A Clash of Old Warriors

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Oh and Nagashima. Nagashima and Oh. They are the two most storied players in Japanese baseball history, legends in the American game that Japan long ago adopted as its own national sport. Oh is, of course, Sadaharu Oh, the world's all-time home-run king whose exploits over a 22-year career went a long way toward making Japanese feel that their brand of baseball could compare with the Americans'. Nagashima is Shigeo Nagashima, the man Japanese call Mr. Baseball, who followed Oh in the batting order on the nearly unbeatable Tokyo Yomiuri Giants of the 1960s and '70s. Such a giant was Nagashima that, according to legend, when he finally got around to applying for a credit card, on the line that asks for occupation he wrote, simply: Shigeo Nagashima. Oh and Nagashima are icons from a bygone era. But the sport that most relishes its history is getting a jolt of nostalgia this week, as teams managed by the dynamic duo—Oh's Fukuoka Daiei Hawks and Nagashima's Giants—battle it out in the championship Japan Series that newspaper headlines are trumpeting as the O-N Series. Their wrinkled faces and graying hair may not appeal to Japan's younger generation, like the Giants player who had the gall to call Nagashima a nice old man. But Oh, 60, and Nagashima, 64, are suitable headliners for geriatric Japan, where one in six people is over the age of 65. They were our idols, says Yuzo Koseki, a 50-year-old company employee who grew up watching Giants games in rural Yamagata prefecture. I still remember Nagashima saying: 'The Giants are forever' when he retired. I don't want either Oh or Nagashima to lose. ALSO IN TIMECOVER: Clash of the Japanese TitansThe country celebrates a bygone era as teams managed by two legends do battle in the national championship• The Wizard: Seattle Mariners relief ace Kazuhiro Sasaki made a remarkable debut in America's Major LeaguesTHE PHILIPPINES: High-Stakes GambleVice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo faces an uphill struggle as leader of the movement to oust President Joseph Estrada TAIWAN: Unjustly AccusedCommentator Sin-ming Shaw argues that President Chen Shui-bian is doing better than the headlines would have one thinkSTOCK MARKETS: What Goes Up ...As pundits vie to interpret the wild rollercoaster ride of most share indexes, one thing is clear: the New Economy is ailing• Viewpoint: If it keeps you awake at night, don't own itMEMORY: Recall and the Middle-Aged MindFortysomethings have a hard enough time watching their waistline and hairline go; now it's their memory. Bookstores, health-food shops and websites are awash with products that claim to sharpen the aging brain. Do they work, and should you try them? Plus: test your memory• The Brain: How memories form• Alzheimer's Disease: When it's not mere forgetfulnessCINEMA: Asia's StorymasterHong Kong director Tsui Hark encapsulates two decades worth of technique and worldview into Time and TideINNOVATORS: Money and FinanceWheels of fortuneTRAVEL WATCH: Surfing in the Sky: The Net Takes FlightA trip down memory lane is particularly welcome in a country that lost its groove a decade ago and can't seem to get it back. After a brief rebound, the stock market is tanking again. Even some of the nation's best companies are in trouble, with bankruptcies on the rise and unemployment at record levels. The cars, TVs and other consumer products that earned Japan a reputation for quality have been sullied in a series of defects, cover-ups and recalls. Suicide rates are at all-time highs. Politicians, as usual, are dithering and bereft of inventive ideas. Even baseball has been given a black eye. Just this month, a Giants player was accused of assaulting a woman and will have to sit out the Series. Hotshot pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka is embroiled in a scandal over a speeding ticket and a parking violation. And Japan's most popular player, hitting star Ichiro Suzuki, recently announced that he wants to take a crack at the Major Leagues, joining 12 other defectors already in the U.S. There's no doubt about it, Japan has a world-class case of the blahs. What better time for a pair of undisputed heroes, gladiators from a golden era, to step up to the plate? In the glory days of Oh and Nagashima, Japan was on the upward arc of its postwar rise and fall. The duo's confident swagger and daunting dominance were appropriate images for the sunny, take-on-the-world attitude Japan possessed back then. Together, they clobbered enough hits and homers to help the Yomiuri Giants amass nine consecutive Japan Series titles from 1965 to '73, an unparalleled streak that earned the powerhouse team the sobriquet V-9. It's no surprise, then, that conventional wisdom—or maybe it's wishful thinking—holds that when the Giants win, the Japanese economy improves. Last year, five Giants games ranked among the 30 most-watched TV shows. Tradition dictates that department stores knock down prices after a Giants win in the championship series, which in turn motivates thrifty consumers to spend money. Advertising company Dentsu estimates the economy will get a boost of $1.8 billion from the feel-good factor the Series is likely to generate. Oh and Nagashima represent Japan's high-growth period, says Norio Kamijo, a senior manager at the Dentsu Institute of Human Studies. We can expect improved consumer sentiments as people are reminded of good times. Kamijo theorizes that the aging company executives who led Japan's economic boom and are now inching toward retirement may well be inspired by Oh and Nagashima to reinvest in their companies. And younger employees, he predicts, might also get a new jolt of confidence.Whoa. This is baseball we're talking about. Expecting the best-of-seven Series—which began Saturday night at the Tokyo Dome—to revive a nation is a bit much to ask, even for a sport with such lofty pretensions. So let's put aside, for a moment, all social and economic repercussions. The fact is, the Series is a fascinating match-up of towering icons with contrasting styles. Even though Oh and Nagashima played alongside each other for 16 seasons, they were never close friends. They have often been called rivals, though Oh tells Time that the characterization was a media-hyped fiction. More accurately it seems there was a distance between the two, an odd uneasiness between talented athletes who played on the same infield but lived in different worlds. Oh wrote in his autobiography that he never recalled spending a single evening socializing with his counterpart.Nagashima was by far the more popular of the two. Funny, charming and handsome, he stood out from a pack of somber ballplayers who followed the militaristic style incorporated into Japanese baseball. His on-field antics—he would bounce joyously around the basepaths after swatting a home run or fall to the ground after missing a pitch, his cap flying through the air—delighted fans. He even appeared in bit parts in movies.If Nagashima was Personality Plus, Oh was Stoic Samurai. He took a far more serious, methodical approach to hitting. After his initial, unimpressive two years in professional baseball, he sought help from a martial arts master who trained him in aikido and kendo. As a result he developed an unorthodox and physically daunting batting stance: a left-hander, he would raise his right leg off the ground and stand on his left foot, waiting for the pitch. Dubbed the flamingo style, the stance at first earned the derision of fans. Then Oh went to work. In 1962, the first season with the new technique, he hit a league-high 38 home runs. He led the league in round-trippers every year for the next 12 years, averaging a remarkable 45 a season. In his career, Oh bashed 868 homers, breaking the most cherished world mark in a sport obsessed with records, surpassing both the mighty Babe Ruth (714) and Hammerin' Hank Aaron (755). Many players tried to imitate me, Oh says. But nobody had success. Everybody has to find his own individual style.The differences between Oh and Nagashima are reflected in their managerial styles. Nagashima is more instinctive, making decisions, such as when to replace a pitcher, on gut feelings rather than on the copious notes and computer databases that many other skippers use. Oh is predictably methodical, a manager who frets over every pitch, every move in the game. Nagashima had this kind of animal exuberance, says Robert Whiting, author of the classic book on Japanese baseball You Gotta Have Wa. He did things that made the common man relate to him. He'd make errors where the ball would roll between his legs. He had this human quality. Oh was more mechanical. It was like watching a machine play baseball. The uneasy subtext to the Oh-Nagashima story has to do with a sensitive issue, the question of what it means to be Japanese. Oh, one of the nation's greatest heroes, is not actually Japanese. He was born in Japan, but his father was Chinese. In fact, in high school his ethnicity prevented him from playing alongside teammates in a national amateur tournament. With his stature, Oh could surely become a naturalized citizen, a process that is difficult for many ordinary residents who, despite being born in Japan, are still considered foreigners. But he has chosen not to try. There's no need to be a citizen, says Oh. Even if I'm naturalized as a Japanese, people know I'm of Chinese nationality. Being Chinese doesn't cause me any problems. In fact, he attributes his success to the sense that, as an outsider in Japan's homogeneous society, he has had to work harder to prove his worth. All the people who are successful in Japan are hungry, not only materially, but spiritually, Oh says. I know I was. He notes that Japan's sharpest New Economy businessman, Masayoshi Son, is an ethnic Korean. And so was another great baseball slugger, Isao Harimoto. People like us, says Oh, don't want to be defeated.Retirement wasn't easy for Oh. He initially managed the Giants for five years, but was pressured to resign in 1988 after a disappointing season. Last year, he achieved something of a comeback, leading his new team, the Hawks, to the Japan Series championship. A second title would be particularly sweet for Oh, for it would involve defeating the mighty Giants. The Tokyo team counts some 30 million Japanese as fans. It dominates TV broadcasts and earns considerably more revenue than any other team, allowing it to assemble the best talent. Before this season, for example, the Giants were able to lure one of the Hawks' best pitchers to their side. Says Whiting: There is a mystique about being on the Giants. Oh and Nagashima are hoping to revive that aura. Japan's baseball teams, which operate largely as p.r. arms for large companies, have not been well managed. A league dominated by one powerful entity like the Giants ultimately is unhealthy for the game. Younger fans are starting to gravitate to other sports, like soccer. The best players have their eyes focused on the American Major Leagues; even Oh says he wishes he could have played in the U.S. during his prime. Baseball in Japan is on shaky ground. I'd like to show the real attraction of baseball and bring back those people who have backed away from pro baseball, Nagashima told the Asahi Shimbun last week. It's a shame Oh and Nagashima can't take a few swings at the ball themselves. My eyesight is too bad, says Oh with a laugh. Nobody wants to watch an old man like me anyway. How wrong you are, Mr. Oh. Fans want nothing more than to recapture some of the Oh-Nagashima magic that kept Japan spellbound in another era. With reporting by Hiroko Tashiro/Tokyo