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Thursday, July 19, 2001

SPORTS SCOPE

Midsummer notes and anecdotes


It was refreshing to see Japan's Shigeki Maruyama notch his first PGA Tour victory last Sunday at the Greater Milwaukee Open. Maruyama, one of the most charismatic and likable of any of the nation's professional athletes who play overseas, put an end to a miserable streak by Japanese golfers on the U.S. mainland.

Maruyama's victory over Charles Howell III in a one-hole playoff, marked the first time a Japanese golfer had ever won a PGA event in the 48 contiguous States. Isao Aoki recorded the only PGA win previously by a Japanese at the 1983 Hawaiian Open.

When you think about how many Japanese golfers have played in Tour events over the years and how popular the sport is in Japan, the streak was an incredible run of ineptitude.

It has been documented how Japanese athletes can put up outstanding performances at home (see Jumbo Ozaki), but then can't handle the pressure when playing abroad for whatever reason.

Case in point is Japan hammer thrower Koji Murofushi, who held the Japan record in the event heading into 2000 Olympics in Sydney and was touted as having a real chance for a medal, but finished a disappointing ninth.

Murofushi added almost a meter to his Japan record last Saturday at a meet in Toyoda, Aichi Prefecture. His toss of 83.47 meters was the longest in the world this year and seventh on the all-time list. The effort came on the heels of his victory at a meet in Rome last month.

When I read a story on Sunday that said Murofushi was now the favorite to win at the World Championships in Edmonton, Alberta, next month, I almost choked on my lunch.

I hope he does win the gold, but setting a national record on the track you trained on in college (Chukyo University) and doing it under the glare of the international spotlight of the athletics world at a huge event are entirely different propositions.

With Maruyama's victory, the performance this season of Ichiro Suzuki and Tsuyoshi Shinjo in the major leagues and the continued fine play of Hidetoshi Nakata in the Serie A, let's hope this choking label is put to rest for good.

No more dwelling on moral victories like advancing to the third round of a Grand Slam tennis tournament. A country of 130 million people deserves better.

Interesting to note the recently ended boycott by Ichiro and Kazuhiro Sasaki of the Japanese media that covers them and the Seattle Mariners.

Having been a PR man in two pro sports (basketball and football), I believe the problems stem from two issues.

First, the players aren't used to the media having the type of access they do in North America (like reporters being allowed in the locker room). I'm sure they must feel overwhelmed that their sanctuary in Japan (the locker room) can be invaded by both the Japanese and local press.

They can't give the elbow to the media while running off the field like they could back home and I'm sure find that irritating. Not only can the press enter the locker room and come to their locker before the game, but afterward as well.

The second factor is that the team PR staff of the Mariners isn't used to dealing with the intense scrutiny of the Japanese media.

The Los Angeles Dodgers did a good job of handling this in 1995 with Hideo Nomo, holding a press conference in a room away from the locker room after each game he pitched. The difference was they only had to do it once every four or five days, because Nomo was a starting pitcher.

With Ichiro being a starting position player and Sasaki the team's closer, they are now expected to speak every day, which is putting much greater pressure on the Japanese media to come up with quotes and information.

One troubling sign has been how the PR staff of the Mariners has allowed Ichiro to sit with his back to the media after games and answer questions while facing his locker. This is not right.

If he is going to speak to the press, in Japanese or in English, he can face them head on.

When you literally turn your back on the media, you come off as being very aloof and are courting trouble.

Ichiro made a big splash in the majors and is very popular now, but the big-league press can turn on you very quickly if they don't feel they are being given the proper respect.

It is disappointing to see that the NBA won't be playing its biennial Opening Games in Japan this November. Instead we are going to have to settle for two preseason matches (Oct. 13 and 14) at the Tokyo Dome between the NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers and the Golden State Warriors.

I think this is a real step backward. Preseason games in the NBA are usually held to decide who is going to fill out the last few roster spots and the big stars rarely see more than 15-20 minutes of action.

If people are paying big bucks and expecting to see Kobe and Shaq play the full 48 minutes, they are going to be greatly disappointed.

I suspect that the complaints of team coaches and management has prompted this sudden shift from regular-season games to the preseason variety.

Negative comments about having to begin the 82-game regular season with a long trip overseas is likely what caused the Opening Games to be scuttled this time around. This is very unfortunate.

The withdrawal of yokozuna Takanohana from the Nagoya Grand Tournament just a few days before the basho was to begin was nothing short of a shameful act by the Japan Sumo Association.

After dislocating his right knee on the penultimate day of the Summer Grand Tournament in Tokyo in May, during a match with ozeki Musoyama, Takanohana gamely fought on and won the his 22nd Emperor's Cup in a playoff with fellow yokozuna Musashimaru on the final day.

It was quite obvious that Takanohana had sustained a very serious injury, and would likely require surgery or a significant amount of time off and long rehabilitation before he could wrestle again.

However, just as I presumed, the JSA acted like he was actually going to wrestle in Nagoya and had him continue practicing to make a good show of it for the media.

Why? The reason is very simple -- money.

If Takanohana had been declared out of the Nagoya basho right after the Summer tournament in Tokyo, ticket sales would have suffered. So the JSA just stonewalled it like he was really going to take part, then surprise, at the last minute (after as many tickets as possible were sold) declared him unfit to fight.

Fascinating to see that former yokozuna Wakanohana is trying to become a professional American football player. The sumo star is now 30 years old and can't speak English well, which would seem to make his bid to play in the NFL an impossible dream.

I think it would be wise for him to get some experience playing in Japan, then give the NFL Europe a shot. I'm sure the league would love to have a former yokozuna suiting up. It would certainly give the sport a lot more exposure in Japan.

There is a correlation between playing nose tackle in pro football and moving around 200 kg wrestlers on the dohyo. The surface and the angles are different, but if you can move mass quickly, you have a chance.

I admire Wakanohana for giving it a shot. He could have easily hung around the sumo world and become an oyakata (stable master). I think he is looking for a bit more excitement out of the rest of his life.



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