Charlie Manuel, the right fielder for the Yakult Swallows, was sweaty, dusty and tired and looked as though he had just finished a strenuous extra-inning game. But what bothered him most was the fact that the game hadn't even started.
"I'm out at the park at 1:30," he said, trying to relax in the club's lounge. "First I lift weights. Then there's batting practice. Then base running. And then there's jogging, we run an awful lot. I'm worn out before the game ever starts."
It is the common complaint of Manuel and other Americans who play baseball in Japan: Fatigue. Japanese players train like demons the year round and the gaijin, or foreigners, must keep up, or pretend they are keeping up. A 6:30 p.m. night game is preceded by five hours of exercise, practice and team meetings. It is the greatest shock for American players who come to Japan accustomed only to shagging a few fly balls and belting a couple of practice balls before game time.
In a Tokyo hotel cocktail lounge, southpaw Clyde Wright of the Yomiuri Giants let out a roar when a smiling waiter asked about his phsyical condition. He cursed the waiter and replied with an obscene gesture.
"Conditioning - that's all they think about, the fans, the press, everybody," Wright complained to a reporter. He pulled up his shirt to show how his trousers sagged loosely away from his flat stomach.
"Spring training is four times as tough as in the States," he said. "They go to the park at 10 and finish at 4:30 and then run 3 1/2 miles back to the hotel. And everybody does it."
What keeps the Americans coming to Japan is, of course, money. Most are a little over the hill for the American major leagues and they put up with the strenuous training, language problem, and strange cities to avoid either the painful descent through the American minor leagues or a lowpaying nonbaseball job.
Wright, 35, gets $86,000 a year plus some hidden extras from the Yomiuri Giants, about $20,000 more in cash than he last earned from his American team, the California Angels.
Manuel, was mainly a utility outfielder with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Minnesota Twins before the Yakult Swallows lured him away from a minor league team. He makes "six to seven times" as much as he was earning in the States and the Swallows pay his rent for a two-bedroom apartment.
But both are on one-year contracts and could be dropped at the end of the season - and may well be if things don't improve. Wright started the season with a sore shoulder while Manuel, who set a gaijin record of 42 home runs last year, was in and out of the lineup because of a slow start.
Their up-and-down performances are typical of many American players here. The strange parks, the impenetrable language, and the peculiarities of Japanese-style baseball seem to have an unsettling effect on the foreigners, who generally produce erratic records.
Adrian Garrett, outfielder for the Hiroshima Carp, is having an upbeat season. Last year, his first in Japan, he hit only .279. This year he hit 15 home runs in the first month, tying a record held by the Yomiuri Giant's famous Sadaharu Oh and two other Japanese players.
"Last year, I was just confused," he said recently.
Garrett made the change that many American hitters find they must make to compete in Japan. They learn to modify their stances, shorten their swings, and punch at the ball, abandoning the free-swinging power-hitting styles they learned in the States. Japanese ptichers lack speed but have excellent control and are exceptionally clever at working the corners with breaking pitches.
So far, it has been a good year for American sluggers who are hired to hit the long ball.
Dave Hilton, who played five years with the San Diego Padres, was an early-season batting leader in his first year with the Yakult Swallows. Americans doing well in the Pacific League were Bob Mitchell, formerly of the New York Yankees and Milwaukee Brewers and now playing outfield for the Nippon Ham Fighters, and Bernie Williams, an outfielder with the Hankyu Braves and former player with the San Francisco Giants and the Padres.
American hitters also think that Japanese pitchers throw at them intentionally to knock them down or push them back from the plate.
As a result, American players sense prejudice. "There are only a couple of pitchers who'll knock a Japanese guy down, but they're always throwing at the geigin," said Wright. "Hell, they figure every one of us is over here taking some (Japanese) guy's job. (Two yeas ago) they hit Davey Johnson (ex-Yomiuri Giant) six times, every time after Sadaharu Oh had hit a home run, and they never hit Oh. So I parted one off their guy's a cap and it never happened again."
In general, however, the gaijin players aren't the source of controversy they once were. Since arriving in large numbers in the 1950s, they have been often accused of arrogance, bad after-hours habits, and foul play on the field. They loafed in practice and tried to outboss their managers. Fans once complained their sport was being subjected to an American invasion.
Now each team in limited to two foreign players and the old scare of American dominance has subsided. The gaijin, too, are more relaxed and less contentious than in the old ways when Joe Pepitone, the former Yankee first baseman, routinely displayed his contempt for teammates on the old Yakult Atoms by refusing to show up at the ball park.
These days, only Wright has a serious reputation as troublemaker. He is outspoken and by his own definition a little lazy by Japanese standards. Among the gentle, soft-spoken Japanese, he is still a gregarious and feisty country boy from middle Tennessee. In his first year with the Yomiuri Giants, he suddenly ripped off his uniform in the dugout because of a dispute over his team-financed apartment.
"The place had 15,000 cockroaches and I used to sit up at night watching them march around like soldiers," Wrigh recalled. "I kept telling the manager I had to have a different one, but nothing happened. Then one day I tore off my shirt in the dugout and dumped my pants in their bathtub and then they took care of my apartment.
"So I got a reputation for being a little crazy, but you know you can pet a snake only so long."