High schooler Sasaki in good hands

With Ofunato High School manager Yohei Kokubo now limiting access to hard-throwing senior Roki Sasaki after word of his 100 mile-per-hour pitching feats spread, the Nikkan Sports’ Shinji Kaneko wrote a short column about the manager himself, which you can find HERE.

At first glance, Kokubo, 32, appears to be the kind of coach that reformers seeking to change Japan’s soul-crushing youth baseball culture long for. Kokubo played independent minor league ball in America. He strives to maintain his player’s enthusiasm in an environment that really tests children’s enthusiasm for the game.

Out of concern for Sasaki’s health, Kokubo has had him undergo a bone density test, and said, “He doesn’t have the mature physique capable of holding up to throwing really hard.”

Kaneko writes that the Ofunato lacks the brow-furrowing intensity of other schools.’

“It’s interesting to watch the Ofunato bench. The players’ expressions are animated, and this was seen in a practice game. You don’t see the manager lose his temper. When one of his hitters fell behind in a count, Kokubo shouted from the bench, ‘Go down looking, strike out swinging. Either is OK,’ causing even the opposing team’s supporters to burst into laughter. The batter responded by getting a hit

Shinji Kaneko, May 3, 2019 in the Nikkan Sports

“I don’t want them to hate baseball,” Kokubo said.

This radical stuff in Japan stems from the inspiration Kokubo drew from watching the Mexican national team practice during the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

“When a pitcher goes to the mound, you never know when he’s going be hurt,” Kokubo said. “It really worries me.”

Sasaki pitched on Friday in the Iwate Prefectural spring tournament, but Kokubo said he was conflicted about using him until the last minute. The pitcher is now being shadowed by most major league teams, and the skipper feels the youngster ‘now carries a heavy burden of fate.’

Sasaki for his part has said, “I have a deep respect for the manager’s thought process over our play. I think that’s why I can play so positively.”

Jim Allen

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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