Little League Japan (Part-1: A Walk to 1st Base)

“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.

Traveling

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.

Baseball Drills

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.

Batting Cages/Centers

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.

Bench Warming

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)

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About Rafe Milo

A young switch pitcher & switch hitter and his father coach. The experiences of living, playing & coaching baseball in Japan.

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