Monday, May 21, 2007


Top of the seventh, two outs, runners on first and second. As the next hitter steps in, the man on first takes a long lead. The midday sun shines down unforgivingly on the brown earth of the infield, and the pitcher looks intently to home plate, getting his sign from the catcher. With a nod he leans back and prepares to go into his windup. Then suddenly, with a deft flick of the wrist, he fires the ball out to the first baseman. The runner is frozen like prey in a cobra’s gaze. Realizing too late what has happened, he makes a mad dash back for the safety of the bag, only to be met with the hard leather of the first baseman’s mitt. End of the inning.

As the home team runs off the field, the pitcher and first baseman touch gloves and beam as if they’d just made the last out of the World Series. Several teammates come up to congratulate them, and the whole bench rises in a warm welcome at the dugout. Before sitting, the whole team huddles in preparation for their coming at-bats.

Up in the stands, I’m caught up in the team’s exuberance, but I’m also confused. To be sure, the pickoff was a good play, executed to perfection after who-knows-how-many repetitions in practice. Had it preserved a one-run lead, I would have understood the joy. But that wasn’t the case. Prior to vanquishing that runner from first, the pitcher had given up three runs in the inning, and his team now trailed by four. With only three innings left to bat, a comeback seemed unlikely. Had this been an American high school baseball game, the pickoff would likely have been followed only by a collective sigh of relief.

But it wasn’t an American high school game. It was in Japan, at a regional high school tournament in southern Hokkaido. There are two national high school baseball tournaments in Japan each year, one in the spring, and another in the summer. Every high school in the country can compete, and many do – about 4,000 each year. The road to the final stage, at Koshien Stadium in Tokyo, is a long one, with only one victor from each regional tournament being invited. At the end, a single national champion is crowned.

Those are much higher stakes than in the U.S., where there is no national tournament in any high school sport. Each state holds its own tournament, and most further divide the participating schools into a few divisions, based on their enrollments. With 50 states and an average of three divisions each, that’s 150 American high school baseball teams who can claim the title of champion each year. In Japan, there can be a maximum of two, although the Summer Koshien so overshadows its spring predecessor that in reality there can be only one. One in 4,000.

Japan is so enamored with the tournament that teenage national heroes are born every August on Koshien’s hallowed grounds. Current Boston Red Sox phenom “Dice-K” Matsuzaka was propelled to instant stardom by his epic performance in the 1998 Summer Koshien. American high schools take great care to preserve the health of their players, especially pitchers, who are so easily injured by the rigors of their position. U.S. high school games last only seven innings, and pitchers are limited to throwing a total of seven innings per week. There are no such regulations in Japan. Games last the full nine innings, and pitchers are allowed to throw as much as they’re physically able…and sometimes more.

On August 19, 1998, Matsuzaka, an 18 year old with a 95 mph fastball, pitched a complete game shutout in the third round of the tournament. The next day, he was the starting pitcher in the quarterfinal game. The game ended in a tie and went to extra innings. The tie was not broken until the 17th inning. Matsuzaka pitched every one of them, prevailing in victory after throwing 250 pitches. The semifinals were the very next day. Matsuzaka was given a “rest” in left field, but after seven innings, his team was behind, 0-6. Over the next two innings, they put together a furious comeback, scoring seven runs. Matsuzaka came in from left field and pitched the ninth to notch the victory. Still, the young hurler wasn’t finished. The final game was, once again, the very next day. Matsuzaka was standing on the mound when it started. Nine innings later, he had thrown the only no-hitter in championship game history.

For Matsuzaka, it meant his face on the cover of every sports magazine in the country, and a lucrative professional contract immediately upon graduation. His story, of course, is exceptional. The results are far different for nearly all of the other 80,000-some boys who compete in the tournament every year.

Both of the national tournaments, as well as the regional tournaments leading up to them, are single elimination. Lose once, and you’re finished, like March Madness for high school baseball. I understood that much, sitting in the stadium as the teams switched places between innings. But there is a crucial difference that I did not know: March Madness follows a 30+ game regular season. American high school baseball teams play about 20 regular season games before their state playoffs. In Japanese high school athletics, there are no regular seasons. I’ll say that again, because it took me a long time to understand. There are no regular seasons.

Back on the field, the home team came to bat in the bottom of the seventh and scored once, reclaiming one of the runs they had lost in the top of the inning. But then no one else scored again in the rest of the game. Had it not been for the three runs allowed in the top of the seventh, by the same pitcher whose pickoff play was so jubilantly celebrated, that one run in the bottom of the seventh would have tied the game and forced extra innings. As it was, the visiting team won the game, 11-8.

As I said before, when I watched that game, I did not understand that Japanese high school baseball has no regular season. I did know, however, that Japanese high school baseball has no off-season. Perhaps I should repeat that, too. There is no off-season. That fact was driven home to me by my year of teaching English in a Japanese high school. Every day -- every day after school, I passed the baseball team doing conditioning exercises in the hall. When the school year had started in April, that made sense. By September, I was beginning to wonder how long the “season” would last. By December, with the snow piled high on the baseball field, I was becoming perplexed.

I had several of the baseball players in class, and often greeted them as I passed them practicing in the hall. One day, in early winter, I pulled one aside.

“Do you practice everyday after school?” I asked.

“Yes! Everyday!” he replied enthusiastically.

“When is your next game?”

He thought about it for a moment, then replied, “In May.”

There are no three-sport high school jocks in Japan, no basketball players who pole vault during track season, no swimmers who show off their speed and conditioning in cross country meets, and no tennis stars who also don fencing masks. Japanese high school athletes play one sport, and one sport only. They practice it year-round, everyday after school and sometimes before school, too. Many teams require their athletes to give up their spring, summer and winter holidays to yet more practices.

For all their labors they get but one or two chances to shine each year, one or two single-elimination tournaments to pour out a year’s worth of nearly constant practices. The reward for the chosen few like Dice-K is huge. But for fully half of the participants in every tournament, their “season” lasts exactly one a game: a single loss.

For the good player on a bad team, there is no chance to bat .400 or lead the league in RBIs. There is one chance, and only chance, to prove yourself. It doesn’t matter how many homeruns you might clout in practice. If you go 0-for-4 in an opening round loss, then that is your only official stat line for the entire year.

The home team, whose season had just ended, was luckier than most in Japan. They had advanced to the third round of their regional qualifying tournament, winning two games and giving them more victories than fully 3/4s of all the teams in the country. When their pitcher threw out the runner at first, it may have been the only time in his entire “official” career that he would ever throw out a runner at first. And that after practicing first base pickoffs ad infinitum in the previous year.

After the game, the two teams met in front of home plate, lined up, turned, and bowed to each other. Then the home team ran to the bleachers where its fans still sat. They again lined up, bowed deeply to their fans, and shouted in unison, “Thank you very much!” I was already walking out, and gave only a few claps of cursory applause. Had I known then what I know now, I’d like to think I’d have been a little more respectful.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's been ages since i posted here. Been sick, busy etc. There are not many games left this season. It has had it's up's and down's. Meet some new Reds i adore. Meet David Ross again. Knew of him when was a Dodger. Missed Sean Casey a lot. Reds then got rid of Austin Kerns. Seen the Reds 9 times this year at Busch Stadium. Saw the Phillies 3 times. Seen The Astros 3 times. Gonna see the Astros for my 4th time September 13th. Gonna go to games in 2 weeks to see Brian Giles.No idea who will make the playoffs.First Choice Reds. Second Choice Phillies. 3RD Astros. 4TH Choice Padres. Padres just because of Brian Giles, Geoff Blum and Trevor Hoffmann. I hope to at least attend one playoff game. But if the Cards don't make it won't go to any. Because i can't afford to travel. But if i had to choose. I'd rather the Reds win the Central and just have to watch them on tv.Seeing them on tv would be better than them not making the playoffs at all.
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