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THE ALL-AMERICAN SPORT BOOM HAS HELPED HIROSHIMA TO HEAL

If you thought Americans were crazy about baseball, you should come to Japan. Here people have gone totally overboard. It is a nightly routine repeated with unfailing regularity. First the beer is opened, then the sake (drunk cold in the sweltering heat) is popped, then the cable television is switched on and tuned to baseball.

Tonight's excitement is the All Stars' tournament between the Japanese Dreamers (JDs) and Foreign Dreamers (FDs). For the baseball fanatic - and there are thousands - a hard night of baseball viewing is followed by an even harder morning. Many rise at 4:30 a.m. to watch American satellite television in the hope of seeing their hero, Hideo Nomo. The Japanese wonder boy emigrated last year to play for the L.A. Dodgers.Baseball has enjoyed a special place in Japanese life since it was introduced in 1873 by an American teacher based at Tokyo University. But it holds an especially precious place in the hearts of the people of Hiroshima.

The city's professional team was established in 1949 - four years after the atom bomb tore Hiroshima to pieces.

It was consciously devised as a symbol of the population's determination to look to the future, despite more than 100,000 dead and thousands more wounded. A new stadium was built 100 yards from the center of the blast and within view of the A-bomb dome - the shell of the office building that still stands in ruins as a constant reminder of the holocaust.

They called the team Hiroshima Carps, after Koi, an ancient name for a neighborhood of the city. A few years later they changed their name to Hiroshima Carp after an English-speaking soldier in the occupying forces pointed out that the plural of the fish was identical to the singular.

Times were lean in the early days, with Hiroshima's industry decimated and many people so weak from radiation sickness they were barely able to work. While other Japanese baseball teams were backed by large corporations, few wanted to touch Hiroshima for fear of being tainted by its past.

Undetered, the survivors of the bomb funded the team out of their own pockets. They issued individual shares and placed a large barrel at the entrance of the stadium in an appeal for donations.

Matsutaro Ueki, an English teacher now aged 85, recalls how people went out of their way to support the fledgling side: "I remember coming across a grocer's shop and being too poor to afford three bananas for myself, my wife and child; but I always found enough money to give to Carp."

It is a poignant irony that the city destroyed by an American bomb should have placed so much hope for its future on the national American game. However, the paradox becomes more understandable as soon as one scratches beneath the surface. At face value, baseball is played by the American rules, but the approach of players and managers to the game is completely Japanese.

At Hiroshima Shogyuo High School, a leading state school in the city, they take baseball seriously. They have won the national high school competition nine times, but are in a state of deep depression this summer because they have already been knocked out.

The coach, Koji Kanemitsu, was a pupil of the school 12 years ago, at a time when team members used to have their heads shaved and were forbidden to drink water before matches. They also performed Hawatari - they would walk barefoot over the sharpened blades of ceremonial swords, to build courage and obedience. The ritual has been ended at the request of anxious parents. But Kanemitsu says the emphasis is still on konjo - guts or toughness.

And as a general principle it appears to work. For the first few years the team performed abysmally, but they won their first league championship in 1975, 26 years after they were founded. Previously derided as a poor person's team - opponents used to joke that Hiroshima Carp players ate dried herring while their rivals consumed steaks - it is now respected as one of the most successful in Japan. This season they are ranked second.