The Diplomat Who Touches All the Bases

Ryozo Kato, then Japan's ambassador to the United States, showed his stuff while throwing the first pitch at Yankee Stadium in 2004.
Ryozo Kato, then Japan's ambassador to the United States, showed his stuff while throwing the first pitch at Yankee Stadium in 2004. "When I am asked if I love baseball more than my wife, I say, 'I met baseball first,' " Kato said. (Kathy Willens - Associated Press)
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By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, May 31, 2008

Officially, for the last 6 1/2 years, Ryozo Kato's title in Washington has been ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of Japan to the United States of America.

Unofficially, he's just "a baseball nut."

This week, upon leaving the most prestigious post a Japanese diplomat can hold, the 67-year-old returned to Tokyo to begin a new job next month, one he never sought yet accidentally spent his whole life preparing for: commissioner of baseball in Japan.

"A lot of people in Japan have been green with envy. They want to know what I did to become commissioner," said Kato, who, after a 60-year affair with the game, may have no rival anywhere in grasping the sport in both its Eastern and Western forms. Binding encyclopedic knowledge with decades of firsthand connections in the United States, Kato is unique. Not that he'd say it.

"I didn't do anything to get the job, except I was out of the country for 6 1/2 years, so I was not exposed to scrutiny," said the puckish ambassador, who has, out of obsession and whim, amassed an international collection of what the world crassly calls memorabilia. Kato simply describes his trove as "memories with a special meaning to me, none my favorite, but all of them stuck together, each important in its own way."

What is a tie to Kato if not signed by Sadaharu Oh and Hank Aaron after a dinner in their honor at the elegant, modern Japanese Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue during his tenure?

"If everything goes well, I'm slated to become commissioner with the appointment approved on June 18," Kato said before leaving Washington, breaking news, at least in the Occident.

"But to be a baseball nut is different than being the commissioner," he added soberly.

What Japan gets in Kato may be an amalgam of Bud Selig's sense of history, Bart Giamatti's literary temperament (and inexperience), Peter Ueberroth's international business acumen, plus Fay Vincent's aspiration (usually thwarted) to be more than an owners' man. Also, like Bowie Kuhn, who worked the Griffith Stadium scoreboard, Kato seems charmed and incredulous that he will soon run the sport that he played as a boy.

Or, of course, Kato may be stymied by a popular but somewhat stagnant game in Japan that copes with old ballparks, a denial of the need for drug testing and a stream of superstars such as Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka who come to the big leagues in the United States.

"We have come to a crossroads. I must make up my mind about many things," Kato said. "For example, no drug testing. No drug use cases have become public. But how tempting. The incentive [to cheat] is there. Consider the heat you feel as a high school player in Japan, where you are as famous as any college basketball star in America. This is the kind of problem I will have to face -- maybe sooner, rather than later."

Kato's lifelong trip to the commissionership tests the limits of improbability. In 1945, his family evacuated Tokyo to escape U.S. bombing. Yet in four years, he not only was in love with baseball but especially with the U.S. major leagues.

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