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Sunday, March 21, 2004

MEDIA MIX

'Mister' is a god, but he's not immortal


Former Village Voice media critic Tom Carson once wrote an essay in which he blasted the style imperative subscribed to by American men's magazines. These publications had invested so heavily in a certain male image that they couldn't imagine anything else. "You want to strike terror in the hearts of the editors of GQ?" Carson asked. "Just tell them that someday Jack Nicholson will die."

A similar sort of anxiety is evident in coverage of former baseball star Shigeo Nagashima after he suffered a stroke March 4. For the first week, Nagashima's condition was reported on TV almost as regularly as the dying Showa Emperor's condition was back in the winter of 1988-89. The initial reports about Nagashima were optimistic, but in a vague sort of way since they were being relayed mainly by spokespersons, not doctors. Eventually we learned that Nagashima's condition was worse than the public had been led to believe.

Mister Giants -- or simply "Mister" -- as Nagashima is affectionately known, is one of the few great surviving cultural heroes of the Showa Era. As the star of the Yomiuri Giants throughout the '60s and later the team's manager, he has earned a unique place in Japanese society, a man of accomplishment whose avuncular good humor is beloved by everyone. He represents Japanese baseball so completely that some people actually believe the sport would not survive his loss.

It was a public-relations employee of Yomiuri who acted as the main conduit to the press with regard to Nagashima's condition for the first week of his hospitalization. Though Nagashima no longer manages the Giants, he is a "team member for life," and much of his schedule is devoted to Yomiuri interests. The spokesman gave the impression that he was monitoring Nagashima's condition, but the information he gave to the media was in no way authoritative.

The spokesman accentuated the positive and downplayed the negative, expanding, for instance, the hearsay that Nagashima could say "good morning" into an ability to converse. The spokesman said the baseball legend had started eating by himself and made a big deal out of a doctor's comment that Mister had expressed interest in the brand of yogurt he was given. TV news shows and sports newspapers heaved a collective sigh of relief and declared that the worst was over.

Later, a doctor put things into perspective. A blood clot originating near the heart had destroyed a portion of Nagashima's brain related to movement and speech, which means that those capabilities would have to be taken up by other parts of the brain. This would require at least two months of rehabilitation, and as much as six months.

It's a distinct possibility that Nagashima will not be able to accompany Japan's Olympic baseball team to Athens as its manager, a position that has dominated his time since he took the job two years ago. However, most of the mainstream media have refused to admit as much out loud.

According to Shukan Bunshun, the stroke itself was mainly caused by stress brought on by a crushing workload. Nagashima is famous for not turning down offers, and anyone who already has their hooks in him can usually get him to say "yes" to any personal appearance or favor.

Bunshun reports that Tsuneo Watanabe, the owner of the Giants and de facto generalissimo of professional baseball in Japan, has, since the Sydney Olympics, changed his mind about pros playing in the games and now supports the making of a Dream Team. Nagashima is central to Watanabe's plan, since he's the only man who can talk each pro team into giving up players for a month during the pennant race to play in Athens. He is also the most effective person for collecting sponsors.

Last November, when the Japan team beat South Korea and Taiwan for the right to go to Athens, Nagashima said on his Web site that he'd never before felt the kind of pressure he was under as the coach of "Nagashima Japan," even during pennant races as the manager of the Giants. The Japan Olympic Committee invented the title "executive advisor" for Nagashima, thus making it easier to talk him into appearing at non-baseball-related Olympic events. When contacted recently by Bunshun to comment on Nagashima's responsibilities, the chairman of the Japan Olympic Committee said defensively, "We only asked him to appear at two or three events, and not every day."

In any case, just prior to his stroke, Nagashima visited eight spring training camps in Kyushu and Okinawa and acted as the starter at the Ome Marathon at the request of Hochi Sports, an affiliate of Yomiuri. This is probably what oldest son Kazushige was talking about when he said prior to his press conference after the stroke that his father's schedule was "killing" him.

A remark during the press conference that his father had "sacrificed" his family for the sake of baseball apparently has won the younger Nagashima a lot of sympathy from the public. Such sympathy works against the people who want Nagashima to take Japan's baseball team to Athens at any cost. According to these people, Nagashima should decide himself if he is up to going to Athens, and given his accommodating nature, not to mention his abiding love of baseball and Japan, he himself will want to go at any cost.

"We hope that Nagashima will get well quickly and work toward [victory in] Athens," the JOC official told Bunshun, oblivious to the notion that such a statement just adds to Nagashima's stress. Somebody should tell him that Mister Giants really is mortal.



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