First base umpire Toshiyuki Tanaka was sure the fly ball hit the ground before the Chunichi Dragons' outfielder got his glove on it. Safe, the umpire ruled. The fans exploded in protest.

After the uproar died, after the enraged Dragons went on to win 11-2, Tanaka went home and watched the TV replays of his ruling. "What I saw on the TV was not what I saw in the game," the umpire ruefully acknowledged.

With shame and guilt for his error, the 35-year veteran concluded he must temporarily suspend himself from umpiring any further games until "I refreshed my mentality."

This sort of self-imposed punishment would never happen in America, a reporter later observed. Ahh, Tanaka replied. American umps. Too big. Too arrogant.

Just like we want to be, he added.

Japanese feelings toward American baseball are confusing and complex--part respect, part distaste; an unsatisfying mix of attraction and rejection.

The ambivalence, and the differences between how the game is played here and in the United States, are evident in the view of American players hired to play in the Japanese leagues, as well as how umpires are viewed in the two countries.

The foreigners--there are 63 of them, including 43 Americans--are feted lavishly, paid handsomely and often summarily dismissed.

The pink slip can come for a dip in performance, or a breach of etiquette by an outsider who seems petulant and swaggering to Japanese eyes.

"I can say that the Americans here are often seen as arrogant and selfish," said Kazushige Tsuchiya, a sportswriter who has covered Japanese and American baseball since 1957. "But it's basically a difference in culture."

The latest example of this rocky relationship was pitcher Darrel May. The former Anaheim Angel signed last year to play for the Hanshin Tigers, sat down last month to write a note that scandalized the Japanese baseball world.

"I don't think the manager wants foreign players to be part of the team," he wrote, among other criticisms of Tigers manager Katsuya Nomura. Then he sent the critique to reporters.

This is not done in Japan.

"To criticize the top of the team, that is a very heavy crime," said Masaru Homma, a Tigers spokesman. "It is hard to imagine a Japanese player doing that."

May was promptly suspended for the rest of the season. Lost in the outcry was the fact that that May had hit a particularly sensitive truth about Japan's attitudes toward the foreigners it hires for its national pastime.

The players, who are often surprised by the gushing welcome given them when they first arrive in Japan, soon realize that welcome lasts only as long as they are doing well.

"You're hired help here," said Mark Smith, a left fielder who played with the Baltimore Orioles from 1994 to 1996, and came to play in Japan in February from the Pittsburgh Pirates. "You always have to put up big numbers, and you always have to be at the top of your game, or you're gone."

The American players are typically hired, at high salaries, because they are good hitters or good pitchers. Japanese rules allow each team to put three foreigners in the lineup each game.

"Americans like coming here because they can make good money," said Smith, a lanky blond who towers over his teammates. "But I don't think you are treated on the same level as a Japanese player. They look at you to produce more than anyone else. And they look for reasons to get rid of you, rather than to keep you."

American players' salaries in Japan range from $500,000 to $2 million, and their presence has helped raise the pay of Japanese baseball stars to that level. An Associated Press study this year found the average American major league salary to be $1.7 million, with superstars like Albert Belle of the Baltimore Orioles pulling down almost $12 million.

The American players in Japan are sometimes surprised at how quickly the team that sang their praises can turn on them. That is in large part because of high Japanese expectations, according to Tsuchiya, the sportswriter.

The Americans are expected to be stronger, quicker and play the game more aggressively than the conservative Japanese. Americans brought the hard slide, the double-play break-up, the outta-the-ballpark swing and the brush-back pitch to Japan. But their benefactors cannot understand when they fail.

"Japanese have a preconception that the Americans are perfect," Tsuchiya said. "When the reality is deflated, and the American players act contrary to those expectations, there is a counter-reaction. The high expectations are the flip side of strong disappointment and anger."

Ever since American players started coming to Japan in significant numbers in the 1970s, they have been periodically involved in high-profile skirmishes: shoving umpires, punching pitchers, boozing and womanizing and occasionally getting caught with drugs.

And they are not easy to supervise. "American players here have the opinion that Japanese managers overmanage. The players want to do it themselves," said Masaru Madate, director of baseball operations for the baseball commissioner. "So they have the reputation that they don't pay attention, and they don't contribute to harmony."

It suggests a stereotype of haughty and troublesome foreigners, offending the Japanese standards of respect for authority and decorum.

But like many things here, the reality is not so simple.

For one, most American players finish their stints in the Japanese leagues without getting into trouble. For another, Japanese players treat the umpires worse than most Americans do, according to players, umpires and baseball officials.

"When the Americans first come here, they are very polite and respectful of the umpires," said Tanaka, back in uniform after the league accepted his self-suspension for three games. "Then they become Japanized. They see how the Japanese players treat umpires, and they do the same."

"Japanese players ignore the rules that the final call is the decision of the umpire. Now they protest so boldly," said Ryoichi Shibusawa, secretary general of the Central League, one of the two major leagues, each of which has six teams.

In yet another curious twist of culture, in Japan, the umpires are criticized for not being infallible, said Tanaka. The commissioner of baseball agrees.

"Americans make a mistake, and they expect to pay a penalty for it, and that's it," Commissioner Hiromori Kawashima said in an interview. "But the Japanese say you should not make a mistake."

Added to that, he said, is the fact that Americans tend to stand out.

"American personality and character is something very good. But in Japanese society, too much personality is not always a good thing," he said.

"American players are self-assertive," said Tsuchiya. "The basic culture in Japan is to oppress this self-assertive quality. The number of big-ego Japanese players is small. So if the Americans are getting good results, their attitude is fine. But if not, they are labeled a 'dame gaijin'--a bad foreigner."

CAPTION: Yakult Swallows Manager Tsutomo Wakamatsu, right, questions a call by Central League umpire Toshiyuki Tanaka.

CAPTION: Fans cheer during a mid-week baseball game near Tokyo. Japanese expect American players "to be perfect," says a Japanese sports writer, adding that when reality intervenes, those high expectations turn to anger and disappointment.