NEW YORK – No autographs allowed – in any language.
When a Japanese reporter recently asked Roger Clemens for an autograph, he got a signed photo and a swift penalty: His membership in the Baseball Writers’ Association of America was revoked.
Hiroki Homma of the Fuji Evening News said he didn’t realize he was breaking the rules, though he took full responsibility and apologized to the New York Yankees.
“I didn’t know,” Homma said. “It was my fault.”
Ballplayers coming from Japan to the majors need to make adjustments. So, too, do the many international journalists covering the big leagues – clubhouse etiquette is just one example of the many cultural changes they face.
When is the most appropriate time to approach players? How much of an obstacle is the language barrier? Why so many cross-country flights?
In Japan, reporters aren’t allowed inside baseball locker rooms. They request postgame interviews through public relations officials, and players emerge from the clubhouse to answer questions while dressed in civilian clothes. In the offseason, players are occassionally paid for a special chat. But sports writers and players often have a much friendlier relationship than in the United States.
Hiroshi Kanda of Kyodo News has covered the Yankees since Hideki Matsui arrived in 2003 and said players and writers occasionally go out for dinner together in Japan. They also hang out with each other on road trips – conjuring images of a long-ago era in the majors when cigar-smoking scribes rode the trains alongside the blue-collar ballplayers they chronicled, dealing cards and chatting away through the night.
That sort of relationship, much different than the strictly professional ones now customary in America, sometimes leads to Japanese reporters requesting autographs from players back home.
“It happens,” Kanda said.
Signs posted in big league dugouts and clubhouses remind reporters they’re not allowed to ask for autographs, and Major League Baseball’s policy regarding media access includes an explicit explanation.
“There shall be no seeking of autographs, no touching or removing of equipment or personal items from lockers, and no sampling of players food spreads,” the policy says. “Any member of the media who violates these regulations will lose his or her accreditation.”
Kanda said some ballparks even have those rules posted in Japanese and Spanish, though not Yankee Stadium.
“It’s been a long time since (Hideo) Nomo came here. Hundreds of Japanese reporters work in the States,” Kanda said. “I think it’s clear. I don’t think it’s a matter of the rule. It’s a written rule. Sometimes the unwritten rule is hard to understand. But this is a written rule.
“I know the language barrier sometimes causes problems, but you can’t make an excuse, because we are in the States,” he added.
Homma, in his first season covering the Yankees, said he approached Clemens on July 5 with a stack of pictures of the pitcher taken by the newspaper’s photographer.
Homma said he presented the pictures to Clemens, figuring the seven-time Cy Young Award winner would enjoy having them to commemorate his 350th win.
Then, Homma asked the Rocket to sign one of the photos for him, which Clemens did.
A member of the Yankees’ security staff noticed and mentioned it to Isao Hirooka, the club’s Pacific Rim Media Advisor.
“It’s really a shame that the reporter involved didn’t know the rule,” said Ikuro Beppu, editor of the Fuji Evening News, a tabloid newspaper based in Tokyo. “His act was purely resulting from his ignorance of the rules, and we accept his punishment.”
Beppu said the newspaper sent letters of apology to the Yankees and the Major League Baseball Players Association.
The BBWAA, the organization that votes for the Hall of Fame and postseason awards, confiscated Homma’s card. Homma can apply for membership again next year.
According to team policy, the Yankees revoked Homma’s season credential, but will replace it with a pass on a game-by-game basis.
“In speaking to both Hiroki and representatives of the Fuji Evening News, I feel it was an innocent mistake,” Yankees spokesman Jason Zillo said. “We’ve had an extremely positive relationship with the Japanese media throughout the years, and we continue to enjoy working with them.”
“At this time I consider this issue resolved,” he said.
Associated Press writer Kozo Mizoguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.