Tag Archives: Koshien

Virus hits japan’s baseball omelet Factory

For the first time, Japan’s national high school baseball championship was canceled for a reason other than war or civil unrest — a wave of “rice” riots that swept Japan in the summer of 1918.

A president with the tournament’s sponsor, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, spoke eloquently on Wednesday about how holding the tournament would not only endanger players but tournament staff while asking volunteers turn away from essential work in communities where they are badly needed in the battle against the “invisible coronavirus.”

After that display of passion and understanding, the head of the Japan High School Baseball Federation, Eiji Atta droned on about the mythical importance of the tournament for not only the physical well-being of Japan but for the moral educational value baseball provides.

His sermon was complete with the disinformation that makes Japanese high school baseball ideologues so entertaining.

The press conference opened with the news that both the finals and the regional tournaments, whose winners advance to the finals, had all been canceled together by the stakeholders in Wednesday’s meeting.

Hatta then said nobody but regional federations would decide whether to hold or cancel their tournaments. That’s like Donald Trump telling a U.S. government employee to do her job as she sees fit when she knows that not kissing his ass sufficiently is grounds for dismissal.

This happened a year and a half ago, when Niigata’s federation unilaterally established pitch limits for its spring regional tournament. The national federation, known in Japanese as “Koyaren,” responded that Niigata had no business doing anything on its own without asking permission first.

Breaking eggs

That move, which Niigata walked back on under pressure, did not occur in a vacuum but was part of a larger movement to save Japanese baseball from itself. One by one, other baseball bodies began seeking ways to prevent injuries by establishing rules to limit abusive overuse of young arms.

But by braving Koyaren’s wrath, Niigata’s move was the pebble that triggered an avalanche and opened a public debate on what had been Japanese baseball’s most sacred doctrine: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, and you can’t develop truly great ballplayers without breaking bodies.”

By year’s end, the hardass ideologues at Koyaren had bitten the bullet and accepted modest pitch limits at its big national tournaments, the spring invitational and the summer finals.

For decades, reformers in Japan have sought to find a way to build strong young bodies, arms and elbows within a system that seems bent on destroying them. And just when it seemed like progress was only a few years away, the whole system crashes.

“We were going to take the first step into the future,” said Hatta, whose body for years had screamed and kicked in an effort to forestall that future.

Pandemic vs epidemic

Despite cleaner air, wildlife reclaiming suburban streets and Venetian canals, there is no bright side to the coronavirus pandemic. At best, it’s Alien vs Predator, where there’s little we can do but shelter in place and see what’s left.

The best thing about youth sports in Japan is the lack of travel teams and coaches selling parents that “the only way for their talented children to make it professionally is to specialize and practice the sport year-round.”

The bad things about youth sports in Japan is a school system that replicates the intense year-round physical burden of travel teams — without the need to go anywhere! Your children’s bodies can be pushed past the limits of endurance and given no time to recover at their school club activity. Year-round practice? You’ve got it.

I don’t mean to be flip, but amid the debris and human misery left in the wake of the pandemic will be young children in Japan whose bodies’ biggest need was the rest that school closures provided them.

Looking out for the kids

School closures were one reason given for canceling the national championships.

“Ballplayers who have lacked practice will be at a higher risk for injury,” Hatta said, again without any sense of irony in his voice.

Don’t forget that nine months ago, a high school coach was roasted nationwide for not starting his best pitcher in the final of Iwate Prefecture’s tournament, where a berth at the finals at Koshien Stadium was on the line. The manager did so to protect the youngster’s arm.

The line used by so many was, “I could see it if he WAS hurt, but this is Koshien! How dare you throw away his dream and that of his teammates on the grounds that it might save wear and tear on an arm (that had already seen extensive use over the past five days)?”

Former all-star Saito back in the game

Saito Arizona
Takashi Saito in Peoria, Arizona, in March.

Takashi Saito, who finished his pro career in 2015 with his hometown team, Sendai’s Rakuten Eagles, will be back in Japanese baseball next season after spending the past three seasons working with the San Diego Padres.

The 39-year-old will serve as pitching coach for the Yakult Swallows, who will be managed by another former big league reliever, Shingo Takatsu. Until that news surfaced last month, it seemed Saito was on track for something bigger, a top job in a front office either here or in the majors because he thinks big.

In March, I spoke with Saito at the Padres’ spring training facility in Peoria, Arizona, where he talked about growing up in baseball and his ideas to grow the game.

“I do want to return. I want to be an agent for positive change in as many areas as I can, making use of the things I’ve learned in America,” Saito said. “It wouldn’t have to be in pro baseball. If they let me be commissioner, I’d do it. Whatever I am qualified for.”

“I started playing ball when I was seven, in the second grade of elementary school, but I grew up in a home surrounded by baseball. My father coached youth ball, and both of my older brothers played.”

“My home was really close to the ballpark. Sendai was Lotte’s second home along with Kawasaki. I was a member of their children’s fan club, ‘The Bubble Boys.’ I could ride my bicycle to the stadium. When the games ended we could go on the field. It was so much fun.”

Although he made his mark in baseball on the mound, Saito didn’t become a pitcher until his second year at Sendai’s Tohoku Fukushi University. He spent 14 years in NPB with Yokohama until the team discarded the injured right-hander. In 2006, he went to spring camp with the Los Angeles Dodgers and wound up as their closer and a National League all-star after an injury to his predecessor, Eric Gagne.

He returned to Japan with the Eagles in 2013 and was the winning pitcher in relief in Game 7 of the 2013 Japan Series.

On setting standards to protect youth players’ health

With various youth bodies in Japan either setting limits on pitchers or considering them in order to protect young shoulders and elbows, Saito said a fight is inevitable between reformers and the old guard but that it is a necessary battle.

“Nobody wants a battle, but it is something we can’t walk away from,” he said. “Ideally, we should protect the health of kids so that they can aspire to play at a higher level.”

“To go back to the issue of pitch counts, there is a huge difference between guys like me, with little pitching experience through high school, and those boys who pitch from junior high aiming to play (in the national high school championship finals) at Koshien Stadium. Because everyone is different, one set of rules is not practical for everyone.”

“Instead, I’d like to see a medical solution. Have every prefecture or city set standards, have doctors orthopedic surgeons examine the boys and set limits. So boys will have sets of restrictions placed upon them based on how physically developed they are. The focus needs to be on health. After that, the competition will take care of itself.”

Saito said that while the national high school federation has opposed pitch limits, it takes no responsibility for players’ health.

“If players get hurt, get hit by a ball, the federation should help with those costs, but they don’t. If players get hurt in their competition, they turn their backs. This is also wrong. If the federation is opposed to pitching limits, say 100 pitches, then it should be held accountable. The federation insists on its rights but doesn’t accept responsibility.”

“These authorizing bodies and that includes schools and the education establishment, insist on their right to enforce even the most trivial rules, but if there is a problem, then they tell you, ‘You’re on your own. The law is on our side.’ It is so Japanese. It’s like they are feudal fiefdoms.”

Leveling the playing field, literally

On the subject of what Japanese baseball and American baseball can learn from each other, Saito said the question is complicated by hardware infrastructure differences.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say I watch major league games every day. Their fields are different in size (from Japanese) the mounds are different. That’s the hardware,” he said. “If we standardize the mounds, the balls, the hardware, then we can talk about adapting or modifying things.”

Unfortunately, he said, Japan has serious issues with the concept of standardization.

“If you look at this problem from a Japanese perspective, you realize how hard it becomes. In Japan, amateur baseball lumps the corporate leagues in with elementary school, junior high school and high school leagues, but they are really professionals.”

“Although pro ballplayers’ salaries are paid by teams that are really just subsidiaries of their parent companies. So while there is a large difference in their salaries, there is really no difference between pro and corporate league ballplayers. They are all professionals. Yet, the rules that apply to corporate leaguers are the same as those applied to little kids.”

On the meaning of Koshien

Saito is one of the few people in Japanese baseball to question the relevance of the national high school tournament.

“The teams that go to Koshien get no financial reward in return,” he said. “You’d like them to get something, even if it was just the money needed to buy one new ball. Corporate leaguers are the same. They can play in a big tournament, but there’s no prize money.”

“Without that, one has to wonder what is the purpose of such tournaments. What is the purpose of school baseball clubs? Who are they really for? The kids who make it to Koshien realize their dreams. Everyone else’s dreams are crushed.”

On the manners of Japanese baseball culture

“There are differences in culture, and in education, that produce those kinds of players, with extremely good manners (in Japan),” he said. “Companies say they want former players because of their manners. That says something about Japan. At first, whether one can do a job or not is less important than your ability to greet someone, say the president, formally. That carries a lot of weight.”

On an Asian winter meetings

“These are absolutely necessary. I want baseball people in Asia to look at the winter meetings in America. I want them to realize the potential of what they themselves can contribute (through building baseball) in Asia.

“Asian winter meetings could have a huge economic benefit for Asia, if you imagine all the (baseball-related) products made in Asia on display. Let’s say you have a rundown ballpark in Toyama Prefecture. And you need a new backstop net, and someone quotes you a price of 100 million yen, well you know that (with a better marketplace) someone could do the same thing much more cheaply, say for a fifth of that.”

“That’s a big part of what the winter meetings are, a place to build a marketplace, not just a market for trading players, but a place for people to learn about goods and services. And if people are trying to work in Japanese baseball, they could find job openings there. This is absolutely necessary, but also something Japanese teams are never going to get behind.”

Changes coming to old school rules

Pitching limits are coming to the tradition-bound world of high school baseball.

On Friday, a panel researching measures to prevent pitching injuries decided to include defined limits on pitcher usage for Japan’s prestigious national tournaments. The panel will consider specific numbers for mandated rest and maximum pitches when it next convenes in September.

The panel concluded that hard limits were needed upon reviewing research data on youth baseball players presented by Dr. Takashi Masatomi, an orthopaedic surgeon employed by the National High School Baseball Federation’s medical committee.

“The doctor’s evidence was clear,” said the panel’s chairman Keio University professor Takanobu Nakajima said. “No opinions were expressed in opposition to placing limits on how many pitches can be thrown within a specific time period.”

“The schedule for the end of the tournament will become tight, but the talk was that restrictions are probably necessary.”

The panel will convene four times by early November and present its findings to the national federation’s board of directors at the end of that month.

The unlimited use of pitchers that saw Kanaashi Nogyo High School pitcher Kosei Yoshida throw 881 pitches at last summer’s national finals. The pitcher was gassed in the final, when he pitched for the fourth time in five days and got hammered.

For years, the national federation has done nothing but take baby steps toward attacking this issue, and it remains to be seen whether anything but double talk will come out of high school baseball’s national body.

The panel was only formed this March, and was seen by reformers as little more than public relations measure after the national federation in February shot down a plan by Niigata Prefecture’s federation to test pitch limits in its spring tournament.

Satoru Komiyama, a former professional pitcher who is currently the manager of Waseda University’s baseball team is on the 13-member panel, as is Japan Softball Association Vice President Taeko Utsugi. The choice of Yokohama High School manager Motonori Watanabe discouraged reformers from thinking anything might come from the committee, as Watanabe has so far publicly denied there is any need to reform the high school baseball system.

Former greats weigh in on high school pitch limits

The outer limits

Since Japan’s Niigata Prefecture has announced its plan to restrict pitcher usage in its spring tournament this year, three former Chunichi Dragons pitchers, two Hall of Famers Hiroshi Gondo and Shigeru Sugishita and Masahiro Yamamoto have weighed in on the issue and expressed widely divergent views.

On Jan. 15, Gondo was announced as one of the three newest members of the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. The right-hander’s playing career was defined by his first two seasons. As a 22-year-old out of corporate league ball in 1961, Gondo won 35 games in his 429-1/3-inning rookie season. The following year, he pitched 362-1/3 innings and won 30 games.

Niigata’s new limits will prohibit a pitcher from starting an inning after he’d thrown 100 pitches in a game but not prohibit pitchers from pitching on consecutive days.

Save the game

“I am absolutely opposed to that (sort of restriction),” Gondo said.

“Most of those kids aren’t going to be professionals, and this will be the end of their baseball careers. You don’t want to hold them back. Besides, if you can’t pitch that much in high school without ruining your arm, there’s no way you can make it in the pros anyway.”

On the question of whether high school baseball should be about competition or education, Gondo came down solidly on the side of competition.

“You don’t want to put obstacles in the way of people playing to win,” he said. “People are going to get hurt, and you can’t alter that fact.”

I don’t want to state that as his entire philosophy on the issue, since we only spoke for a few minutes, but he certainly seemed to think that high school ball is safe enough.

Save the kids

Sugishita, whose No. 20 Gondo inherited when he joined the Dragons, wasn’t certain if Niigata’s method was the right way to go, but said, “You’ve got to do something to protect these kids’ arms.”

Yamamoto, a lock to join them in the Hall of Fame after he enters the players division ballot for the Hall’s class of 2021, was even more emphatic when he spoke on Sunday in Yokohama.

At a seminar attended by nearly 600 people that included elementary and junior high school coaches, doctors and parents, Yamamoto spoke of last year’s high school superstar, pitcher Kosei Yoshida.

At the national high school summer championship, Yoshida threw 881 pitches over six games, with four of those games coming over the final five days of the tournament.

“It’s a good thing Yoshida didn’t break down,” Yamamoto said. “But I thought that continuing like he did put the player’s career at risk.”

When Niigata’s prefectural association imposed its rules without asking the national body, the Japan High School Baseball Federation lashed out, calling the new system arbitrary and unenforceable.

But Yamamoto praised the work of Japan’s national rubber ball federation, whose guidelines limit pitchers to 70 pitches in a single game and 300 within a week.

“They have done good work to protect children’s futures,” he said.

No magic number

In a recent interview, Dr. Tsutomu Jinji, a professor of biomechanics who has extensively studied how pitchers mechanics impart movement to baseballs, said there is no magic number of pitches that will prevent injuries.

“Some people possess thicker ligaments, that can withstand more stress and torque,” he said. “Other pitchers are more flexible than others, or possess better mechanics.”

“What that means is that some pitchers’ arms will break down even with very limited usage, while others will survive much heavier workloads without any damage at all. It is possible to prevent catastrophic damage with ultrasound examinations so that pitchers whose elbows are at risk get rest, but that is not being done.”