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Nomo-Seijio-No More

Well it’s been some time since I have written as there has been much work to be done. With the turn of events with my son’s 2- faced coach at his school, we have had a real tough time moving to limit the effects on his baseball career. If they expected us to react like other players they have had a rude awaking.

Yet the tough choices have been made, with some of the unexpected curve balls being used to our advantage. We searched for another team that was not part of a school program to play at the junior high level level, and found one in the West Tokyo Dodgers.

The team was named after Hideki Nomo’s time with the Los Angeles Dodgers, which started the departure of many top players from the Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPB) to the MLB. Nomo’s problems in the NPB started with the previous owners of the Orix Buffalos, as he had his favorite coach dumped with the new management and they demanded he change his pitching style -as an adult no less. A little late one would imagine, but here in Japan the need to give top down orders hangs around much longer than back in North America. The rest is history as Nomo kept his style and went on to fantastic career in the MLB.

So my son and I joined a very solidly named team, who are part of Pony League system run out of the US. The team had even travelled to the US for some exchange tournaments, and so it was a nice fit with its team culture. Then in addition the GM for the team, a Mr. Matsumoto, set a better mix of discipline and maturity for his players. Despite being a very old gentleman he had not warmed to the obsessive discipline in his lifetime. I have talked about such things on this site before with other teams. His junior high team is still not like a western team, but by Japanese standards they are more layback at times, and then demand players click into a discipline mindset at certain points, instead of never ending orders. This is a much more secure approach on the part of the coaches, as opposed to being insecure adults who demands everyone act like automatons.

Lastly we were lucky to find this team was our closest Pony League Team in Tokyo, though we still had to travel about an hour again.

So for just over a year Rafe has played with the WTD and I have been an assistant coach for the club. Yes that right, instead of letting me sit on the sidelines, and give me odd stares when I would turn up to help, they asked me immediately if I would like to help coach. The fact I was a GM of 2 teams in Japan likely helped, but they have also offered the other fathers I have brought along to their club since also. It was their policy to get parents involved.

So are the differences in leadership compared to his Seijo Junior High Baseball Team. Seijo coaches passed on to Rafe that I was not really even supposed to sit and watch him practice, which may have been so officially, but the real goal was to force Rafe to use only one arm against all the promises made before we even wrote the entrance exam to the school.

Rafe has come into his own as a switch hitter and no one has any doubts to his switch hitting as he hits a team high on either side of the plate.
At an open baseball camp at Waseda University Rafe attracted a crowd of onlookers simply on a toss ball exercise from one side of the plate, to then shock all as he did just as well on the other side of the plate to lots of Japanese phases of astonishment.

Rafe is now 190 cm. at 15yrs. of age, and we were even more surprised to find his arm span was a whopping 195 cm. which means his height could be as high as 6’ 5” in the future. He also falls just under the maximum age limit per year. In the West that would be January 1st, yet under the Japanese system that rest on April 2nd.

Unfortunately his switch pitching has not been what we had hoped. His growth has been very steep, as he grew over 20 cm. in height in just over 2 years. So despite the increased training, with his age warranting more work, the results have not been what we hoped. The new team’s Japanese coaches did not get involved, and the issue was up to Rafe and I.

We adjusted to these facts by mid-year by playing with one arm each practice at the end of his season, as we have never demanded he pitch here in Japan, only get to practice with both arms. Yet the limited control he had in his little league time with the Chofu League disappeared. His fielding, that was advanced with the western team and Seijo, was lacking when compared to Dodgers, and we had to deal with him playing the outfield, as 1st base had their best hitter upon our arrival. So Rafe became the team’s go to pinch hitter, or would have been a DH if they didn’t play with pitchers must hit rule. He has since made great strides in his fielding and I owe this to the new team.

We have kept up the training of both arms during the week, but to give him a better chance at being a regular we have gone with one arm for fielding. Of course this arm then dipped in control when pitching even more than the non-used one. So we have the odd situation of the left getting further advanced in control over the right when pitching, as the right improves in its fielding throws. Yet the improvement that one would expect with constant use was not immediate, as again the height and arm length still caused control problems to the present day, and until he stops growing we will still have control problems. Yet the fact my son and I chose to change our two arm approach at team practices shows stubborn thinking is not what we are about.

The idle period between teams was the only noticeable issue, aside from his growth spurts, to cause us grief. The specialization advantage, that is put forth by opponents of switch pitching, has not yet won the day to date. The specialization of one arm doing one kind of throwing has made its presence felt though. This is odd as this is not the kind of specialization the opponents are pushing. The left arm doubles the strikes of the right when pitching at present. While the right has gained control slowly in fielding. It seems that one kind of throwing does benefit a player, and reaffirms the idea of trying to match positions to what a future player will need. As already stated in early articles a possible future pitcher should not be placed or practiced in the outfield if you want them to field from a pitchers position well, nor improve throwing to first via the heavy training of long throws from the outfield. Yet the short throws from many infield positions may also not help in what is needed as a pitcher either. What is needed is training that is for the pitcher from the get go, so as to end the terrible fielding of pitchers that is common knowledge, as no one cares about it much as long as they can pitch.

We have not given up on switch pitching and we are training even harder to field with the left too in our private practices, as a good training program needs the arm to do other things. Just these other elements are limited and not obsessive, as only pitching is held to higher numbers of throws. The right is only used to pitch in private, as the workload is high enough for other kinds of throws at team practices and so mid-week works outs are only at pitching for the right.

So with his approaching grade 10 and a new high school we are hoping to find a new school that has both a much better baseball team, and multiples better coaches- as it would be very hard not to find worse coaches than Seijo Junior High. Wish us luck!

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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.

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.

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)

Ted “Tiger” Williams’ (the last .400 hitter) On Hitting

With Nippon Professional Baseball hitters in Japan having problems hitting in the 2011 season, with many pointing to the obvious new ball’s introduction set to match international ball standards, this may be the time to do some soul searching with the batting methods used here in Japan.

For details on the new balls effect read Jim Allen column: http://www.japanesebaseball.com/writers/display.gsp?id=38134

Anyone worth their salt who wants to learn the best methods usually goes to the best person in any given field that has given information on the subject out to the public.  One can look even today at the success of the St. Louis Cardinals and their hitting coach Mark McGuire and see past his steroid use to see how much he has improved the hitting of the World Series Champs.

In my case the obsession with homeruns holds less attention, as I am a novice historian and look to old school hitting of the past over the fame of the ever fashionable and “it girl” of our time “the homerun.”

The last hitter to hit .400 was Ted “Tiger” Williams of the Boston Red Sox and if you know anything about this stout man you will know he coached for the Old Washington Senators.  When he coached the Senators in his first year he brought their average from the low average of .224 to a .251 along with the team’s win-loss record improving from a .404 to a .531.  This points to the ability to not only hit well, but teach hitting well, which is the only kink in the armor of looking to the best for advise.  Some “can’t teach what they do” very well, especially if they just “wing it” or “run on instincts.”

In Ted’s Williams case he had the ability to do both,  as attested to by Wage Boggs (former American Batting League Champion and Hall of Famer) as he described Ted as being, “ A major influence on my basic hitting skills through my formative years.”

From the Neck Down (50% is the body)

So with the preliminaries dealt with let’s move on to what Ted taught. First off here are some ideas that are fairly common, for example his preference for a light bat and keeping it that way with cleaning your bats regularly to make sure they don’t pick up weight from dirt, powder or other substances that are used to improve grips.  Mr. Williams was a strong man, but to get the bat around after sighting what kind of ball was coming you need every edge you can get.  As is common with many professionals he believed in a compact swing holding the bat close to the chest before contact is made, along with being on the balls of your feet leaning slightly forward and feet roughly shoulder width apart.

Not so common he believed when you were behind in the count you should choke up on the bat and be defensive. Low-balls means you must bend the knees including the front one closest to the pitcher. Today you see many hitters always jam their front leg straight. Or in his own words, “I’d say to go down a little, don’t stay quite as high, bend your knees down toward the pitch. That way your swing will stay more uniform. The tendency on a low ball is to hit it on the ground.  If you bend your knees and go down with the pitch you’ll be able to get under it enough to compensate.”-*

He also stated quite clearly to “keep your head still” to gauge the ball, and thus too much front leg movement and your perspective would suffer. You see with many young boys, and a noticeable number of NPB players, in Japan copying Ichiro’s high leg raising before placing it with their heads following suit in small measure or large. This won’t do, as their eyes are moving with their head as it goes up and then down before the ball’s arrival. How does this help to gauge the placement of the ball in or out of the strike zone?

Hands should be held higher than most batters do so as to oppose having to lift them to deal with certain pitches,  is also suggested by Tiger.  So he preached bended lower at the knees for the legs and hands higher, which can seem in conflict unless you see the thinking behind it.

Yet what I found very happily from Ted Williams was the idea I had logically come to the conclusion on, and that being the angle of your swing. What he called the “ Large Impact Zone” which means your stroke is matching the balls angle and height. If you chop down or come down only partially through the balls line of sight, you only give yourself a chance at impact ever so small.  A level stroke improves the chances, but doesn’t equal the matching of the pitch angle with the slight upward stroke at the end of the swing. I’m always reminding my son above all other advise to swing at the level of the ball, which means he may hit the ball late in his swing or early in his swing but he will make contact much more often than the chopping or level to ground swing. My boy is hitting 75-80% of 120 km pitches at the batting cage at age 10.

When this contact happens it allows your boy to then read where the ball goes and adjust. Fouls one-way means he is usually too late on the swings, while fouls the other way means he is usually too early on his swing. Thus he can adjust because he is making contact consistently.  This is the benefit of a “Large Impart Swing” suggested by Ted Williams. Someone missing the ball all together means he must wait till reviewing the tapes before he can adjust, or listening to someone else’s view of each pitch, or only hear the usual “Gumbate” from the otherwise quiet family members in support here in Japan.

From the Neck Up (50% is mental)

So many young batters wing it, or run on instinct. Some people love sports because they can turn off the brain and relax, but this is the kiss of death for the successful player, unless he has such instincts that it dwarfs everyone else’s, which is almost never the case.  So one must use the mind to hit better.

Ted Williams talks about trying to gauge a pitcher while others are in the batter’s box.  He talks of annoying pitchers as he tried to get further behind the other batter in the batter’s box as he warmed up to bat in the on-deck circle.  He talked of always taking note of what one gets struck out on at your last time up against that pitcher, and like many he talked of studying the pitcher as best you can before you meet him.  Here he states it quite clearly:

All they ever write about the good hitters is what great reflexes they have, what great style, what strength, what quickness, but never how smart the guy is at the plate, and that’s 50 percent of it.  From the ideas come “the proper thinking”, and the “anticipation,” the “guessing.”

Is the pitcher struggling with one of his pitches, is he stubborn, is he afraid of you? These are the many thought processes you go though at the plate. So early on you must get involved with the thinking of your son, and early on teach him not to wing it and empty the mind in some cheap attempt to appear Zen like.

Half an idea can be a dangerous thing.  In Japanese combat they often say, “don’t think to much” with the sword (as shown in the movie “Last Samurai”), but that’s after practicing so that your swing has become second nature. You must think wisely. The better expression of this was Yuzan, but I will be paraphrasing him here:

-First in youth you don’t think at all

-Then as you become a teenager you think too much

-After that you think about thinking

-And finally you think so well that it almost seems like you have come full circle, yet you haven’t.  You have just come to think about the right things with ease and then focus in on your issue at hand to be in “the zone” to hit.

So letting your boy wing it, as he gets older, is a wishful thinking measure on your part.  Counting in your head to gauge the speed of a pitch is an early first step. Take him through ideas on the how the ball is arriving (inside and outside of the plate) and how to deal with them (swinging earlier on the inside, and later on the outside pitch) so as to “hit the ball where it wants to go.” Later you can deal with what types of pitches a pitcher can throw and how to deal with them. Finally take him into the mind or heads of the pitcher he is facing, as your boy progresses in the thinking stages.

Always learn from the best when they know how to teach.

*- “The Science of Hitting”, by Ted Williams and .John Underwood.

Clarifying Baseball Levels, Terms & League Needs

On the left are the levels for Canadian Baseball, which are likely to be very close to the US level system. On the right we have the level system in Japan.

T-Ball (8 & under)————————Mini-Minor (9 & Under)
Junior Rookie Ball (8 & under)
Senior Rookie Ball (9 & under)
Minor Mosquito (10 & under)———Minor (10-11)
Mosquito (11 & under)
Minor Peewee (12 & under)———–Mini-Junior (12-13)
Peewee (13 & under)——————-Junior (12-13)
Minor Bantam (14 & under)———–Mini-Senior (14-15)
Bantam (15 & under)——————-Senior (14-15) or Junior High School (13, 14 & 15)
Minor Midget (16 & under)————High School (16 yrs.)
Midget (18 & under)——————–High School (17 & 18 yrs.)
Junior (21 & under)———————City Teams
US University Teams——————-University
MLB Farm Teams———————–NPB Farm

I believe the MLB is stronger than the NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) because of the level and numbers of foreign players playing in the MLB from all over the world. I would place the NPB above all US triple A teams though, as the NPB is a much higher level of play. When the MLB and the NPB leagues play each other the games are all played in Japan, and not all the MLB players come overseas, and then many players (and their team management) are not keen to go all out for the games.

In the Baseball Classic the USA loses out because the Japanese team is just better and or plays better together, as all the very talented Latin American players play for their national teams and make it plain for all to see why the Japanese rightly deserve to be the best team in the world.

The Need for an Big Asian Baseball League

I think that the NPB must lead in forming an Asian League that must have at least 2- teams from South Korea, 2- teams from Taiwan, 3- teams China and of course 3-teams from Japan.  Having two teams in each nation will develop the local rivalry needed, and allow citizens with less money to pick up games at two venues closer to home.

At first glance these teams from Japan should be the Giants, Tigers & a third team to be decided by wins.  The history and rivalry between these two teams would no doubt fit the bill.

Each national league would need to have a stake in the Asian League or they wouldn’t cooperate, so funds would have to go to the national league systems and they must not be left on the outside looking in. Government involvement in the teams would be made clear and penalties given for violations. The national leagues from each country should do as the English Premier Football League does and level up the best team from their leagues when one of their Asian League teams hits the bottom of the rankings table in this proposed Asian League. The worst Asian League team would be relegated to playing back in the national league system, unless from a country with only one team and no national league system to fall back on to replace the lowest falling Asian League team.  In this way any financial problems will be dealt with, as transportation costs would go down for the relegated club, upon being brought down to the national level, along with the need for expensive players. The Asia League would be less in need of propping up weak teams that overspent or mismanage in other ways, and avoid the risk of supporting some teams more than other teams with stretched rationalizations.

Efforts to expand this league should be centered at first with a lesser division (Southern Division) that should include 2-teams in Australia, 1-team in Singapore, 2- teams in India, 1-team in New Zealand, 1- team in Indonesia, and 1-team in Malaysia. The Asia First Division Teams should be encouraged to have Triple A teams in other countries so that national differences are not made to boil over.  As the, say Southern Division, will likely be a Triple A team for a bigger First Division team, the expenses will be more manageable and allow for the sport to grow in the more troubling expansion markets like India & New Zealand.

Umpiring would be very tricky, but a use of a video booth back up umpire, who would have a video with a box of the strike zone to review, would help to ease any risk of corruption, along with voting on of umpires by each team for those to take part in the playoffs.

What is needed for this to come to be is a real headliner that has an Asian outlook to meet the demands of the shrinking world. If this comes into being I have no doubt that the Asian League would surpass the MLB, as the inflow of talent from around the region would level out this advantage of the MLB, as would the revenues generated. The alternative is to slowly have the best talent whisked away to the MLB.

I will watch and support any efforts to bring this about, yet the most important mindset that must take place is looking clearly at the strengths and weakness in structures, not cover over problems with Disney happy talk, politeness taken to extremes, and stubborn control of teams and leagues by leaders who can’t see that the MLB will overtake such stubborn mindsets if the Asian Leagues keep to their private leagues and try to ignore the growth of the International flavor of the MLB.

Too Little Practice or Too Much (focus on little leaguers)

The Weather

When I played little league in Winnipeg Manitoba many years ago we really didn’t practice often enough.  Part of this problem was and is the weather, as snow came in around October and was not gone often until late April.  Even then the ground was not good for many sports until the water or semi-permafrost was gone.

How many sports can be taken indoors and run over 7-months and not have everyone go stir crazy or broke paying for gym space to play their sport by themselves? Not enough if you want to continue sports like baseball in the colder regions of the world.

On the other hand hockey can be run outdoors and thus gives such nations a great lead.  This is common sense, but where some fail to see these facts is in the nations that move ahead internationally, and due to compilable weather 365 days a years, like here in many parts of Japan and in countries like sports mad Australia. The race to teach skills is often won by these facts alone, for example 7 more months of grounders and fly balls is bound to have an effect upon boys with less natural talent. Asking boys to wait 7-months to continue playing is extremely risky and many boys never reappear in spring simply because they took up something else or forgot about playing baseball because they discover computer games.

Weekly Practices

The very serious team my son and I went to practice with here in Japan had 2 practices a week (standard for them) and more when holidays were nationwide. They started at roughly 8:00 am and finished at roughly at 7:00 pm both days, and when you include travel time it becomes a time black hole of sorts. Now I’m sure some teams in other nations are lucky to get everyone there once a week, with poor nations not having school systems that allow boys to be practicing with coaches or playing stick ball type games by themselves with the less school hours to none. This certainly has the same effect as that of weather.

Now here in Japan education is very serious, as in many Asian nations, and they additionally go to cram schools during the week, weekends & holidays, so to demand such hours for sports is to virtually to give up on being tops in education, with thousands of Chinese characters to be learned and levels of math & science that lead the world to be studied.  So some “way” must be designed to maximize time spent, or thus not cripple the education of your children.

The Infielder & Outfielder Bias

I will go into this in detail later, but such long practices help infielders, outfielders and batters, but are not always good for pitchers. Sure players learn to play other positions, but this is almost always a one-way street as clearly future pitchers learn to field in other positions, while outfielders & infielders almost never learn to be pitchers to the same level the other way round. Any time spent teaching an obvious future pitcher to field other positions, instead of only the mound region & first base is a waste to him and the team. The constant contempt that one hears for pitchers fielding their position, even in the MLB, has its roots in this bias.  Teams and coaches are made up of many more infielders and outfielders than former full time pitchers. In the movie “Bull Durham” this bias is shown in a very funny way, but not all pitchers are dumb, some are made and some forced to be.

I tend to think of pitchers arms as racehorses’ legs. The time and care taken to not overwork such horses legs is an art, all the more for the young. You always want to start younger (I would suggest 7- 8 for baseball), but how you work such issues is the devil in the details.  Macho coaches are a curse in baseball, and Japan certainly has its share, as has been seen on so many occasions in the high school tournaments here. Many boys pitch well beyond the right pitch count for their age, as they also pitch too soon with no proper rest between starts. Up until recently not allowing children to drink water during P.E. classes was very common too. What jack ass thought up such ideas deserves to run into an involved parent like me who will chew them out, in front of all if need be (or more), for such moronic ideas. All this in the name of pitchers “taking one for the team” like this is some sport where guts trumps the facts of life is well beyond silly.

In Japan there is such respect to authority figures that weak men, as coaches, get the bad general’s mind.  The shoulder, elbow & wrist are not the field of battle to be waged in any tough guy battles. That would be like taking infants and throwing them on the frontlines of a war and saying “suck it up.” These body parts are tender & fragile for full-grown men, let alone young boys.

Now I’m a former rugby player, gridiron player & free style wrestler so there are lots of places and times to teach discipline, toughness, and fighting spirit, but not on this battlefield of the pitcher’s arm.  Such bad coaches need to get out more and play other sports and learn baseball will never be as tough as others sports, so get over it or be insecure forever. It is a graceful sport and as we all know bulk doesn’t help in baseball. Mental toughness matches up with other sports and focus is much higher in baseball than most sports, but toughness just isn’t as high. Outfielders deal with boredom as they stand around waiting for action to start. This and the weather did me in for Winnipeg Little League. Over practice can lead to a lack of looseness on the part of players and leads to more injuries and errors, as Bobby Valentine showed quite well as he would increase pressure in a fun way during practice, and try to lessen it before and during games.

Pitchers are going to be taller boys and that means more growth time, with longer clumsy periods. Shorter infielders are going to look better as they are dealing with the same height and appendage lengths as they have always had.  So you must pick your battles better with pitchers and not yell at a boy going through a growth spurt as the shorter guys sets the pace for the rest.

Most, and almost everyone here in Japan, are quick to say someone is good because he is tall and strong, yet they don’t like to see or say shortness allows for better coordination and speed. A good question must be asked is why your shorter son or daughter is not doing better than the taller children? Only time well spent allows a growing youth the ability to catch up in these areas, or they simply remain clumsy all their life.

The good coach and or father must balance these issues and not let tradition and “chip on their shoulder tough guys” blow your boys spirit, interest and arms early.  As a switch pitcher coach I have worked one arm a week when my son was 7-9 years old. Working other areas like catching, balance, leg speed etc. can go on all week if you get the chance. Having my son catch head on pitches from a batting machine at the batting center, after going through the motions of a pitcher (on both sides of the  home plate)  shows that there is lots of room to teach toughness, fearlessness & outside the box thinking. I’m sure some tough guys may like such stuff, but the purpose is to work on what pitchers deal with in their position (the come backer) instead of practicing with outfielders or looking foolish as he sometimes does infielder drills. Only with a constant come backer from a batting cage machine can one truly ingrain the need to get into a fielding position after a pitch. The improvement in his fielding and fearlessness has been remarkable. Time will tell when he gets to higher levels of competition how good he has become, but his fielding  skill is likely to be ignored as his switch pitching and switch hitting gets more attention. Still  readers here will get a look at the full range of ideas that go into a all-round pitcher, and if I have my way the nickname “Meat” from the Bull Durham movie will be placed where it belongs on the stupid coaches who are too stubborn or unimaginative to have pitchers learn fielding of their position proper.