Six reasons to give thanks


A great deal of space in columns like these — and I’m one of the culprits — is devoted to all that’s wrong with the sports world and the people who make their livings in it.

Today is Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., but I’ll avoid talking about turkeys. It’s also Labor Thanksgiving Day in Japan, so let me take this opportunity to give thanks to the following for their recent fine work here:

Ichiro Suzuki

Playing in the Pacific League for the small-market Orix BlueWave, Ichiro was never given the attention he deserved as probably the best all-around baseball player this country has ever produced. He never whined about the lack of recognition, just went about winning seven straight PL batting crowns while acting as an excellent role model.

The BlueWave have 13 million reasons to thank Ichiro after netting an unprecedented transfer fee earlier this month from the Seattle Mariners for the right to negotiate with the star outfielder. Chances are Ichiro will garner much more attention from the Japanese media playing Major League Baseball next year than he ever did playing here.

Philippe Troussier

Though working under the constraints of those bozos in the Japan Football Association (oops, I said I wouldn’t talk about turkeys), Troussier has raised the level of the national soccer team considerably. The situation looked bleak a year ago, but after winning the Asian Cup last month, there is hope for a respectable, if not impressive, showing at the 2002 World Cup. The Frenchman is also to be applauded for his candor and wit with the media amid all the fog from the JFA. Whether he follows up on his recent rumblings about leaving Japan before the World Cup, or works out his issues with the JFA and stays on through 2002, to M. Troussier I say, bonne chance.

Suzu Chiba

Japan’s top female freestyle swimmer took a stand in June against the Japan Amateur Swimming Federation after being left off the national team for the Sydney Olympics. Chiba appealed to the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport, saying selectors omitted her for personal reasons, ignoring the fact she had bettered the Olympic qualifying standard at the national championships in April.

While she didn’t win the case, the court ruled that the JASF had not been clear enough in its selection process and ordered the federation to pay Chiba’s legal costs.

Chiba retired from competitive swimming last month, but her legacy will live on. Because of her action, Japan’s sports bodies will finally have to start being up-front with their Olympic selections.

Beer vendors

Sitting in the stands at a professional baseball game in Japan has its ups and downs. From the cheering squads endlessly clacking their noisemakers to the shrill sound of whistles every time a foul ball goes into the stands, it’s not always a relaxing experience. But there are few more pleasing sights than a vendor toting a space-age beer-keg backpack.

I’ve watched pro ball in four different countries and have only seen that marvel of ingenuity here. Draft beer freshly poured at your seat by a smiling, polite server who’ll never accept a tip. To all the unsung beer jockeys, cheers!

Nikko hockey sponsors

After Furukawa Electric disbanded its hockey team as part of its corporate restructuring in 1999, it looked as though the long tradition of pro hockey in Nikko was over and that the Japan Ice Hockey League would be reduced to five teams.

Then came sponsors — notably the Nikko Saru Gundan Monkey Show — to the rescue. Pro golfer Akiko Fukushima chipped in with a fundraising event, while the team’s fan club and the city of Nikko also anted up some much-needed cash. Thanks to these efforts, the newly named Ice Bucks have managed to stay afloat and keep hockey alive in Nikko.

Hopefully the Snow Brand team in Sapporo, set to lose its support from the financially troubled dairy company following this season, can find a way to survive like its Nikko counterpart.

Shigeo Nagashima

Despite having a huge payroll and by far the most talented lineup in the country, the Yomiuri Giants manager always makes things interesting with his incomprehensible moves from the dugout. Inserting washed-up pitcher Hiromi Makihara to blow the opening game of the Japan Series last month was a classic. His strategic follies aside, “Mr. Baseball” has cast a spell on the masses with his charm, down-to-earth persona and knack for simultaneously butchering the Japanese and English languages. He’s also managed the Giants to two Japan Series titles with his “speed and charge” brand of baseball. Nagashima-san, thank you for being you.