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.
In '49, when Kato was 8, the San Francisco Seals toured his country. "The Seals swept all 10 games from our best players. And they were minor leaguers!" Kato said. "My older brothers told me, 'In America, there are godlike superstars.' I wondered what these demigods might look like. But we had no photographs in our magazines of Joe DiMaggio's 'wide stance' or Stan Musial coiled 'like a cobra.'
"I had to exercise the power of imagination to imitate them. I collected acorns to hit with a stick. I would make up games for hours, pretending to be DiMaggio. I would think: 'I am Stan Musial. But the way I am hitting today, he would be very disappointed in me.' Yet I had never even seen their pictures."
Now, Musial is just one of Kato's old friends.
Finally, Kato saw his first major leaguer -- in the flesh. After losing the 1955 World Series, the Yankees came to Tokyo. "My father took me to see Mickey Mantle, who had just won his first home run title," he said. "Tommy Byrne and Bullet Bob Turley threw very hard."
But, his dad insisted, neither was as fast as Lefty Grove. "My father saw Grove in Japan in '31 -- before lights for night play," Kato said. "Grove pitched the eighth and ninth at dusk and struck out all six Japanese hitters on 21 pitches. The next day the papers called it 'the smoke ball' -- the pitch you cannot see, only the smoke it leaves behind."
Somebody tell Bud to work on his anecdotes. He's got competition.
"My father liked 'macho,' not diplomats and bankers. He thought they were wimpy," Kato said. "When I became a diplomat against his wishes, he became a fan of diplomats."
Now the diplomat has become baseball's boss. Don't say time lacks a sense of humor.
Since getting a law degree from Tokyo University in 1965, Kato has spent a lifetime representing Japan on difficult issues -- treaties, security, foreign policy, trade and economics. But beside his bed he keeps collections of baseball writings, which he rereads for their common sense, soothing specificity or just "to calm me after my day."
Now, Kato is acutely aware that baseball will change from joy to job. "I am told it is a hard and messy job," he said, especially the relationship between owners and players.
At least Kato knows he has chips to trade. The players' union in Japan may resist drug testing, but wants to shorten the years before free agency -- now nine seasons compared with only six in Major League Baseball. "Nine is way too much," Kato said. "That's longer than I was ambassador."
Under the current "posting system," Japanese stars must also wait nine years before coming to the United States, where salaries are three times as high. Kato may push to shorten that, too. Last year, Matsuzaka and his old team in Japan each received about $50 million when he signed with the Boston Red Sox. For a league with 12 teams that average crowds of 25,000 in a 140-game season, such windfall cash is welcome. But losing stars such as Dice-K is touchy.
"We have mixed feelings. We are very proud to see our heroes do well in America because, in baseball, the U.S. is number one," said Kato, not mentioning that Japan -- rather than the U.S. team of MLB stars -- won the first World Baseball Classic in 2006. "But we also have a kind of sadness at seeing our stars go -- like a 'brain drain.' "
What Kato may miss most as he leaves the United States are trips to Camden Yards and now Nationals Park, the symbols of what Japan does not have and is unlikely to get soon -- modern parks where, as he said, the public's shortened attention span is placated with "a picnic atmosphere for everyone."
"Even America's old parks like Fenway and Wrigley have their own exquisite taste," Kato said. "Our infrastructure is old. We have four indoor stadiums. There's nothing like America's Opening Day -- the blue sky, the national anthem, a president's first pitch and the jets fly over. All of a sudden we feel the weight of history."
Now, he feels the weight of leaving. "I do not regret a minute," he said. "I had 6 1/2 wonderful years." Kato paused to think of the proper analogy, some player who had a prime of comparable length. "Just like Sandy Koufax," he said.
Mercifully, such baseball trivia has never been required of Kato's wife, Hanayo, or their three children. "When I am asked if I love baseball more than my wife, I say, 'I met baseball first,' " Kato said. "But now she is catching up with the game. When the Nationals played the Braves, I heard someone yell, 'Mr. Jones.' I looked at the box seat railing and saw this Oriental woman asking for an autograph on her Nats program.
"It was my wife," said the beaming commissioner. "She recognized Chipper before I did."