- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Play ball

After 43 years in Japan’s foreign service, retired from diplomacy to play in the big leagues. He returned to Tokyo this week to begin a second career as commissioner of Japanese professional baseball.

Mr. Kato flew to Tokyo on Monday to serve as the chief executive of Nippon Professional Baseball, overseeing Japan’s 12 major league teams. He once said that baseball is more popular in Japan than sumo wrestling. A diplomat at the Japanese Embassy called the ambassador “a baseball fanatic.”

The ambassador had remained reticent about news reports that he would get the position until Thursday evening, when he hosted his last reception in Washington to confer Japan’s highest civilian honor on , a former U.S. ambassador to Japan and veteran Republican senator from Tennessee who served two terms as Senate majority leader.

Mr. Baker’s wife,, a former Republican senator from Kansas, revealed the secret after Mr. Kato presented her husband with the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Paulownia Flowers with a declaration signed by, a sash and a badge with the red rising sun of Japan surrounded by Paulownia flowers. Mrs. Baker gave Mr. Kato a memento from her favorite team, the Kansas City Royals.

In presenting the award to Mr. Baker, Mr. Kato noted that the ceremony was one of his “last remaining duties” as ambassador.

“So to me, this ceremony is a special one, both personally, as a friend and admirer of Howard Baker, and professionally, as a diplomat whose career couldn’t draw to a close on a better note than this award,” he said.

Mr. Kato said Mr. Baker is a “man greatly respected and valued by both the United States and Japan.” He cited Mr. Baker’s help in coordinating the Japanese response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, his support for Japan’s efforts to demand an accounting of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea and his advocacy for Japanese economic reforms.

“To me, however, [Mr. Baker’s] larger contribution to the Japan-U.S. relationship relates to the sheer force of his presence, his personality and his integrity,” Mr. Kato said.

Mr. Baker, now senior partner at a Washington law firm, said he was “overwhelmed” by the award.

“This is a high point in my life and career,” he said.

Mr. Baker also recognized a “number of friends” who attended the award ceremony, naming , Tennessee Republican; , former deputy secretary of state;, secretary of defense under ; , New Mexico Republican; , a former Democratic speaker of the House and also a former ambassador to Japan; , a former Republican senator from Maryland; , national security adviser toand;, a former Republican senator from Tennessee; and , former director of the CIA.

“I could go on,” Mr. Baker said, “and some of you fear I will.”

c @washingtontimes.com.

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