance Law is coming off his best season in professional baseball. He hit .313 and ranked third in the league. He hit 29 home runs to also rank third. His .565 slugging percentage led the league. He made the All-Star team.
In case you missed this news, it might be because Law did all of the above for the Chunichi Dragons, located in Nagoya, Japan.After nine seasons of nonstop service in America's major leagues, Law - who was a National League All-Star as recently as 1988, when he wore the uniform of the Chicago Cubs - skipped continents to play in Japan's major league. He was the only American on the Dragons, and stood out like some sort of invading Babe Ruth. The Dragons want him back for 1991 for obvious reasons, and are willing to pay him as much as they did this season, which was plenty, even for them. But Law, who turned 34 on Oct. 1, has reservations about an encore season in the Orient.
"I'll keep all my options open," he says, now that he's back home in Provo, watching a World Series that he knows firsthand doesn't include all the world.
"But I'd like to play in America again. I feel like I've got two more years, at least, and playing in Japan made me appreciate what a great game we have here."
Law says he certainly means no disrespect to the Japanese national pasttime, it's just that he doesn't happen to be Japanese himself - his roots are in Idaho - and besides hitting the cover off the ball this past season in the land of the rising forkball, he did a lot of shaking his head.
"They do things different over there," he says. "I don't know. It must be the culture."
Among other things, Law observed the following:
- Often, when things are going badly, they'll replace the catcher, not the pitcher.
- When the count is full, or, say, 2-0, Japanese pitchers will invariably throw a breaking ball, unlike American pitchers, who usually challenge the hitter with a fastball.
- They'll bunt to move a runner off first base - IN THE FIRST INNING.
- Every pitcher on the team warms up in the bullpen every game.
- Pregame warmups last over four hours, and include football-style drills, wind sprints and stretches.
- Games last an average of three and a half hours, a good half-hour to hour longer than games in America.
"It's interesting," says Law. "They'll have managers from America come over and give clinics, and then when they go home, they'll go back to doing things the way they like to do them."
There was another American on the Dragons when the season started (the maximum number of Americans allowed per team is two), but he only lasted a month in the face of the above culture shock.
Law, a mild-mannered diplomat, went with the flow, did his best to develop a good sense of "Wa" (Japanese for team unity), and read a lot.
"More than 30 novels, in one season," he says. "I read all of Robert Ludlum, and Clive Cussler, and Frederick Forsythe."
He also read "You Gotta Have Wa," by Robert Whiting.
"That book pretty well sums up what I saw in Japan," he says.
Law did buck the system slightly about halfway into the season, when he stopped going through all the stretches and sprints and drills before the games. "In my opinion they wear themselves out before they throw the first pitch," he says. "I just told them, `I've done it the Japanese way, now I'll do it the American way.' I could feel it affecting my legs. At the end, I was the only guy on the team who didn't fade."
The one Japanese custom he'd bring to America is the extensive batting practice that goes on before games.
"They have two cages, and they're going nonstop. You can easily hit up to 100 or 125 balls before a game," he says. "In America, you're lucky if you get 25. And if you're in a slump over there, they'll let you hit all day."
Law says the fans are different in Japan as well. "They stay there through blowouts, through boring games, through everything," he says. "And they blow trumpets and beat drums and have cheerleaders. They have a little tune for every player. Every time you come up they chant, in Japanese, `Base hit, so and so,' and keep repeating it. After a while it can wear on you."
"I have nothing bad to say about the country, or the people. They were great to me," says Law. "It's just that the baseball they play isn't the baseball we play."
As soon as the Reds and A's are through deciding an American champion this week, Law and his agent will get serious about contacting major league teams, apprising them of his availability. They'll slip in the numbers from Japan. "They show I can still play," says Law. The Dragons' opponents from last season wouldn't argue. The way he hit the ball, they were changing catchers like crazy.