I was in Ashikaga City in Tochigi prefecture Japan to meet up with my wife’s kin, when I ran into the movie backdrops of the Japanese baseball movie “Bancouver” (so named “Vancouver Asahi” in the western movie issued title). I had seen the movie’s trailers when I saw the last Hobbit Trilogy and knew the basic story. Still being an “all things baseball” kind of guy I wanted to learn the full story, as it is not only Hollywood that distorts history for the sake of making things more entertaining, on a good day, and for someone’s agenda, on a bad day.
As I looked into the history of the real story I came to see the real meaning of baseball in its entire splendor, and so here I hope to go about giving it more attention so we can all learn what the spirit of the game really means.
The true story takes us to the period of the pre-WWII times of Vancouver, British Columbia Canada. The game has gone on in Canada as long as it has in the US because for those unaware of baseball history the game came from England under the name of “Rounders.” This name being our namesake for our team here in Japan too. This historical fact has also not escaped the Japanese as Rounders can be found on quite a few teams here, and has at least one manga comic book by that title in existence. While for the record too, basketball was created by a Canadian as well, but I digress.
The story centers on the local Japanese community in Vancouver, and their team the “Asahi”, and their hardships and successes in the face of many kinds of adversity. Their style of play is of interest to any aficionados of the game who are interested in seeing where “little ball” may have gotten its real roots, say from the little guys?
I don’t want to take away from the Japanese movie, or the Canadian documentary put out by the CBC, which I will link below. The CBC documentary has taken on some of the brilliant style first done in the US Civil War series created by Ken Burns and presented by PBS. By far the best version I have ever seen of any historical work in film history, and I can never stop re-watching that gem of a series. There was also a historical baseball series from PBS done by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick in the same style, and so anyone not up for war can still get the great styled presentation second to none.
Yet in these efforts by the CBC, and a for mentioned movie, I feel the emotions and thought are more to the core of the game, like they are reached in the Ken Burns Civil War effort best on that historical event.
The racism directed at this Japanese team is first defeated in this story and then the ill feeling and hatred of the war are then defeated in part too, which is no small deed at the time of hot state propaganda, when it is still not regarded as such at the time, but later seen for the evil it is. Whether it is the Vancouver whites cheering for the underdog Canadian-Japanese team over the white teams, and or there endless victories, or later when it is the Royal Canadian Mountie guards in the internment camps breaking the rules and orders to play with their prisoners, the story is bound to bring a wet cheek or two to anyone who really thinks most of the average people from any nation really want war with the people from other nations, or for that matter racism really is the way the world is.
Not touched on by this great human story, but known by many Canadian vets of the war, was the darker side at play in this world at the time. One Japanese youth in Kamloops B.C. who was said to have been picked on, and or beaten up by whites prior to WWII on some occasions, later returned to Japan and joined the Japanese Imperial Army to take part in the war. When the Japanese took over the British Territory of Hong Kong this “Kamloops Kid” proceeded to terrorize, torture and kill Canadian soldiers to great renown as they suffered for the war in Japanese concentration camps. I draw this seen of two worlds to show we must all make choices on how we will conduct our lives in the face of the terrible times we may find ourselves in during our lives.
In my own family I had an uncle nicknamed “Hawkeye” who was a real hell raiser and was known to all for a very un-Japanese set of traits. One of which was calling a spade a spade in all situations, and would take on pretty much anyone at any time verbally or physically if freedom of speech were not respected. Hardly the kind of person you would want at your networking party or tea party. Yet he was no bully either, and on a one occasion found a bunch of boys in the 1950s beating up a Japanese youth and proceeded to beat up all the bullies for being so dishonorable as to fight so many on one. Lifelong friends after that my very un-Japanese uncle showed that goodness can be found in all cultures and all kinds of individuals, even ones unable to understand the basic rules of being polite.
This all hits home for me in my efforts here in Japan as I have had more than my share of the wrong headed people who have stood in my way to having the first western led little league team here in Japan, which comes much later in time than the Japanese youth might have had to wait back home in my Canuckland. Not to go into details here as to my son’s misadventures too, I will rest on the readers’ imagination.
I’m not complaining much today in this article, as the Canadian Vets had it worst, the families’ interred had it bad and I have had an easy time of it in comparison. What goes for strength and courage in the face of adversity is universal and found in all cultures and we must choose every day how we wish to leave this world with our boots on and our characters intact, or instead to make emotional excuses to blame another for the evils we do to the innocent in the name of justice that that never passes the smell test. It’s beginning to reek in some quarters in our own time.
The “Vancouver Asahi Movie” and “the Sleeping Tigers” documentary give us what baseball is meant to represent in our world, and that “is” character on display, so that youth can learn to be the better person we all hope to be, and not the animal with the will to power and logical fallacies to back up these beastly urges.
The Sleeping Tigers: https://www.nfb.ca/film/sleeping_tigers_the_asahi_baseball_story
Civil War: http://www.pbs.org/civilwar/
Baseball (The 10th Inning): http://www.pbs.org/baseball-the-tenth-inning/
Should parents opt for a school with an elite baseball program or a solid academic school with a less well known baseball program? In our family we all agreed and went for the solid academic school.
There are some advantages for our situation in the area of baseball, as this school which is known less for baseball could and was more open to trying new ideas to win. The coaching staff has been warm to my son’s switch pitching ability, which say, a more “successful program” with 20-30 boys waiting to play might not have considered. Once again there were some awkward times and likely some doubts about having such skills as advertised, but at his age it doesn’t take long to show a true ambidextrous ability. When he was younger it was less clear, and more open to interpretation.
That is why I’m happy to find Tim Knight and his son Henry Knight going through some of the same troubles at Switch Pitching 101.
Japanese teams have the reputation of being big on fielding often at the expense of other skills. The level of training was very much upped to a much higher standard in a big way for my son Rafe. With four hours a day 3-4 times a week the daily grind has been tough for my boy. With whole days occasionally lost as they go to a slightly out of town location here:
It has a cabin for lunch, a baseball storage shack and dug out, but as you can see from the photos it is surrounded by trees and bush as opposed to most city diamonds that have high netting to stop balls from hitting homes and cars and the like.
Seijo Gakuin is an upper level private school and demands passing very difficult exams to enter, that rank at the upper levels of schools in Japan, though not at the tops in difficulty. One needs to have no free time to pass JH and HS schools that get you ready to pass exams to get into Tokyo University, as one of my son’s friends, who he had practice with years ago, disappeared to give up on any advance baseball playing for the future as he tried for Wasada’s Boarding School in Kyushu.
There is no English aspect to the tests, as English only comes into play at some high school level and carries on to all the universities of note, so for a foreign student, or one with mixed backgrounds, one would need to work hard at the books that would not match most western institutions. For example math at grade 6 would be considered at least high school level, and then there is chemistry and biology which can be hard to imagine, but used to be found in western schools before modern times and there Prussian Educational System.
Japanese as a written language is very hard as there are really 4 major scrips to be learned: Hiragan, Katakana, Romanji and Chinese Characters. The first 3 are relatively easy compared to the last, as Chinese Characters are seemingly endless and in there thousands. Rafe has had a hard time, but still passed the exams and if you compared him to the population as a whole he is well on his way. Yet from now on everyone else will have to have English exams and there my son is so prepare that the class is almost a non-one, if it were not for the intricacies of learning English from non-native speakers most of the time. I’ll leave that for your imagination.
So this meant, for those interested in a challenge, that Rafe had cram school during the week, after regular school, 5- 6 nights a week employed over 3 years before the final entrance exams. This will certainly eat into baseball skills training big time. My boy did lose some control as he worked to pass the exams as a rightful priority. Yet now that he has made it in and is on the educational “escalator system,” which in Japan means much milder testing to go to Seijo High School and Seijo University, the question still remains was it worth it?
We visited Seijo twice in 2012 & 2013 at their open house for future students and found out at that time that the English teacher was the staff baseball coach at that time, and I chatted some time with him about my son’s ability, to prep & check the school to see how welcoming they were to the idea. Avoiding a stubborn coach who is “not interested in a foreigner with a half breed boy trying a crazy idea like switch pitching (and to a much lesser extent switch hitting), which has never been done before in Japan” was to be avoided at-all-costs.
On one occasion in the past with Edogawa Minami they had welcomed my son, as he was a good prospect due to height and strength, but they then moved to cancel any pledge made by the leadership to us at 8 years old. Yet in JH Seijo case the teacher was open to the idea and is so to date (knock on wood), but I could tell he thought our boy might not pass the exams to enter as boys that play for baseball teams are seldom able to pass such elevated curriculum as a general rule. The staff member was later a bit surprised to see us a members of the school and this groundwork had its effect in showing how serious we were.
My being a GM for the Honshu Rounders Baseball Club allowed me more weight in presenting this position as we did play Japanese teams. When we played some of the international community this year we had 7 wins and one loss, but the Japanese teams practice regime, which I have already covered in earlier articles, meant fewer and farther wins against them. Our team is filled with some players that come to us for 3 to 2 years, on average, and we face Japanese players that have been with their teams since 8- years old.
At this very early stage of Rafe’s joining the Seijo team other steps needed to be taken as well. Most freshman, which would be grade 7 in middle school, are not mixed immediately to the second year and senior class practices or games, as they are nowhere near ready for the steep climb from sitting at a desk for the last 2 years, to pass the exams, to the often staggering levels of drills and wind sprints. Yet to prove you are something special you can’t just ask for a special role, but go out and prove it to those who are part of the team. So I asked for my boy to join the seniors very early (more than 2 months before the other freshmen). They told me he couldn’t play in the games, due to registration, unifrom and insurance, and they might have thought that this would end our early eagerness, but were again surprise that we were still game for these senior practices and came to all of them.
We had practices & games still with the RBC Little League team and so added even more practices to the ones at Seijo’s. These first practices were almost too much for my son, as he barely finished them at first, and he needed his extra stamina he had gained with me privately at the park between studying in full. Complaining of tough practices with me or Seijio nearly totally disappeared from my son, as with other boys it isn’t cool to whine, despite being a heck of a lot harder practices. After about the third grueling practice he started to come into his own and had caught up in conditioning, yet his first one had him leaning more on the rake to stand up at the end of the first day than to rake the diamond flat, and he slept the sleep of the dead that night. Here he is a few practices after with a little more energy and the Cheery Blossoms abloom:
As for skills it was more foggy as one has to measure the others knowledge of the drills and there endless repeating of them with a grain of salt. Still Rafe was towards the top 25% of the team with either arm, which surprised even me. I put this down to his focus being at a whole new level as all the new faces meant my son mustering all he had to fit in. His long lay off was more to be seen in the understanding the game and backing up responsibilities. Yet I was also surprised by how he came to do longer stretching sessions on his own when the Japanese stretching skipped certain switch pitcher concerns.
The wind sprints and running drills that one must experience here in Japan has to be seen to be believed, but I had for many years watched and had prepped Rafe for them. There were about 10 drills that were of interest to me as a coach, but I was most impressed with the number of squatting drills which I would have loved to do with our team but would certainly discourage team turn out if I was to demand like a drill sergeant what they had going for them at Seijo.
Only one drill was not to my liking, and that was the throwing to the other partner drill, who then bats the ball back to the thrower in a what seems gentle way, almost like a pair of players throwing warm up, but with one having a bat. The focus and bat control are admirable, but it just makes the boys chop the ball in a downward motion, like a lumberjack as the batters make it bounce to their partner. I have been training my players to swing at the level of the ball with a zip-n-hit as described in an earlier article, so I feel I need to counter this habit forming drill when we practice together at the park. Once something has become an accepted baseball routine it is hard to change here. That being said most Japanese baseball routines are solid and superior to ones I have seen back home, but not this one.
Japanese hitting is hurt by this angle drill that most teams do, and that at the little league level they are very aware of walks via base-on-balls and tend to not swing much because of it. With pitching being weak at these younger levels the result is team wins, via walks, more than hits. Base stealing is allowed at the little league level so you can go far by getting lots of walks when pitching is so weak and a strike zone is not expanded much for the youth.
This is in conflict with western based teams, where the idea of making sure to be struck out “by a swing”, not a “called strike” is rightly the good course to created better hitters. Well more later.
How to form a team in a market full of teams? The bottom line motivation for me was I needed a team so that my son could continue to build himself into a switch pitcher. Well it’s no easy task to form a team in a city saturated by teams, as the obstacles were and are endless. Cooperation may not be my middle name but it does describe my approach. Cooperation with the cooperative might be a better slogan, as many will claim you are not cooperative because you will not do in total what they insist on. Give & take is certainly in shorter supply these days.
As stated with the last article I went to the other coaches of the TAC 2012 tournament and talked of a combination of skills and time given to form a solid team to play Japanese teams in Tokyo. Yet the other 3 failed to materialize with anything major and so it was for me to make it happen from the beginning. I had better luck with the school principal, as some families also interested in the team, and so we appealed together.
Next came equipment and I went to TAC to borrow catchers’ equipment until such time as it was made plain the team would succeed. In return I offered to direct more casual baseball players to their tournament in the summer and help in its running, including being a commissioner and umpire. Once that was covered a call went out to a few schools to bring in more than enough for a team over the next months. Early on I had 2 fathers who expressed interest in helping as coaches, and the others were clear in not taking on more than just helping when they were around. I take people at their word, but some seem unable to express the role they would really like to have and floated between stated wishes, inner desires and endless second-guessing. Yet over time one of the serious men has come to be a help and support.
After having a few months of practices I went on to uniform selection and I presented a computer print out of some colored and named options (5 in all) and tried to make them both unique and not to desperate in trying to stand out. The vote didn’t turn out as I expected, as I really lucked out as I got the one I wanted. How nice is it to put something to a vote and win! Well between the few Canadian backgrounds and a few boys liking the colors the “Rounders Baseball Team” was born.
Rounders being the original name of baseball when it was invented in England. The game is still played today in its original form in many commonwealth nations, but my target in using the name was to make the Tokyo based team a little more inviting to commonwealth citizens whose children may want to play baseball in Japan. There would be no trouble getting Americans & Canadians for the team, but some commonwealth parents might drag their heels in following their children’s desire to play the game, so this might make it a less bitter pill to swallow as they likely wanted their lads playing cricket or soccer. Still the team would be made up of the above mentioned nationalities and so a symbol had to be found to bring these nationalities together. I went with a leaf for each nation. An oak leaf for the USA, a maple leaf for Canada and a shamrock leaf for the very strong influence of Irishmen in the game in both Canada and American at the start of its success in North American. A shamrock is a very popular symbol too, but the purpose was to give credit to the founding nationalities of the game. So with commonwealth citizens appealed to, and a history of the first nations covered, we needed a mascot and for that I knew that right off the bat. I being a border collie owner and knowing the intelligence of this breed of dog left little doubt to its good symbolic choice. This breed, like others, comes in many colors, as its chosen for its character and not its looks, and there is no better angle for a team made up of so many nationalities and their many skin colors.
So with a motto of “Oak, Maple and Shamrock United” we were off. With these leaves matching the obvious colors were easy; forest green, and with the heat here in Japan the other motivational color was white. Finally there was the team titled location, but I backed away from yet another team called “Tokyo.”
I went with Honshu, for it is the largest island in the Japanese chain of islands and our team will certainly be bigger than average with so many of Northern European stock. Yet it was the “Hon” in Honshu that won me to this choice. Hon is a symbol for Japan, as in “Nihon”, and so when players go back to their home countries they would have a uniquely Asian/Japan Chinese Character (Kanji) symbol to show others what they had done and where they had played.
In addition hon means book, and books were one reason I wanted to shy away from my son playing for most of the little league teams here in Japan. I wanted him to get into a good private Japanese junior high school, and most ballplayers here in Japan must choose between a good education when they are young, or practicing most or all of their Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. This leaves little to chance for passing the private school junior high entrance exams, which require cram schools all week long to compete with the most serious students. So a Chinese character representing a book certainly goes well as we are for practices in moderation. Lastly “hon” is the symbol for homeruns here in Japan, so this tied a nice bow on the location quite well, as we were certainly going to have boys that wanted to hit homeruns from western nations, and thus they would practice harder at that than other teams that center on fielding. So we had the Honshu Rounders Little League Baseball Team from Japan up and running.
Then it was down to business with practices and how we could build and catch up with top-notch Japanese teams that would be practicing much more than us. So I had to lean on my experience in teaching my son and others in the past, focused on reading many books from Major League greats, used my imagination and also drew on my experience in many other sports to put a program together.
I of course got input from others taking part, and adjusted my own ideas, but input can often lead to wearing your heart on your sleeve for some, and this leads to a need to tone down ones views. Some use input as an outlet for there stresses in their lives, and won’t let a sleeping dog lie. A leader needs to take note of these things, as discretion is a valuable trait, especially when the Japanese or Asian community are easily offended and can lose face easily as most are polite to a fault, and thus develop thin skins. In fact the phase “thick skin” is a negative one here that means someone with no feelings for others or as we say cold-hearted. So getting people with a control of their emotions here in Asia for such positions is quite important. Or if you have Asians from Asia taking part, then make sure they have a thicker skin and don’t take constructive criticism as a major assault on their total over-all competence.
On-lookers are bound to second-guess new ideas faster than the norm. Baseball doesn’t like to change much as fans long for something unchanging in their lives. Yet it was “innovate or die” as the team would get beat up for years to come otherwise. I knew clearly what we were up against with the hard tough drills that Japanese teams make their players do all weekends, as I had seen that for sometime first hand. Most of my unique training methods will be trade secrets, but one can hide my duds in amongst these successes too. Yet anyone reading my blog over time will come to see some new methods to ponder.
One I’m willing to share is stools for the catchers. We had boys either almost standing up or sitting on their calves and not getting into the best position to build leg strength, so I decided to use a short leveled stool so that the catchers would need to be in a better squatted stance as they lowered to sit on these stools, and also squat press to stand up from the right position in order to build the very right points in the ham strings and quadriceps. Although this is best for catchers there is a need for all infielders to have these muscles heavily developed too for grounders. Outfielders would be strengthened too, but there is less of a direct need to get into so very low a position to play the ball in the outfield. Yet their speed getting to the right position would be helped and all batting would be strengthened also for all.
“No hands” weren’t and aren’t allowed on the sitting or rising from the stools though. Over time the stools are of course to be used less and less, but for little league I would recommend them for the newbies and even older players if they are squatting too low after a long practice or have suffered injuries. Better they rest a bit and spring later to catch a wild pitch than be almost on the ground and unable to even lean to catch an off-the-plate pitch. You see some equipment supports for catchers with some triangular shaped cushions on their calves these days, and this is an acknowledgment of the need to assist in both building right leg position and avoid knee blow outs for catchers in general.
Well stools for catchers is sure to get a look or two from more orthodox baseball men, but there is something behind it other than giving kids an easy way out.
A noticeable number of fathers these days are softies and let their players opt out of practices too easily. I have had fathers come to me and say he is not feeling too well, or he has hurt his (place body part here) and he has another activity to go too etc., but I’m not talking about these at all. Any player that turns up and has to bow out for these reasons is still “game enough” for me. This is not bad in my books, if he does his best, and I never say “no” or tease because of these issues. It is the seldom turning up at all and whining to escape practices and only showing up to play in games that really hurts your team.
TAC has mastered this meeting the demands of minimum practices, with one practice, before starting games, but how can you be ready for any of these tough Japanese teams if you allow the players to dictate with only one practice before games? How will this work when they are older? Thank goodness most fathers have not forgotten the idea of, “once you start something you must finish it.”
Water breaks are often, with our team, and refusing water serves little purpose and cost lives here in Japan at least once a year, with some hardheaded coaches making players die because these pseudo-tough guys don’t let players have water in summer too often as is needed. I have just seen some changes on this as of late and let us hope it filters down fast in Japan.
From the times of the Romans, talking of the Germans tribes, and their need for more water than the legionnaire, the fact that smaller men from warmer climbs need less water than bigger men from northern climbs is a given. Yet the Romans never conquered the Germans in total and were overrun by them in the end. Still this is a sport and there is no aspect of the game that says they can’t drink fluids during a game while in the tug out. Let the boys drink regularly.
Problems that many coaches no doubt are aware of, and not what one usually thinks will be big hurdles, were uniform sizes. The uniforms problems were fine in design and practical use, but the smaller sizes turned out to be a small nightmare, as the small uniforms were tricky to fit and so one almost needs to go a size up for each boy to avoid problems. I have thus decided to provide uniforms for the T-Baller (RBC Shamrocks Squad) as a way you avoid this headache, as parents want bigger uniform for their players to grow into to thus save money as they grow. So by just loaning the youngest ones uniforms (jerseys & caps) for games you avoid this logjam. Then they can get their own pants as they see fit.
With uniform producers its good to be prepared for them saying how fast they can make and send your orders to you, as if this issue is some kind of priority, which it is not as to most other issues. I went shopping carefully, early and wanted solid estimates and after a few quick introductions I had companies treating me like a waster of their time and maybe a spy from another company (or something) as asking for a detailed estimate to compare with others was “ unimaginable to some young sales staff, told to hard sell a customer immediately or dump them.” I got transferred on one occasion from the pot into the fire as I was handed over to the most hard seller in the company who drove home his style to the point I had enough. I finally found a good price with a few nice options and reasonable customer service and I went with a US company as they had the right design and price.
The last issue that caused problems, that I have touched on a little already, was the rush to play games. I had been with one of the best Japanese little league teams in Japan for about a year and knew what a hurdle a casual “C’est la vie” attitude would be to any new English speaking teams here. Yet with most of the foreign community using the TAC “single practice option” the idea of practicing until we were reasonable prepared was a hard sell- to say the least.
Finding a League
Again the players are pushing dads to ask for games sooner, more than dads getting junior to as many practices and working hard enough to not get hammered in their first games. I had set spring for our first games knowing I couldn’t extend longer than that, as we had started at the end of summer the year before. Yet due to one parent leaving to move aboard the pressure came into play in winter or he and his boy would walk. I went to work earlier on getting teams to play and then ran into many problems, of which I could write a whole article on that alone. Yet to keep things condensed I got as much help as I could from Japanese friends and went at it very hard and was ready by early spring as planned, but this was not good enough for one.
The key was to find a flexible smaller league that thought a foreign base team would be fun and not a problem. The bigger leagues were very aloof and I was amazed at their rudeness. Now I wasn’t dealing with then directly until the last successful one, as I had Japanese citizens do the contacting and explaining, as they would know the issues at hand. And thus I wouldn’t stumble into any “faux pas” on culture, though I’m not very bad at these issues, just in my speaking of the Japanese language. Still emails and phone calls we unanswered or only partially answered as an offer of 4 dates to have a scrimmage over a month were answered with a dismissal of the first date, as they were too busy for the one date and nothing was said of the 3 others. I had one link, from my friends near where I lived to play, but they were far away and said if we couldn’t get anyone else they would try. I was saved by the league we eventually joined to save these friendlies the need to travel so far. Yet when it comes to baseball in Japan it seems that long-term thinking and true kindness is not always forthcoming, this with any faux pas by foreigners completely removed for the process, as this was Japanese dealing with Japanese.
Long-term thinking and politeness have become firmer for me here in Japan, as I keep to the traditions that seem to have escaped some aloof officials for several leagues here. This may be one reason many players have moved to soccer here in Japan, as some aspects I thought were said to be Japanese have been moved aside by arrogance and status. I learned politeness from my English born father, but holding my tongue with people who wear their emotions on their sleeve I learned in spite of my parents.
Speeding up Training
Once underway with training the obvious need for a full turn out of these practices became very plain. There is a core of those who don’t miss practice unless truly sick or have true obligations, while others that come by halves who improve slower, and those that miss the majority of practices. If you browbeat them they or their parents may bolt, and if you don’t play them during the games they may come even less. So there is only one real option when you have just enough players and they see they can opt out with easygoing parents. That is to increase the numbers of players to make them compete with each other and then they will see others working harder and receiving praise for their improvement and hard work and get the picture. Getting more players of course is easier “said” than done.
Another method is with membership prices. After the first year I offer discounts on memberships based on attendance, those with the best get the biggest and those with the worst get minimum ones. Most parents here are not too concerned with the fees, but the fact you are basing things on it is something they will likely bring up to the players and will show them you are watching this, and therefore they might get less playing time if they don’t show up more. This somehow must be done in some way to both get better attendance but not make the players uncomfortable having to have someone remind them all the time to their face.
“Getting them early” is another well-known idea, so in that effort I went to another school that was interested in their young students getting baseball training. When you start at such an early age you can start with the keys to success. For example mentally “focus” is the key to a great younger ball player, as you can be the best physical player but if you are looking at the clouds or someone on the sidelines your skills are 100% negated. The most important body skill is to be in the athletic position, as it obviously speeds up response to fielding and adds power to swings, along with avoiding injuries when in other poor postured positions. So we have gone to work looking for new players that are talented, but more importantly are intense enough to work harder to surpass others with more effort.
Well we have found a league to play in, and now we are in the process of matching our international school year with those of the Japanese school year. Theirs begins in April, and ours in the fall. We will know by this fall how far we are behind, but we will finally be in the game. The first international little league baseball team to compete in arguably the toughest environment in the world for it. Wish us luck, as we will need it.
In part one of Little League Japan I went over the good, average and bad of playing for a very successful Japanese Little League team. When we finally gave up on the Edogawa-Minami Baseball Team they had just won the Little League World Series, I said to myself that surely I was doing this for principle not pure ambition.
In Japan there is a saying that, “ boys are ambitious” and most would stick to a team that was doing so well. Unfortunately or fortunately, as time will tell, I am not a boy and my son trusts my judgment. My boy was not getting what he needed to be a pitcher. He was being trained to be an outfielder with one arm, as everything was being done to win now at the club, as any player had to first show they could consistently throw before they were to be trained to be a pitcher. This chicken & egg argument can be argued both ways, but I was not paying to have a debate, but to have my son trained to be a pitcher.
If my son & I are successful in our efforts at switch pitching & switch hitting we may start a pitching school ourselves in the far distant future, as Edogawa-Minami was one of the best little league teams in the world and they obvious struggled with this problem, as they seem to headhunt for pitchers from other teams who have already proven to be able to pitch.
Some version of this is likely being done on teams inside and outside of Japan. I would only do this when forced by time constraints, not by choice. Daisuke Matsuzaka was a middle relief pitcher when he played for Edogawa-Minami, and thus played outfield when he wasn’t pitching. So where is the building from scratch that occurs in other sports or in other aspects of baseball? You must make it yourself, and leave the obsession of winning to later in their career.
Since the time of the Eastern Block and their Olympic teams the manufacturing industry of talent in sport there is one thing that has become perfectly clear, that is “you must start young and keep with it” if you wish to have a chance at success.
So following this accepted premise we went to work in relative isolation. Covering first base drills with both gloves with a full assortment of bad throws, to countless stretches to develop solid, flexible & varying muscle development. Some of our skills training would not be even covered until later levels of little league (or much later) as “pitchers covering first” is not part of the skills practiced by almost all child level teams. The already stated idea that first took me to switch pitching (in the first place); that being the need to develop the muscles on the other side of the body to make the fame and structure less breakable, still required other training goals.
One such example is mentioned in this article we have worked at a local batting center in an original way. I have been having my son deal with the come backers by pretending to pitch in the direction of the pitching machine to then receive the machines 100km pitches, at roughly 22 balls in a row, whistle back as recreated “come backers.” This being the exact type of catching he will have to deal with as a real fielding pitcher. Pitchers “must practice to be super fast infielders, not poor outfielders.” Pitchers must react faster than infielders, and deal with the hits near their mound with speed, composer and fearlessness. Only the catcher has similar or worse problems with swing deflections and the obvious wild pitches.
I have dived into books by Steven Ellis, Nolan Ryan and a combined effort by Tom House, Gary Heil & Steven Johnson to see what these serious minded professionals had to say. Many of these gentleman’s ideas on stretching and mechanics I have enacted already, the tube work is starting to get underway with weight training having to wait till my son is older. Still with almost two years under our belts in personalized training and with 2 years to go, before Japanese junior high school baseball, a venue was needed to improve skills by both actually pitching and hitting in games. Games being the ultimate teacher as to the purpose and application of skills, plus in addition teaches the leadership that comes from working with others for a goal.
The answer to this was to join the Tokyo American Club League (TAC). One thing that must be mentioned as to my choosing this league was the need for my fluent Japanese-speaking son to become fluent in younger spoken English. To this point he spoke English as I had taught him, with an unmistakable adult tone.
As a non-member of the club, who lived too far away to warrant a membership, I was happy to find out they allowed non-members to take part in some sports activities. The fees were reasonable and included a uniform and a supply of equipment for use. Only a glove of your own is needed (or in my son’s case two gloves) unless you volunteer to be the catcher in which case the catcher’s glove, mask, padding & cup is provided by TAC.
My first concern was with TAC coaching, as I wanted my boy to continue switch pitching and not run into orthodoxy from a western side, to match up to what I had met on a Japanese team. Fortunately the teams were looking for fathers to be coaches and I was able to get a position as head coach for one of the teams.
The Tokyo American Club ( Link)
The TAC system is a good representative example of a western style of more casual little league. The primary focus is to have fun, improve skills and learn the game of baseball. The TAC League works with the American School in Japan ( Link).
The first stage was a test day where all players go through a wide assortment of training sessions where their abilities are evaluated to roughly a level of strong, moderate and low skilled. Then the teams are then made up of a mixture of skill levels in the hope to make each team fairly competitive and not stack one team with all the good players. Some of the TAC players wanted to be with friends and of course fathers wanted to be with their boys and girls (if they were coaching) and hence other factors went into making up the teams, not just the mere balance of skills. Many players wanted to play together again and I was to learn that the teams weren’t too balanced, as some were clearly stacked with people who had been in this system longer than the newbies.
With Edogawa-Minami Little League the rush was to bring forward the best players and place those best players in a position that the team needs filling. This may be better for the team, but hardly at all does justice to long-term players potential and tends to too quickly match the professional leagues need for “success now.” Little League’s function is to develop, and if need be lose every game if this comes into conflict with true development. Now some are not up for this kind of attitude, but being prepared to lose doesn’t mean you try to lose.
Head Coach Leadership
I have talked at length about how things should be done, and am having my opinions tested in Japan was to come. As I have stated previously I want the fathers of players to take part, and TAC encourages each coach to allow others to take part. I’ll say that again “encourages”, as opposed to not being allowed to talk to their kids during practice via an official rule, as with Edogawa-Minami baseball team. Most fathers and mothers at TAC are not interested in taking an active part in the coaching areas, merely getting the children there and watching them and encouraging them (no small effort in itself). Others offer and assist in a casual way and still others want a more active role. All are welcome for my part. For coaches this can be a tougher way to run a railroad, but that’s what taking responsibilities means. Only if a parent gets out of hand are coaches suggested to get involved:
23. It is the coaches’ responsibility to ensure that their players and parents exhibit sportsman-like conduct at all times.
Fathers (to date) have taken up 1st & 3rd base coaching positions, helped with putting on catcher equipment, and generally help where they can, often with no requests from the more serious coaches. All input from dads has been followed with, “but you are the coach and you make the decisions.” Hardly a chaotic scene, though I’m sure over competitive fathers can cause problems, but simply such eager fathers should be given a role, not banned from any input “by rule.”
The rules for TAC concern things like a batting order that demands all children get their turn to hit, whether they are on the field or not. That every player gets 3 innings of playing time on the field in a 6-inning game (for juniors), which is why a 4th outfielder is allowed so children get more playing time than bench warming.
This makes the game of musical chairs seem easy for the coach, as you want the best players in any given position to give your team a better chance to win. The players have of course strong opinions on where they want to play and thus one is forced into not meeting demands of the players and their fathers. Yet letting them have a go at a position and struggle can sometimes be the best medicine of what your eyes want and what your stomach can handle.
This I have faced with pitching the most. As with many teams in Japan, and in other countries no doubt, the number of players wanting to pitch can be overwhelming. Three innings is the max for juniors, so letting some pitch early in the season allows you to both see what they can do. Training time is extremely short in the preseason at TAC, and the desire to pitch, with no chance to see the facts of life, made my life harder.
So all around a much more development minded system for the most amount of players at an age that such pigeonholing should be frowned upon by the coach, yet as a father one is welcome to pigeon hole your son (as in a switch pitcher) all you like, so as to maximize his chances in a given position- by practicing for that position. The roles are different for coach and father and must be treated as different. One father played catcher in his youth and was eager for his son to play catcher, to the teams benefit, as we needed such a player in that position. We might have ended up with no one wanting to be catcher, but the father saw that his boy would get more playing time if he was more aggressive with his son in that position. This carrot and stick approach to positions, as the thinning the numbers of would be pitchers, removes confrontations and allows for the players and parents to come to the realizations themselves that their son needs more work before he can play a certain position.
The first game was a wake up call, as the pitching was a bit wild, and the umpire knew to make a bigger strike zone to help the game move along. I started with the boys who were eager to pitch and had some of them struggle, while others held their own, leaving me with less pressure at letting so many pitch. A few got put off by the experience of pitching and changed desires for their favorite positions, and I happily provided them with their new role. My son came in the final innings and pretty much shut them down with his right arm and allowed me some leeway as to knowing what I’m doing with pitchers.
We were lucky to win our first game, but the game went along way in allowing me to clearly see where the skills lie with the players as I moved people around. I was helped at the start by one of the fathers (Mike) who had coached for TAC before and had a better idea of the skill levels to go along with the first day evaluation. This was due to the fact some children didn’t make the first evaluation day.
Warm-up running and stretching is a must for me, but children and their parents can come late, so trying to make the children go through the motions of doing their own stretching, so as to show them the importance of it can be tough. They will do it improperly on their own, no doubt, as they are eager to get to the practice and game, but even going through the motions will help show them its importance.
The Second Game
The second game was against the strongest team, but we had the use of the diamond to practice before the game, which I used to the maximum. Having the players in their positions to field and then hit the cut off man is a great drill. I used rubber baskets at the bases that I picked up at a 100-yen shop ($ 1.00 shop), and then had them run them in when I was out of balls to hit. That way you can spray the ball around and keep everyone in on the drill and have them hit the right cut off man and not shut down the drill with individual ball retrieval or boredom.
The game was close, as with the first game, and we pushed the best team to their toughest game so far, but lost. My son came in with his left arm in the 4th and struggled. The whole game was in a light steady rain and it caused all to struggle with the pitching and fielding. I had my son switch to his right arm, but with the bases loaded twice we were still unable to capitalize and lost by a run. I would, as his coach, preferred to start his left arm against an easier team, to get him more confident, but as father I had no choice as there aren’t enough regular season games to play. Next game will be better for the left in this department.
My boy played above average, but has great expectations from his hitting at the batting center were not met. He was now pitching from a mound (and odd short mound at that) for the first time and having to choose not to swing at bad pitches. My role as dad was to state how well he had done and to talk of the mental game of keeping yourself positive, so as to not become too emotional with the ups and downs of mistakes and great hits. Above all patience is needed as coach and as a father.
Above all the best tool I have used, and has turned many heads, is the Zip-N-Hit tool for batting. For the weakest hitters placing the ball in front of them is good, then working to the moving ball, to finally having movement on the pitch is just so fast and effective. I have used it for years, but none of the other coaches had seen it. It really allowed me to appear as if I knew what I’m doing, whether I deserve that mantel or not.
The Third Game
In the third game we had a holiday and so had 3 more no shows to go along with one of our missing lads who hadn’t turned up for 2 games. These missing four players amounted to our short stop, our best outfielder, our 3rd baseman, and our substituting 1st baseman. This reminds one of the other end of the commitment level, as how can one get better if one is not practicing and not coming to games. Of these, two were our second and third best pitchers. I had hoped that the others teams had such a set of no shows, but was wrong as they had their best players in the line up. We had no one in reserve and on the good side all our players who turned up got to play the full game. Unfortunately we lost badly. We scored nine runs, as our run total continues to lead the league, as my Zip-N-Hit training methods seems to be working well. The two loses we had, have come at a time when we really got a lot of diamond practice and I have seen the skill level improving on all fronts by all players. I finally got to try the last players who wished to pitch and now have a list of best to worst, and am ready for future games in this area. Infielding is set and I can now set aside more time and effort towards the outfielders. Or fielding is the worst of the teams as we have so many newbies who have had little real training.
I worked my son’s left arm again, as the game was shot before he even went to the mound, but he lasted a full inning longer and got some work in and was our best pitcher. Batting for him was a break through as he went 3 for 4, and was not put out on a fielder’s choice with the 4th hit. Bad base running stopped him going 4 for 4. He is out of his slump, though hardly a slump when compared to the others on the team. He has adjusted to the “out of the strike zone pitches” and now is being selective. His fielding is one of the best, but his focus is not there yet, as he got disheartened with the bad fielding of others and missed his secondary responsibilities. This is to be expected at 9, 10 & 11 year olds, but when you want to be a switch pitcher you need to raise the expectations of the “thinking part of the game” early, not lessen them. I have used this game to show my son how his emotions made him miss plays as he was unhappy with other’s play and thus reaffirmed in real terms and examples how mindlessly going with your emotions makes you play worse.
The other team hadn’t won a game in a long time and so I was happy they could win one on us, as they beat us threw a lot of hitting and not the usual base-on-ball games where no one can throw strikes and the winner just gets more walks. It was a real slugfest. It would have been an even better game to watch if we weren’t on the receiving end of the big loss.
The Fourth Game
In the fourth game we only got in 3 innings, due to the weather, but it was a very acceptable 5 to 0 win for us. The return of our absent good pitcher (Ian) shut down the other teams hitting. My son made 4 solid fielding plays, including a come-backer on the mound and pitched well. Our pitching for the playoffs is pretty much set now, and our hitting seems very steady compared with other teams. Unfortunately our fielding is still the worst in the league, especially if our short stop isn’t around. I’ve tried to work at it but we need months of work, not an hour before each game.
I had some of the boys who pitched very poorly come up to me and say they wanted to pitch again, which means their fathers are making little headway in saying they must practice much more for say next year, or they are not saying anything to their boys about their boy’s poor performances. I will have to just avoid promising them anything and let them change their interests in the playoffs.
I also had one boy tell me he wanted to be a catcher, and two others say out of the blue they want to pitch now too. I told the would-be-catcher that I had asked at the beginning of the season, and that with 2 games left it was too late. The other would-be-pitchers I have just failed to reply, as I was in the middle of the game and was doing something else more pressing. They missed last week’s game, due to hockey camp, and now they want to change their full time positions for new ones?
Children often get into sports where they are doing things all the time, like in hockey, rugby, basketball and to a lesser extent soccer, and when they come to playing a sport like baseball, where there is much time spent doing nothing with bursts of excitement, they get bored and want to do something new that is more active. This theme or fact of the sport must be explained by coaches to the players early and often.
Playoffs (Round 1)
One hour before this playoff game I learned our shortstop and lead off hitter had broken his wrist falling out of bed. After letting his father know how terrible it was to hear this and getting the details on his chances to recover in the future, I then faced the team’s glaring black hole. I got to work fixing the impossible. With our best fielder, and a solid lead off hitter out, this left us in a bad way. Our weakness has been fielding with as many as 6 players looking like they’re first timers out this season and another 5 players being only a few stages above this. The best of these secondary ability players had only bothered to turn up once for a game due to other activities. Leaving us with only 3 solid players. One of which was now out for the rest of the season.
I thought we might get through if our pitchers could stand up, but I then learned there was no umpire and so we had each team put up a umpire to judge the other teams pitching, which has never gone well and sure enough took our pitchers quality out of the equation as now a generous strike zone was now compared with a technical one. I then focused on just improving each child’s ability. Our game was once again a high scorer, as there was no effort by us to get on base via always looking to get walks. This was rewarded as by the end of the season every player had at least one quality single, except the constant no show boy, and most had 2 or 3 in a 6 game season. Still this no show boy got 3 walks in the games he played.
In the final we had our usual come back in the later innings, and almost came back to win it. This was a far better game than the last time we played this team as they had blown us out, no doubt due to 2 of our 3 best players being absent. This time we had our solid pitcher and our usual neutral umpire, but as mentioned our star shortstop was out.
Our pitching was very solid but there is much to work on, as the mound really affected my son’s control, as the mound was a strange thing that looked like a short wedge and acted more as a step than a true mound. He started throwing slower in an effort to get control and failed to operate like he had done in practice in isolation.
All in all it was a wonderful experience as I feel all our players got much better as the season progressed.
With the season being so short I went to work to forming a amalgamation of the teams to form a serious group of players and parents to form a year round team, to hopefully play some Japanese teams around Tokyo, but that is for another article.
“Little League Baseball in Japan, how hard could it be,” that was the first thought I had when the idea crossed my mind. Right away my wife set me straight as to what she thought about it. Her English had left me with more questions than answers, but I was able to gather that it would demand all of our son’s Saturdays, Sundays & holidays, and when I checked into the times demanded, it is was just that (up at 6:00 am, out of the house by 7:00 am, there by 8:00 am and back home at 8:00 pm). Wow!
Surely we could ask the team to not give up his Saturdays, as my son needed to still go to school in the mornings on Saturday (as he goes to a private school) and that would surely come before baseball in the heavily education minded Japan? Then there was his cram school (Juku school) homework too. From there the conversation ended for the time being.
I had been training my son in baseball quite seriously before this point, and had been using the “Zip-N- Hit” tool system, sold with Derek Jeter’s endorsement & sales pitch, and had bought Ted (Tiger) Williams’ book (the last hitter to hit over .400), and was eager to build on what I could learn. My boy was now a switch hitter & switch pitcher, though I had picked up the idea of switch pitching from the need for a solid left foot in soccer, which I was using as a beginner sport for my boy to build balance and leg strength.
Whether a young player can maintain being a switch hitter or switch pitcher to the top levels in the sport should be secondary to the development of his body, in having muscle distribution and development evenly throughout his body. I have always felt that many sports injuries are due to the obvious over development of one side of the body’s muscles, tendons, bones etc. then mismatched to the weaker connected tissues on the other side.
So we eventually moved on to a batting cage that was nearby. In Canada I had never seen a batting cage (outside of the movies), though I was sure there were some in the big cities like Toronto. In Japan, and especially Tokyo, one can find them everywhere. I jumped at the chance to improve my boy’s hitting once I found one nearby.
We started going regularly to a batting cage and one day we were working our usual routine when another boy came along who had solid switch-hitting ability too. I told my son to start a conversation, as he was always reluctant to do so, right up to the point he made a new friend. The boy was accompanied by his grandfather, who later turned out to be Shingo Ariyasu, head coach of the Little League World Series Champs Edogawa-Minami Baseball club. This club had also started Daisuke Matsuzaka on his way to fame. At that time I thought he was just an interested grandfather who was friendly and relaxed, like any such parent in the West who you might meet. On one occasion he gave me his business card, as he had seen my son skills at the plate on several occasions. I got my wife to check into the team, and lo and behold it was the very team we had talked about earlier.
After some discussions with my wife I got her to phone and try to clear up our concerns about not attending regular practices on Saturday and my other concerns for my boy continuing to try to be a switch pitcher for as long as possible, until such time as it became clear to me that he wasn’t able to do so. What this would materialize into on the ground level was each week or practice he would switch arms and mitts. This was all honest & upfront and I was to come to almost every practice and help with the team to show my good faith in their having to deal with our special case, as the team only requested one parent from each household come once every month or two to help.
I helped do all the menial tasks that everyone else who came did and paid properly in advance for the coaching. In addition my wife came on the requested times for each family occasions to help as well.
The Team Style
Now to begin with an outsider to Japanese Little League baseball must be aware of the different extremes in the sport. You have the hardball leagues and the softball leagues. What I mean by softball is not the girls’ game that is played in the states & provinces of North America and seen in the Olympics with a bigger ball and smaller diamond, but the same hard ball game played with just a softer normal sized ball so the boys, and a few girls, don’t get hurt.
Like in any nation there are the very serious programs and the more casual approaches to the game. Yet it is at the extreme end of the serious level in Japan my family and I began our first attempt to play little league, which should give a good guide to what you may face with your son in some small measure or in the more extreme.
I have been told by Michael Westbay, and seen some other programs here in Japan, and am quite certain that the level my son & I took part in were not the norm. Some of the following aspects in the simpler programs are the same at the more serious team levels too, and so I start with some of these aspects first.
The teams are set up pretty much requiring the parents to participate to a point. The mothers serve tea (ocha-toban) and drinks to the children, coaches, guests, but not necessarily in that order. Soup and sherbet are also occasionally given out for free, as the mothers also work hard during lunch as they provided lunches to those who paid for it on our team.
A monthly fee is required for participation and you must also occasionally provide some drinks and snacks, as this is par-for-the-course in this gift giving culture of Japan. Many teams have their fields used with other teams along riverbanks of Japan and ours was no exception. As the children progress and the fathers participate, the more active fathers are given assistant coaching positions, where they have more of a say in how they practice no doubt.
Unfortunately this was not the case at Edogawa-Minami as the coaches were the coaches and the parents were the parents and you are not allowed to even talk with your children during any practice. Some parents had gotten involved formally, but those not given uniforms and applied for the position formally, were out of luck in instructing when they came every Saturday, Sunday & holiday. I had heard and seen many parents and their boys come and go from the Edogawa-Minami team, as they, or their children, came to think this was just too much.
At the lowest level (T-ballers) there were not too many children, as compared to other teams we played. We in fact were short a full team. At the higher levels there were too many boys and so many had to sit on the bench, but noticeably these higher number sometimes came from other team’s boys coming over, usually out of a more serious desire to get harder and better coaching, or in some cases from head hunting, as one boy who helped them win the little League World Series was taken from another team. Likely leaving a bad taste in the other team’s mouth.
Most of these unwritten Edogawa-Minami rules are told to you after you join and have paid your money, as they want you in before they lower the rules’ boom, so of speak. Most of the boys come by bicycle, some from more than an hour’s ride away, to play baseball and I found all the parents were kind and helpful in offering rides and support, as they help the team immensely. In my opinion I would say the average parent in Japan is better than the average parent in North America, as the present culture really demands a community spirit here, that has been lost, to some extent, in many western nations.
It is important to remember you are not allowed to yell at umpires in Japan, as your team coach will be warned and then a penalty is enforced (the ejection of the coach) for his supporters who over do it.
Kasai-Rinkyo Koen (park) was usually used at the beginning of the day for our long warm up jog, follow by a set of wind-sprints of all different sorts (skips, kicks, knee-highs etc.), and then for some reason stretching is done after these wind-sprints. All of which were hard, especially for the little ones. After this a water break is taken followed by a in-house competition where they split into teams each having a mix of aged boys and then a long race is held with the youngest starting first and ending with the oldest boys. This was fun and the losers had to sing their school song, if they had one or knew it, as a motivation to not be last. The youngest boys sang a cartoon song, which was all very cute. The Japanese are rather shy, so they really try hard not to be last in the race.
After that the team walks back to the field, which is a bit of walk, taking 15 minutes there and then 15 minutes back. Once back at the diamond the lunch tables are set up and a hierarchy is seen quite clearly as the head coaches sit at the top of the table near the food and it moves down from there. This takes about an hour and a half, and then much more time is taken up with equipment being set up, which includes nets and a whole assortment of tools too numerous to go into here. All attending parents help in this setting up, as I did.
When visitors arrive to watch practices, a coach shouts, “Shugo” (“Gather around”), and instantly the players sprint off the field and surround their guests or stop and turn around taking off their caps and bowing low. One of the older boys shouts, “Konnichiwa” (“Welcome”). The others chant the same in unison.
At the start of the day, at about eight in the morning, the team awaits the leadership and all bow for each leader as they get out of their cars upon arrival. Good-byes can take some time too, as after a couple general “group team good-byes” to coaches and parents each boy then must make sure he says goodbye to almost everyone individually to be polite. For those wanting to get home at the end of a very long day it can be a very time consuming set of polite efforts taken as much as a grand total of 30 minutes each for “hellos” and “goodbyes”, and if each layer of coaches gives an extra long speech it can take as much as 45 minutes each to even an hour. These are not the only times for speeches given, but only the first and last speeches of the day.
If one of the older boys does not measure up on a drill or dares to go half-speed, one of the other coaches will command him to drop to the ground and sit “seiza” style, legs tucked under thighs, backside resting on heels, for a few minutes or so as punishment. Yet that is a rare case, as yelling in the main tool used, as with all coaches worldwide.
When the coach spots something he doesn’t like, he barks at the offending player, who instantly removes his cap and stands rigidly giving hardy “hi” (“yes”) to all advise given, then followed by a bow in acknowledgment of the message being received. For many foreigners this kind of discipline, which includes marching like soldiers at the start of tournaments and practices, is odd, bordering on militaristic. I being a former Sea Cadet, and having a father who was both in the British and Canadian Royal Navy, found this all good as I had wanted my boy to learn these kind of skills and avoid being spoiled. There are many benefits to this kind of discipline; like increasing focus, showing politeness and respect. All this done with the pressure of other boys their age doing the same and trying to do a better job of it than the others. I found nothing out of hand in this aspect at all, though I know other westerners will.
The players have times where they roughhouse, and the older boys went after the smaller ones too much, and my boy got too much roughhousing from the older boys as he was their size, but he was on the T-baller’s team. Being half-foreigner likely had a hand in this too, but better to see how my son deals with this in my presents and be there to step in if need be, than to make a stand on this and get him the added name calling of some kind of “momma’s/daddy’s boy.” I would tell him how to deal with this after practice, but this only lessened the effects, but didn’t eliminate it.
There was not much yelling at the younger children, but neither was the concern the coaches gave to making sure the children paid attention. The youngest would be told once or twice and if they didn’t take in what the coaches said, they would leave it for another time. I couldn’t help but notice the youngest children’s coaches were often looking at the older boys’ squads at another diamond longingly on quite a few occasions, as they couldn’t hide the fact they wanted to work with the more advanced players.
I would help whenever asked with back-up fielding on occasion, even though I wanted to be involved much more, and worked in some whistles and gestures with my son so as to remind him to listen to the coaches and remember key points. That way I tried to stick to the rules of “not talking to your boy.” I never whistled him to do anything against the coaches’ wishes or when the coaches were talking to him, merely to back them up and get my boy to focus on what was being done.
In all such leadership methods there must be a good cop and bad cop. Parents normally want to be the “good cop” and hope the coaches to be the “bad cop,” yet with the younger ones this becomes hard as they don’t want the children getting put off of practicing, so the ideal roles become the reversed with the younger children.
There is a constant baseball chatter from the players, who yell, “Koi-Koi” (“C’mon, c’mon)” and make other sounds. Parents at the games often have team hand-fans, t-shirts, caps and chants that make baseball more special than most other sports.
“Wa” (which means unity and team spirit) is important and goes with the harmony of the team, which all reaches to higher levels in Japan. Unity of purpose is a lesson many western boys could learn a little more of, as it was central in decades past.
Fashion is even quite big too here in Japan as many of the boys I saw had the Ichiro Suzuki front leg lift at the plate, which can be seen with other professional players here in Japan and even abroad. At the batting cage I almost always go through other boys batting methods with my son, and he can now look at another boy and tell me the good and bad points. I’m not keen on the leg lift, and when the T-baller coaches started getting the boys to do it I bit my lip. Thank goodness my boy didn’t take to it, likely due to his already successful hitting in the batting cage over the years with the methods I had taught him.
Bunting was also hard to bear as they wanted the one leg straddled out in front of the other method “only”, which is popular in Japan, instead for the older parallel feet facing the pitcher method found in the west. It was hard to see the bunting and hitting methods you taught your son for 2 years go by the way side at practice, as low level coaches demand your son raise his leg when hitting and spread his legs forward for bunting. The immediate results are your boy numbers go down as he relearns how to hit and bunt for the sake of fashion and culture.
You and your son must be ready for some bus travel if your team is serious, and this will include some cold fields out in the open winds. You will meet lots of friendly teams and again the other team’s parents are all very polite and nice. I never met an unfriendly person from another team. The rural teams will have some fields that are a little suspect in quality at times, and washrooms may be cubical booths. So if your wife is “a toilet seat must be down” type you may not want to take her on these away games.
A truck is used for Edogawa-Minami that carries large four staked parasols and much equipment, which you will help to put up. Small practices are held before the games, sometime twice a day as they wait for their tournament games. The more squads, at each age group, means you must stay there for all the teams to play for the whole day.
If you have a car you could get lost unless you stay close to the vehicle with someone who has been there before. The twists and back roads are just not for the navigation wizards to overcome on their own. If your child gets bus sick, make sure you or he bring a barfbag, as I saw quite a few accidents on my trips. The bus rides with all the young players are loud with lots of roughhousing and shouts of “pipe it down.” These are no different from those you find anywhere in the world, but is not for the thin-skinned.
The little league training for fielding in all positions, but pitcher, is by far the best I’ve ever seen here in Japan. I learned much and the length of the drills is beyond the more casual team lengths I have seen in the west. The skill level of the coaches using bats to hit to each boy in each position was very impressive at Edogawa-Minami, especially catcher pop ups.
Unlike in international rules younger base stealing is allowed and is often a way to win, though they do make the boys stand on the bases until the pitch is delivered. The aggressive base running is likely also to be the best in the world, and because the catchers must deal with the stealing they are likely tops at this age in throwing to the bases too.
Batting is above average, but lacks innovation. There is much tossing up of balls from below again and again with the boys hitting into a net in front of them. Some at the higher levels have a pitching machine with two rubber wheels that shoots fastballs and change ups. There is a spiritual element here that comes from the samurai ideal of the perfect swing or stroke, and so the perfect body position is gone over at length. This only comes into conflict with fashionable swings like the already stated Ichiro leg lift.
At the batting cage and on the field there are many set positions you see in the batter’s box, and many players try to hold their bats in a new position to seem special. Those at the batting center sometimes move all over the batters box with their feet for what seems like almost every pitch. On the field most coaches try and stop this. Most parents at the batting cage are just supportive and give little to no advice during the outings and even after, at least there at the center. This is quite surprising to me indeed. Maybe this is an overreaction or habit from the giving of “no advice” at team practices?
Many boys at the cages often fail to hit a majority of the pitches as they go for faster pitches than they are ready for. This is then followed by the constant pushing of the pitching machines buttons as these boys try and change the height of the pitches even as the machine is pitching. For them,“ It must be the machine, and not their swing” as the unguided young minds find an excuse for hitting at a higher speed than they are ready for. For parents I would suggest that you at least hold your ground on this issue, if no other.
At the beginning I start my 10-year old boy at 90 kph twice. Starting with bunting and then hitting from both sides of the plate. If he doesn’t hit a good majority of these balls he could find himself not going to the next higher speed. If he does hit a good majority then it’s up to 100 kph to be followed by 110 kph. My boy is quite advanced and a newbie should start at 70 kph and move up from there once the hits are regular and make up a good majority. You can explain to you son that he will see a mix of speeds when he plays and so should thus be prepared for this mix.
With the change in the ball this season, at the Japanese professional league level, and the corresponding lower averages, maybe it’s the time to try and improve hitting with a few new drills that go back to some old standard ideas, instead of just letting young players wing it and play with buttons at the batting cages, or endlessly hit tossed balls into nets by a coach.
Some of my Views on Why Pitchers Can’t Field their Position Well
Many boys want to be a pitcher and so teams put off who is likely to be one by training all to be one of the fielders, and then watch to see who turns into a pitcher over time. This method is the way of teams that have too many former non-pitchers. Should you teach everyone to be a pitcher and then whoever fields well, while pitching, should then be placed in a shortstop position and so on? Of course not, so then, why the other way round?
In T-ball you have no pitcher, and for some time to come no covering of first by the pitcher even at the slightly higher levels. Usually the second baseman comes over to cover first when the first baseman moves away from first to field a ball. Yet why not start training pitchers covering first as soon as possible, so in the future any pitcher you have will be able to do the deed? Long-term thinking must be part of any plan and not short-term winning as the only goal.
One trick of outside the box thinking I use at the 80 kph batting cage is to have my boy go through the motions of pitching (wind up & from the stretch both), to then catch the machine’s pitch right at the conclusion of his motion to pitch. This forces him to get into the ready position, lose his fear of the come-backer and focus on his fielding instinctively. This we do for both glove arms of course. On the baseball field the balls only occasionally come his way (mostly as bunts or slowed down grounders), and thus pitchers are usually terrible fielders of the more menacing hits, yet from what I see getting the future pitcher to field his position better has more to do with the team and coaching make up.
For our T-baller team the 5th best infielder went to the pitcher’s mound position. At Edogawa-Minami this was a girl. The best infielder went to shortstop, second best to second, and 3rd best to third and 4th to 1st. My boy went to right field or center. The girl had been there from an early age and started practicing earlier too, and she had a better glove than my boy at the start. Her arm was not there though, and led to extra bases on throws to first, but for catching she was better. Yet a boy, who was as tall as the tallest boy at the next minor level, beyond T-ball, and still taller than most of the next level juniors, was sent to learn to play outfield in order to win “now.” No long-term thinking was involved at all. Even after my boy showed both his arms were better in throwing to first base the thinking of winning now won out still. As my son’s fielding got better, with the familiarity of the teams style of practice and bounces on the dirt, this issue became all the more glaring.
Still the “real” point I want to make here is a coaching staff made up of mostly former fielders is not going to have plans in place to properly develop pitchers, and this is a self-fulfilling prophesy, as pitchers are regarded in many quarters as being not too smart (movie: “Bull Durham”) and poor to bad fielders, often because they don’t get much skill training until they show they can throw, and often enough only have outfielder skills to fall back on.
Outfielding and pitcher fielding are polar opposites. From the mound the hit balls are hit at you or around you most of the time, and the pitcher has little time to react. While outfielders deal with hit balls that are relatively far away, usually high and have much more time to react. Better to have pitchers stumble through infield practices with shortstops than have him be lulled to sleep in the outfield!
For this silliness to end pitching coaches (as long as they are truly former long term pitchers) must have a veto say on pitcher training in this regard, or the dumb and bad fielding will continue. Skills must be learned early in such a specialized sport, as there is sometimes no way to make up for lost time with simple hard work later.
The ball speed of hits that are come-backers means training should be done the earliest, not as an afterthought, or with years spent in the outfield. To this you must start early and get instincts to the point of second nature. For those who fear your son getting hit standing on the plate in a batting cage, the method we are using and suggesting is to have your boy stand on one side of the plate (not in line of sight) for 50% of the time and thus have to move to catch, then go to the other side of the plate in a switch hitting cage. The occasional pitch will come straight on, but you will soon see your boy vacuum them up with faster and faster reflexes. You level up the pitch speed from the machine as your boy catches 80-100%, as should be done with hitting too.
You must get your child on some teams very early here in Japan, as 8-years old was a little late for my boy’s first serious team, as you see 5- 6 year olds in Japan hanging around with their parents with little uniforms, that occasionally join a drill, and so your child will be playing catch up to these hardcore parents. Once a young player is set in a position the coaches will not easily remove a child from that position at such an early age, as they may cry, have a tantrum or worse “quit.” The littlest T-ball players will push and shove for their favorite position, and again the coaches shy away from getting too committed to rotation, as they must choose their battles and keep the little ones as happy as possible as they work on skills.
I enjoyed my many months of watching and working at Edogawa-Minami. Shingo Ariyasu was always kind to my boy when he came over to look at the T-ballers, and his family has a very serious operation going on there. To have so many people committed to a team is very admirable and I’m sure the team will have many bright stars and days ahead. I wish them well, but for my son it was on to another system to teach him to be a pitcher sooner.
Next Installment: (Part-2: Taking 2nd on a Fielder’s Choice)
She is in the minor leagues and throws knuckleballs, click the link below:
Female Pitcher Eri Yoshida Records 1st Victory in Japan (Video)
Click the video link below to “Baseball in Tokyo” to watch a 6 year old 3rd baseman turn a triple play: