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

“Little League Baseball in Japan, how hard could it be,” that was the first thought I had when the idea crossed my mind. Right away my wife set me straight as to what she thought about it. Her English had left me with more questions than answers, but I was able to gather that it would demand all of our son’s  Saturdays,  Sundays & holidays, and when I checked into the times demanded, it is was just that (up at 6:00 am, out of the house by 7:00 am, there by 8:00 am and back home at 8:00 pm). Wow!

Surely we could ask the team to not give up his Saturdays, as my son needed to still go to school in the mornings on Saturday (as he goes to a private school) and that would surely come before baseball in the heavily education minded Japan? Then there was his cram school (Juku school) homework too. From there the conversation ended for the time being.

I had been training my son in baseball quite seriously before this point, and had been using the “Zip-N- Hit” tool system, sold with Derek Jeter’s endorsement & sales pitch, and had bought Ted (Tiger) Williams’ book (the last hitter to hit over .400), and was eager to build on what I could learn. My boy was now a switch hitter & switch pitcher, though I had picked up the idea of switch pitching from the need for a solid left foot in soccer, which I was using as a beginner sport for my boy to build balance and leg strength.

Whether a young player can maintain being a switch hitter or switch pitcher to the top levels in the sport should be secondary to the development of his body, in having muscle distribution and development evenly throughout his body. I have always felt that many sports injuries are due to the obvious over development of one side of the body’s muscles, tendons, bones etc. then mismatched to the weaker connected tissues on the other side.

So we eventually moved on to a batting cage that was nearby. In Canada I had never seen a batting cage (outside of the movies), though I was sure there were some in the big cities like Toronto. In Japan, and especially Tokyo, one can find them everywhere. I jumped at the chance to improve my boy’s hitting once I found one nearby.

We started going regularly to a batting cage and one day we were working our usual routine when another boy came along who had solid switch-hitting ability too.  I told my son to start a conversation, as he was always reluctant to do so, right up to the point he made a new friend. The boy was accompanied by his grandfather, who later turned out to be Shingo Ariyasu, head coach of the Little League World Series Champs Edogawa-Minami Baseball club. This club had also started Daisuke Matsuzaka on his way to fame. At that time I thought he was just an interested grandfather who was friendly and relaxed, like any such parent in the West who you might meet. On one occasion he gave me his business card, as he had seen my son skills at the plate on several occasions. I got my wife to check into the team, and lo and behold it was the very team we had talked about earlier.

After some discussions with my wife I got her to phone and try to clear up our concerns about not attending regular practices on Saturday and my other concerns for my boy continuing to try to be a switch pitcher for as long as possible, until such time as it became clear to me that he wasn’t able to do so. What this would materialize into on the ground level was each week or practice he would switch arms and mitts. This was all honest & upfront and I was to come to almost every practice and help with the team to show my good faith in their having to deal with our special case, as the team only requested one parent from each household come once every month or two to help.

I helped do all the menial tasks that everyone else who came did and paid properly in advance for the coaching. In addition my wife came on the requested times for each family occasions to help as well.

The Team Style

Now to begin with an outsider to Japanese Little League baseball must be aware of the different extremes in the sport. You have the hardball leagues and the softball leagues. What I mean by softball is not the girls’ game that is played in the states & provinces of North America and seen in the Olympics with a bigger ball and smaller diamond, but the same hard ball game played with just a softer normal sized ball so the boys, and a few girls, don’t get hurt.

Like in any nation there are the very serious programs and the more casual approaches to the game. Yet it is at the extreme end of the serious level in Japan my family and I began our first attempt to play little league, which should give a good guide to what you may face with your son in some small measure or in the more extreme.

I have been told by Michael Westbay, and seen some other programs here in Japan, and am quite certain that the level my son & I took part in were not the norm. Some of the following aspects in the simpler programs are the same at the more serious team levels too, and so I start with some of these aspects first.

The teams are set up pretty much requiring the parents to participate to a point. The mothers serve tea (ocha-toban) and drinks to the children, coaches, guests, but not necessarily in that order. Soup and sherbet are also occasionally given out for free, as the mothers also work hard during lunch as they provided lunches to those who paid for it on our team.

A monthly fee is required for participation and you must also occasionally provide some drinks and snacks, as this is par-for-the-course in this gift giving culture of Japan. Many teams have their fields used with other teams along riverbanks of Japan and ours was no exception. As the children progress and the fathers participate, the more active fathers are given assistant coaching positions, where they have more of a say in how they practice no doubt.
Unfortunately this was not the case at Edogawa-Minami as the coaches were the coaches and the parents were the parents and you  are not allowed to even talk with your children during any practice.  Some parents had gotten involved formally, but those not given uniforms and applied for the position formally, were out of luck in instructing when they came every Saturday, Sunday & holiday. I had heard and seen many parents and their boys come and go from the Edogawa-Minami team, as they, or their children, came to think this was just too much.

At the lowest level (T-ballers) there were not too many children, as compared to other teams we played. We in fact were short a full team. At the higher levels there were too many boys and so many had to sit on the bench, but noticeably these higher number sometimes came from other team’s boys coming over, usually out of a more serious desire to get harder and better coaching, or in some cases from head hunting, as one boy who helped them win the little League World Series was taken from another team. Likely leaving a bad taste in the other team’s mouth.

Most of these unwritten Edogawa-Minami rules are told to you after you join and have paid your money, as they want you in before they lower the rules’ boom, so of speak. Most of the boys come by bicycle, some from more than an hour’s ride away, to play baseball and I found all the parents were kind and helpful in offering rides and support, as they help the team immensely. In my opinion I would say the average parent in Japan is better than the average parent in North America, as the present culture really demands a community spirit here, that has been lost, to some extent, in many western nations.

It is important to remember you are not allowed to yell at umpires in Japan, as your team coach will be warned and then a penalty is enforced (the ejection of the coach) for his supporters who over do it.

Kasai-Rinkyo Koen (park) was usually used at the beginning of the day for our long warm up jog, follow by a set of wind-sprints of all different sorts (skips, kicks, knee-highs etc.), and then for some reason stretching is done after these wind-sprints. All of which were hard, especially for the little ones. After this a water break is taken followed by a in-house competition where they split into teams each having a mix of aged boys and then a long race is held with the youngest starting first and ending with the oldest boys. This was fun and the losers had to sing their school song, if they had one or knew it, as a motivation to not be last. The youngest boys sang a cartoon song, which was all very cute. The Japanese are rather shy, so they really try hard not to be last in the race.

After that the team walks back to the field, which is a bit of walk, taking 15 minutes there and then 15 minutes back. Once back at the diamond the lunch tables are set up and a hierarchy is seen quite clearly as the head coaches sit at the top of the table near the food and it moves down from there. This takes about an hour and a half, and then much more time is taken up with equipment being set up, which includes nets and a whole assortment of tools too numerous to go into here. All attending parents help in this setting up, as I did.

When visitors arrive to watch practices, a coach shouts, “Shugo” (“Gather around”), and instantly the players sprint off the field and surround their guests or stop and turn around taking off their caps and bowing low. One of the older boys shouts, “Konnichiwa” (“Welcome”). The others chant the same in unison.

At the start of the day, at about eight in the morning, the team awaits the leadership and all bow for each leader as they get out of their cars upon arrival. Good-byes can take some time too, as after a couple general “group team good-byes” to coaches and parents each boy then must make sure he says goodbye to almost everyone individually to be polite. For those wanting to get home at the end of a very long day it can be a very time consuming set of polite efforts taken as much as a grand total of 30 minutes each for “hellos” and “goodbyes”, and if each layer of coaches gives an extra long speech it can take as much as 45 minutes each to even an hour. These are not the only times for speeches given, but only the first and last speeches of the day.

If one of the older boys does not measure up on a drill or dares to go half-speed, one of the other coaches will command him to drop to the ground and sit “seiza” style, legs tucked under thighs, backside resting on heels, for a few minutes or so as punishment. Yet that is a rare case, as yelling in the main tool used, as with all coaches worldwide.

When the coach spots something he doesn’t like, he barks at the offending player, who instantly removes his cap and stands rigidly giving hardy “hi” (“yes”) to all advise given, then followed by a bow in acknowledgment of the message being received. For many foreigners this kind of discipline, which includes marching like soldiers at the start of tournaments and practices, is odd, bordering on militaristic. I being a former Sea Cadet, and having a father who was both in the British and Canadian Royal Navy, found this all good as I had wanted my boy to learn these kind of skills and avoid being spoiled. There are many benefits to this kind of discipline; like increasing focus, showing politeness and respect. All this done with the pressure of other boys their age doing the same and trying to do a better job of it than the others. I found nothing out of hand in this aspect at all, though I know other westerners will.

The players have times where they roughhouse, and the older boys went after the smaller ones too much, and my boy got too much roughhousing from the older boys as he was their size, but he was on the T-baller’s team. Being half-foreigner likely had a hand in this too, but better to see how my son deals with this in my presents and be there to step in if need be, than to make a stand on this and get him the added name calling of some kind of “momma’s/daddy’s boy.” I would tell him how to deal with this after practice, but this only lessened the effects, but didn’t eliminate it.

There was not much yelling at the younger children, but neither was the concern the coaches gave to making sure the children paid attention. The youngest would be told once or twice and if they didn’t take in what the coaches said, they would leave it for another time. I couldn’t help but notice the youngest children’s coaches were often looking at the older boys’ squads at another diamond longingly on quite a few occasions, as they couldn’t hide the fact they wanted to work with the more advanced players.

I would help whenever asked with back-up fielding on occasion, even though I wanted to be involved much more, and worked in some whistles and gestures with my son so as to remind him to listen to the coaches and remember key points. That way I tried to stick to the rules of “not talking to your boy.” I never whistled him to do anything against the coaches’ wishes or when the coaches were talking to him, merely to back them up and get my boy to focus on what was being done.

In all such leadership methods there must be a good cop and bad cop. Parents normally want to be the “good cop” and hope the coaches to be the “bad cop,” yet with the younger ones this becomes hard as they don’t want the children getting put off of practicing, so the ideal roles become the reversed with the younger children.

There is a constant baseball chatter from the players, who yell, “Koi-Koi” (“C’mon, c’mon)” and make other sounds. Parents at the games often have team hand-fans, t-shirts, caps and chants that make baseball more special than most other sports.

“Wa” (which means unity and team spirit) is important and goes with the harmony of the team, which all reaches to higher levels in Japan. Unity of purpose is a lesson many western boys could learn a little more of, as it was central in decades past.

Fashion is even quite big too here in Japan as many of the boys I saw had the Ichiro Suzuki front leg lift at the plate, which can be seen with other professional players here in Japan and even abroad. At the batting cage I almost always go through other boys batting methods with my son, and he can now look at another boy and tell me the good and bad points. I’m not keen on the leg lift, and when the T-baller coaches started getting the boys to do it I bit my lip. Thank goodness my boy didn’t take to it, likely due to his already successful hitting in the batting cage over the years with the methods I had taught him.

Bunting was also hard to bear as they wanted the one leg straddled out in front of the other method “only”, which is popular in Japan, instead for the older parallel feet facing the pitcher method found in the west. It was hard to see the bunting and hitting methods you taught your son for 2 years go by the way side at practice, as low level coaches demand your son raise his leg when hitting and spread his legs forward for bunting. The immediate results are your boy numbers go down as he relearns how to hit and bunt for the sake of fashion and culture.

Traveling

You and your son must be ready for some bus travel if your team is serious, and this will include some cold fields out in the open winds. You will meet lots of friendly teams and again the other team’s parents are all very polite and nice.  I never met an unfriendly person from another team. The rural teams will have some fields that are a little suspect in quality at times, and washrooms may be cubical booths. So if your wife is “a toilet seat must be down” type you may not want to take her on these away games.

A truck is used for Edogawa-Minami that carries large four staked parasols and much equipment, which you will help to put up. Small practices are held before the games, sometime twice a day as they wait for their tournament games. The more squads, at each age group, means you must stay there for all the teams to play for the whole day.

If you have a car you could get lost unless you stay close to the vehicle with someone who has been there before. The twists and back roads are just not for the navigation wizards to overcome on their own. If your child gets bus sick, make sure you or he bring a barfbag, as I saw quite a few accidents on my trips. The bus rides with all the young players are loud with lots of roughhousing and shouts of “pipe it down.” These are no different from those you find anywhere in the world, but is not for the thin-skinned.

Baseball Drills

The little league training for fielding in all positions, but pitcher, is by far the best I’ve ever seen here in Japan. I learned much and the length of the drills is beyond the more casual team lengths I have seen in the west. The skill level of the coaches using bats to hit to each boy in each position was very impressive at Edogawa-Minami, especially catcher pop ups.

Unlike in international rules younger base stealing is allowed and is often a way to win, though they do make the boys stand on the bases until the pitch is delivered. The aggressive base running is likely also to be the best in the world, and because the catchers must deal with the stealing they are likely tops at this age in throwing to the bases too.

Batting is above average, but lacks innovation. There is much tossing up of balls from below again and again with the boys hitting into a net in front of them. Some at the higher levels have a pitching machine with two rubber wheels that shoots fastballs and change ups. There is a spiritual element here that comes from the samurai ideal of the perfect swing or stroke, and so the perfect body position is gone over at length. This only comes into conflict with fashionable swings like the already stated Ichiro leg lift.

Batting Cages/Centers

At the batting cage and on the field there are many set positions you see in the batter’s box, and many players try to hold their bats in a new position to seem special. Those at the batting center sometimes move all over the batters box with their feet for what seems like almost every pitch. On the field most coaches try and stop this. Most parents at the batting cage are just supportive and give little to no advice during the outings and even after, at least there at the center. This is quite surprising to me indeed. Maybe this is an overreaction or habit from the giving of “no advice” at team practices?

Many boys at the cages often fail to hit a majority of the pitches as they go for faster pitches than they are ready for. This is then followed by the constant pushing of the pitching machines buttons as these boys try and change the height of the pitches even as the machine is pitching. For them,“ It must be the machine, and not their swing” as the unguided young minds find an excuse for hitting at a higher speed than they are ready for. For parents I would suggest that you at least hold your ground on this issue, if no other.

At the beginning I start my 10-year old boy at 90 kph twice. Starting with bunting and then hitting from both sides of the plate. If he doesn’t hit a good majority of these balls he could find himself not going to the next higher speed. If he does hit a good majority then it’s up to 100 kph to be followed by 110 kph. My boy is quite advanced and a newbie should start at 70 kph and move up from there once the hits are regular and make up a good majority. You can explain to you son that he will see a mix of speeds when he plays and so should thus be prepared for this mix.

With the change in the ball this season, at the Japanese professional league level, and the corresponding lower averages, maybe it’s the time to try and improve hitting with a few new drills that go back to some old standard ideas, instead of just letting young players wing it and play with buttons at the batting cages, or endlessly hit tossed balls into nets by a coach.

Some of my Views on Why Pitchers Can’t Field their Position Well

Many boys want to be a pitcher and so teams put off who is likely to be one by training all to be one of the fielders, and then watch to see who turns into a pitcher over time. This method is the way of teams that have too many former non-pitchers. Should you teach everyone to be a pitcher and then whoever fields well, while pitching, should then be placed in a shortstop position and so on? Of course not, so then, why the other way round?

In T-ball you have no pitcher, and for some time to come no covering of first by the pitcher even at the slightly higher levels. Usually the second baseman comes over to cover first when the first baseman moves away from first to field a ball. Yet why not start training pitchers covering first as soon as possible, so in the future any pitcher you have will be able to do the deed? Long-term thinking must be part of any plan and not short-term winning as the only goal.

One trick of outside the box thinking I use at the 80 kph batting cage is to have my boy go through the motions of pitching (wind up & from the stretch both), to then catch the machine’s pitch right at the conclusion of his motion to pitch. This forces him to get into the ready position, lose his fear of the come-backer and focus on his fielding instinctively. This we do for both glove arms of course. On the baseball field the balls only occasionally come his way (mostly as bunts or slowed down grounders), and thus pitchers are usually terrible fielders of the more menacing hits, yet from what I see getting the future pitcher to field his position better has more to do with the team and coaching make up.
For our T-baller team the 5th best infielder went to the pitcher’s mound position. At Edogawa-Minami this was a girl. The best infielder went to shortstop, second best to second, and 3rd best to third and 4th to 1st. My boy went to right field or center. The girl had been there from an early age and started practicing earlier too, and she had a better glove than my boy at the start. Her arm was not there though, and led to extra bases on throws to first, but for catching she was better. Yet a boy, who was as tall as the tallest boy at the next minor level, beyond T-ball, and still taller than most of the next level juniors, was sent to learn to play outfield in order to win “now.” No long-term thinking was involved at all. Even after my boy showed both his arms were better in throwing to first base the thinking of winning now won out still. As my son’s fielding got better, with the familiarity of the teams style of practice and bounces on the dirt, this issue became all the more glaring.

Still the “real” point I want to make here is a coaching staff made up of mostly former fielders is not going to have plans in place to properly develop pitchers, and this is a self-fulfilling prophesy, as pitchers are regarded in many quarters as being not too smart (movie: “Bull Durham”) and poor to bad fielders, often because they don’t get much skill training until they show they can throw, and often enough only have outfielder skills to fall back on.

Outfielding and pitcher fielding are polar opposites. From the mound the hit balls are hit at you or around you most of the time, and the pitcher has little time to react. While outfielders deal with hit balls that are relatively far away, usually high and have much more time to react. Better to have pitchers stumble through infield practices with shortstops than have him be lulled to sleep in the outfield!

For this silliness to end pitching coaches (as long as they are truly former long term pitchers) must have a veto say on pitcher training in this regard, or the dumb and bad fielding will continue. Skills must be learned early in such a specialized sport, as there is sometimes no way to make up for lost time with simple hard work later.

The ball speed of hits that are come-backers means training should be done the earliest, not as an afterthought, or with years spent in the outfield. To this you must start early and get instincts to the point of second nature. For those who fear your son getting hit standing on the plate in a batting cage, the method we are using and suggesting is to have your boy stand on one side of the plate (not in line of sight) for 50% of the time and thus have to move to catch, then go to the other side of the plate in a switch hitting cage. The occasional pitch will come straight on, but you will soon see your boy vacuum them up with faster and faster reflexes. You level up the pitch speed from the machine as your boy catches 80-100%, as should be done with hitting too.

Bench Warming

You must get your child on some teams very early here in Japan, as 8-years old was a little late for my boy’s first serious team, as you see 5- 6 year olds in Japan hanging around with their parents with little uniforms, that occasionally join a drill, and so your child will be playing catch up to these hardcore parents. Once a young player is set in a position the coaches will not easily remove a child from that position at such an early age, as they may cry, have a tantrum or worse “quit.” The littlest T-ball players will push and shove for their favorite position, and again the coaches shy away from getting too committed to rotation, as they must choose their battles and keep the little ones as happy as possible as they work on skills.

I enjoyed my many months of watching and working at Edogawa-Minami. Shingo Ariyasu was always kind to my boy when he came over to look at the T-ballers, and his family has a very serious operation going on there. To have so many people committed to a team is very admirable and I’m sure the team will have many bright stars and days ahead. I wish them well, but for my son it was on to another system to teach him to be a pitcher sooner.

Next Installment: (Part-2: Taking 2nd on a Fielder’s Choice)

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Female Pitcher Eri Yoshida Records 1st Victory in Japan (Video)

She is in the minor leagues and throws knuckleballs, click the link below:

Video

Female Pitcher Eri Yoshida Records 1st Victory in Japan (Video)

6-Year-old Little Leaguer Turns Unassisted Triple Play (Video)

Click the video link below  to “Baseball in Tokyo” to watch a 6 year old 3rd baseman turn a triple play:

Video

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.

Call in the Marines (a Marines’ fan lands on shore)

When I first starting watching and choosing a team to follow in the  N.P.B. (Japanese Professional Baseball League) I was very impressed with the Tigers’ and Marines’ fans sometimes fanatical support. Giant fans are solid too, but they are the NY Yankees of the N.P.B. and thus have huge advantages in market share and more.

I’m not too keen with Johnny-come-latelies, as armchair supporters that change their support with the winds of fashion, and who are for the latest “in” or “it” team.

The Chiba Marines are the closest team to my home, yet there are so many teams in the region that one doesn’t have to go local or be starved of coverage or getting seats. The colors (black, gray, white and a dash of red) are good and the team’s name is solid too.  I’m not into making everything cute (kawai) so a team called “The Marines” is interesting too.  I later learned they use the name to mean like that of the Mariners, as opposed to the “soldiers on ship” or military reference, but either way the name is sharp.

In our time of endless fashion a historical respect is nice to be found in baseball,  yet teams named after buffaloes and whales just don’t fit a gracefully sport like baseball. So I’m glad Yokohama changed its name from the Whales. The exception to this, to date, is that of the the Hiroshima Carp, as the carp has a very in-depth meaning in Japan. That being in the times of much more social control the place for fun and entertainment was found in special walled cities or separate parts of town. There people were allowed to let off steam and find fun & relaxation, and this life was represented by “the carp” (often seen as a kind of kite on a pole). This fits very much with what baseball is about. So the Carp gets a big thumb’s up from me.

My first baseball team was the Toronto Blue Jays and from the beginning of watching them play at CNE stadium in a snowfall many years ago I liked to watch the sport, not just play. Then they won 2 World Series and all was worth the long support, this is exactly how I feel about the Marines; as they don’t disappoint.

Recently I have seen the Jays give up great pitchers every year, and seen the state of the turf in the stadium in Toronto with a bit of shame. From the Jays I became a great admirer of Pat Gillick, as what he did with the Jays and Phillies begs one to take note of what a good GM should do.  I have moved over to another MLB team to support, as I wait for Toronto to be reborn under truly competitive GM.  My parents are snowbirds and live down south half the year, so I have picked up supporting the Arizona Diamondback. Another team that  doesn’t disappoint.

So when the Chiba Lotte Marines hired Bobby Valentine many years ago I very was impressed with the GM going foreign.  Gutsy decisions by a GM needs support, and so I gave my support to the Marines all the more. I was eager to see a blend of styles to gauge how a balance could be found.

I had played the gridiron game in Japan and my years of experience in Canada were negated because I was “not Japanese.” My talents were claimed to be due to my size, not so much because I could possibly know more.  One of the biased issues here in Japan for foreigners was and is the idea that “ Japanese are just smarter.” So when Bobby came to manage I very much eager to see how he handled it.  I had hoped that when Bobby helped take the Marines from the bottom to mid-table, that he might escape some of my experiences being he was more well known, and thus would allow the blending with the “Japanese Way” with other ways to take place.  Then the shoe dropped and they fired him as I’d feared and I was pissed as they then dropped down the league table again.

Happily Bobby’s return and the teams great success proved a great step to bringing a mixing of ideas in the sport. From Bobby’s  getting  rid of the cherry blossom pink uniforms to his raising pressure in practice. That being by giving  money for hits, and a lose of money for strike outs, while at the same time lessening the pressure during games on his players he was able to loosen his players up as he increased their focus. Overly hard work outs before the games was stopped, and likely other well thought out ideas came to be seen as successful. They have continued to do well after his leaving, and as many have seen in 2010 they peaked at the right time to come from a very low playoff position to win it all.

The Korean ownership brings a Asian fell to the league as well. Cross your fingers and keep your powder dry Marines (and your bats clean), as you can never count out the Chiba Marines!