The (Dark) Patron Saint of Japanese Baseball

Maybe the Japanese will repeat at champions of the World Baseball Classic.

And maybe they too will fall, as the Dominicans did, to the juggernaut that is...the Netherlands?

Japan will have to defeat, among others, Cuba and the United States, which was last seen losing to Venezuela. There is also South Korea, which took great delight in defeating Japan 1 - 0 -- payback for the 14 -2 thrashing the Japanese administered two days earlier.

The Japanese have been very good baseball players for a long time, and there is no shortage of Japanese stars playing in the big leagues. Their arrival, however, is relatively recent, starting in earnest in 1995 with the coming of Hideo Nomo, the human corkscrew.

Before Nomo, the Japanese were regarded as fundamentally sound players who, with very rare exceptions - Sadaharu Oh, the great home run hitter - could not really compete with the major leaguers.

There was some truth to this. I lived in Japan 20 years ago, and wrote from time to time about the Japanese game, which resembled American baseball only in the superficial ways.

The Japanese practiced very long and very hard - pre-spring training spring training; I kid you not - and for their relentless drilling achieved a level of play that was long on execution and short on daring.

The Americans who came to play for a season or two could not quite accustom themselves to such sights as a player diving after a ball had passed him by. They understood, but could not quite accept the notion that while it was essential to display "guts" - you heard that one all the time - there was no percentage in risking botching the play.

What would everyone think?

Better to dirty your uniform approximating a gamble than to actually take one.

But one man was different, and if Japan is again to win it all, the nation has him to thank. His name is Hiromitsu Ochiai and in his time there was no better player in the land.

Nor was there any so willing to give offense.

Ochiai won three Triple Crowns in the 1980s - two in succession - doing so in a manner that made Japanese parents fear for the dark influence he might have on their children.

Ochiai did things his way. He would refuse to swing at pitches during spring training games because, he insisted, he wanted to sharpen his batting eye. He predicted great things for himself. He skipped practice to go to the same romantic movie again and again.

You are thinking, That sounds tame, and you would be right if were talking about, say, Manny Ramirez. But the Ochiai Era was still a time when rebellion meant being the only man on the team to drive not a white car, but a red one.

Ochiai once explained to me that unlike the stars burdened by the great expectations of conformity, he had no fear of failure. He had not been a star as a young man, and so felt as if he could play with the freedom of a man with little to lose. "I felt that once I had failed I no longer cared," he said. "If someone can think that way, they can be like me."

I did not appreciate the depth of Ochiai's influence until 1995, when I was in Los Angeles, doing a story on Nomo's sudden rise.

I was in the Dodger clubhouse and told to wait by Nomo's locker to speak with him. I waited. For an hour. While he opened his mail and chatted with his interpreter. And I thought, This man is a jerk. As Ochiai could be, when the spirit so moved him.

A lot of ballplayers are jerks. But I had never before met a Japanese ballplayer so uninterested in how he was regarded.

Nomo was a power pitcher, and that requires a conceit that leaves the rest of us to look on in wonder. You see the same swagger in Ichiro - who, like Madonna, doesn't even feel compelled to use a last name.

The Japanese have added bravado to their game, a quality that comes only to those willing to take a chance, and who even in the face of failure still insist upon taking the ball.

The men who play for Japan may have grown up with their mothers covering their ears when Ochiai spoke.

But they were listening, just the same.