Peter St. Onge

On Opening Day, a world in common

Baseball's Opening Day is Thursday in the United States and Friday in Japan.
Baseball's Opening Day is Thursday in the United States and Friday in Japan.

Opening Day in Major League Baseball is upon us, so here's one of my favorite baseball stories. It begins in a car on a highway in Alabama, on the way to a minor league game in Birmingham. In the backseat was a Japanese journalist who spoke no English. In the front was a Japanese journalist who spoke haltingly. I was driving. I don't speak Japanese. It was quiet.

It was 1994. The two men had stopped at my small-town Alabama newspaper on a tour of American media. They'd met a typical American farmer the day before. They'd toured a typical American Army base. They'd eaten at a typical American restaurant.

It was my job to top Shoney's.

I decided to take them to a Birmingham Barons game, where Michael Jordan was trying to make a go of it in baseball. I wasn't sure that my guests - Akira Shinoda of the Niigata Nippo Press and Masafumi Kato of the Kobe Shimbun - even liked baseball. It probably was too late to ask, there in the car. So I asked instead if they wanted to stop to get something to eat.

"We like to eat at the ballpark," Kato said, next to me. Then he smiled and made a drinking motion with his right hand.

"We also like to drink beer when we watch."

We were going to get along just fine.

We talked a lot about baseball as the game began. They told me how they'd played with their fathers, and now their sons. They told me about the teams and rivalries in the Japanese League. Shinoda was a Yomiuri Giants fan, Kato said, but he liked the Hanshin Tigers. Shinoda, when he heard the word "Hanshin," made a face that suggested digestive distress. I'd seen that look a thousand times from fans.

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Peter St. Onge

They also told me how in Japan, the fans bring musical instruments to the game. Trumpets. Drums. The whole woodwinds section. "Each player has his own song," Kato said. But mostly, we discovered, the games are the same. A .270 hitter is pretty good in each country. A .330 hitter will be near the top of any league.

And also, a star is a star wherever he is. So it was with Michael Jordan, who gave my guests a treat many American fans didn't get - a sharp single from the world's best basketball player. Kato, who rushed down to the front row each time Jordan came to the plate, snapped pictures of the moment. Shinoda clapped with gusto.

By the end of the game, we weren't talking about baseball that much. We talked about our jobs - newsrooms and editors and the crazy hours we worked. We talked about family - Kato and I talked about how we'd like to have children someday; two would be best, we agreed. The night flew by until I dropped them back at their hotel. I gave them baseball caps. They gave me vacuum-packed smoked fish. I still have it.

A lot has changed since then, of course, including baseball. MLB, like the NBA, has pulled the world a little closer together, with more international players in the majors last year than ever before. This past offseason, Japan's best player, Shohei Ohtani, signed a contract with the Los Angeles Angels. Japanese journalists have been following him around Spring Training all month.

Akira Shinoda is no longer a Japanese journalist. He is mayor of Niigata, a city of about 800,000 where he was elected in 2002. Masafumi Kato went on to become an editorial writer but apparently has since left journalism.

And that Jordan guy? He landed just fine when the baseball thing didn't work out.

Now it's Opening Day again, Thursday in the U.S. and Friday in Japan. I think of my Japanese guests most every year, including when I drafted Shohei Ohtani in my fantasy league last week. Sports is at its best when it throws a rope between us. Worlds apart and a world in common, even when it's just for a night.

Peter: pstonge@charlotteobserver.com
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