Little League Japan (Part-2: Taking 2nd on a Fielder’s Choice)

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 Season

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.

  Playoffs (Final)

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.

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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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