A bright future and the dark side

The recent WBC victory was a powerful moment, proving, not that Japan’s baseball is the best in the world, but that Japanese stars can be competitive with the world’s other best players.

All during the tournament, manager Hideki Kuriyama, Shohei Ohtani and Yu Darvish all expressed hope a WBC championship would energize Japanese baseball from top to bottom, and increase interest among children to take up the game and invigorate it.

But it’s going to take more than just increased participation to make it better. Although his team provided the ideal of a shining baseball city on a hill — or mound if you prefer, the reality is that the sport’s ideological and structural foundation represents some of baseball at its worst.

Pro baseball is just the tip of Japan’s iceberg. It is supported by a vast network of amateur establishments that provide the pros with players and shape the way those players learn, develop and physically mature.

And though changes have been made by federations to try and make youth baseball less dangerous to the health of Japanese youngsters’ arms, the underlying structure will have to change in order to unleash Japan’s true potential.

At the youth level, Japanese baseball requires a massive commitment not just from the young players themselves but from their parents, who are expected to support the team in various ways—including serving the coaches tea–something not every family has time for.

Once kids take part in school teams, they enter year-round “bukatsu” or club activity baseball, with daily running and practice over the entire year, because that’s how Japan’s educational system rolls and there’s no getting around it. Because the school year has no season when student athletes are allowed to step away from their club sport or compete in another it’s a mental and physical grind.

That lack of rest is a huge factor in the systematic underdevelopment of Japan’s student athletes, according to orthopedic surgeon Kozo Furushima. The doctor, who deals annually with a huge number of sports injuries, believes the failure of rest from the daily routine of middle-distance running that is a foundation for Japanese youth sports leads to athletes with truncated legs.

Japan’s real hunger games

Another barrier the WBC won’t impact is Japan’s obsolete tournament system. Virtually all youth baseball takes place in single-elimination tournaments, meaning half the teams that take part over the weekend will be one and done, while the best young pitchers on the decent teams might pitch four to six games over a single weekend to ensure victory.

This is a contributing factor to avulsion fractures in the pitching elbows and shoulders, where parts of the still-cartilaginous bone in young arms can be torn away by the stronger ligaments and tendons. Most damage, Dr. Furushima said, that would heal if kids got a few months away from throwing each year, does not, because baseball is practiced year-round.

Tournament play, historian Tetsuya Nakamura said, is an artifact of Japanese baseball’s origins. Because schools fielding teams used to be far apart when travel was prohibitively expensive league play was impractical, so teams would travel to a central location for a short period of intense competition.

Those conditions no longer exist, but the single-elimination format, like the embellished past of schoolboy baseball’s heroic origin story, took on a life of its own and has become intertwined with the ethos that losing is unacceptable, and further compels coaches to use their best pitchers game after game, day after day because that is the way it is done in Japan.

When Niigata Prefecture instituted pitch limits to help protect its junior and senior high school players – and make it more likely that parents would let their kids play baseball so that schools could field teams despite the prefecture’s declining birth rate – the national high school federation was apoplectic – even though Niigata’s restrictions would not affect any competitions organized by the national body.

The quality of the work behind Niigata’s reforms, and the national news it generated, however, put the national federation on the defensive and encouraged the creation of a study panel, that included old-school former coaches, like Daisuke Matsuzaka’s mentor, Tomonori Watanabe, but also brought in orthopedic surgeons, and enlightened former pros like Waseda University manager Satoru Komiyama.

The panel recommended some marginal restrictions on the number of pitches a pitcher could throw in a week that “would not have limited impact on the national tournament’s character” – which is a celebration of “winning is everything” and allowed Kengo Hayashi to throw 696 pitches over a 15-day span last month at Koshien’s spring invitational.

Due to Japan’s declining birth rate, baseball federations are paying more and more attention to educating would-be coaches how to avoid injuries. Dr. Furushima has pushed to have Gunma Prefecture youth coaches attend seminars to help them avoid injuries.

“They have to come, but some care and learn and some don’t. They’re not required to care,” Furushima said.

The “win at all costs” mentality helps youth baseball’s glorified but antiquated norms survive into the 21st century. I’m told that even now a young player is more likely to be chosen as a starter through superficial displays of hard-nosed play and rigid obedience to coaches than the quality of his effort and results.

Subtle though they are, the idea that by implementing even the mildest of pitch limits, the idea is now out there that every Japanese youth game does not have to be a recreation of 19th Century ideals.

And just as more kids will be encouraged to get a glove and start playing catch by Japan’s WBC success, a few more young adults will take up coaching their kids in youth ball see Kuriyama’s less draconian approach as a model to emulate and not the one they grew up in, where youth baseball was synonymous with child abuse.

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