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Retro uniforms not a good fit in record summer heat

by Wayne Graczyk

From the e-mail box this week comes a request from Mike Berger of Tokyo who wrote, “I would love to read about the retro uniforms we’ve been seeing in Japan pro ball recently. What’s the history behind those white Giants uniforms, and how about the ugly black togs of the Tigers? Something from the 1930s?”

From another e-mail, here’s a trivia question sent in by reader Rob Rieger, also of Tokyo. He wants to know: Has there ever been a foreign player in Japanese baseball who was an MVP selection in the major leagues, before or after his stint in Japan?

There are three, and Ichiro Suzuki does not count, as he was not a foreign player in Japan.

Can you name them?

Answer at the end of the column.

In the meantime, about those uniforms: The Central League held a couple of throwback uniform promotion series on the weekdays of Aug. 17-19 and 24-26 when each of the six teams wore the old-style unis from a bygone era of their choice. Some were nice while others, as Berger pointed out, not so great.

The Yomiuri Giants, Chunichi Dragons and Hanshin Tigers went back almost 60 years to re-create the suits worn by those teams in the early 1950s as Japanese baseball was re-starting after World War II.

The Hiroshima Carp, Yakult Swallows and Yokohama BayStars used replicas of uniforms from the late 1980s to early ’90s.

Especially noticeable were the Tigers costumes (as one European fan used to call a baseball outfit). Wearing black caps, black jerseys and black pants, the Hanshin players had to put up with more discomfort than usual on some of the hottest days of one of the hottest summers in Japanese history.

Tigers first baseman Craig Brazell said, “It was so hot, especially on the first two days of our series against Yokohama.”

Hanshin played the BayStars on Aug. 17 at Nagano Olympic Stadium and Aug. 18 and 19 in Yokohama.

“On the first two days of the series, I felt the hottest I’ve ever felt playing baseball,” said Brazell, indicating the black uniforms did not help, and he knows hot. The native Alabamian once experienced a game called off on account of heat in Montgomery, when temperature reached 42 C (108 degrees F).

“They were actually going to play the (Double-A minor league) game,” said Brazell, because the home team was expecting a big crowd. But, after the lineup cards were exchanged and the umpires took control, they called the game.

“The fans did not show up anyway, because it was so hot,” Brazell recalled.

Japan’s extended heat wave covered most of the country.

Yakult first baseman Josh Whitesell accompanied his team for a two-game series against the Giants on the Sea of Japan coast Aug. 31-Sept. 1 and said, “I thought it would be cooler as we were going north.” But, no.

Whitesell also knows what it is like to play in sweltering weather. He once participated in a minor league game in a town on the California-Nevada border when, he says, the temperature at the 6 p.m. starting time was 50 C (123 F). It got cooler as the game went on, though, with the temperature plunging to 122 at the finish.

“I drank 12 of these that day,” said Whitesell, pointing to a 500-ml PET bottle of water prior to the game at Kanazawa. He drank six liters of water but never needed to use the rest room.

“I sweated it all out,” he said.

The string of consecutive days of blast furnace heat in Japan began more than six weeks ago.

Preparing for a game in Nagano on July 27, Yomiuri closer Marc Kroon was asked what the temperature might be on the sun-baked field at about 3 p.m. during the team’s practice. Kroon, wishing he was in the air-conditioned Tokyo Dome, or maybe in an igloo in Alaska, replied, “About 420 (F, or 215.5 C). It’s like being in an oven out there.”

Moreover, the Central and Pacific Leagues had scheduled outdoor day games on weekends in September, no doubt thinking it would be cooler once the calendar page was flipped three weeks prior to the start of autumn.

However, it was just as hot and humid for the 1 p.m. starts in Chiba and Sendai and a 3 p.m. game in Hiroshima on Sunday, Sept. 5. Next season, NPB might be well advised to stay with night games at non-domed stadiums, at least through Sept. 15.

As for the Hanshin Tigers black costumes, if they are going to run a similar 1950s retro uniform promotion again in 2011, it might be a good idea to hold it in April.

Answer to trivia question: The three foreigners who played in Japan and were MVPs in the major leagues are Don Newcombe, Zoilo Versalles and Kevin Mitchell.

Newcombe, ace pitcher of the 1956 Brooklyn Dodgers, was the National League MVP that year. In 1962, he played for Japan’s Chunichi Dragons but as a first baseman.

Versalles, the shortstop on the 1965 Minnesota Twins American League championship team, was AL MVP that season and later played part of the 1972 campaign with the Hiroshima Carp.

Mitchell, the 1989 NL MVP with the pennant-winning San Francisco Giants, played in 1995 with the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com