Little League Japan (Part-3: Pick off Attempt at 2nd)

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.

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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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