Japanese Baseball: One American’s Unbelievable Experience

By MATT BAKER
Special to Collegiate Baseball

SASEBO, Japan — Imagine starting a baseball practice at 9 a.m. and finishing 10 hours later at 7 p.m. all in smothering 85 degree heat with just as much humidity.

Your first 10-hour practice as a 13-year-old is greeted with a one mile run. This is no dream. It is the way of baseball in Japan. It all started in June of 2001 when my family moved to Sasebo, Japan.

My dad is in the Navy, and Sasebo has been his duty station. So my family and I would live in Sasebo for the next three years.

I have been playing baseball since I was five years old, and currently, I am a 6-foot, 140-pound 15-year-old ball player. At one time, I was one of those kids who would sit in the outfield and pick blades of grass.

Since I have participated in Japanese baseball, I have become 100 times better at the game. This team taught me discipline and how to play baseball. It was tough, but I stayed with it and played for two years with the Sasebo Chuo Little Seniors.

Here is my story.

I was 13-years-old and wanted to get better in baseball. So my mom and dad suggested I join a Japanese baseball team. We all knew that a Japanese baseball team would be different than an American team. But we had no idea how much more different it would be.

I first joined in June of 2001. It was 85 degrees with smothering humidity. The first thing that I was instructed to do was run. I didn’t just run a lap as is the custom in the United States. I had to run a mile. I wasn’t in very good shape at the time, so I didn’t go very fast.

While I was running, all these little seven and eight year olds were lapping me. It was scary. The rest of the day was even worse. Yes, I said rest of the day because we practiced usually from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday.

During one of the drills, I saw several members of the team sitting down. So I thought it was OK. Boy, was I wrong! The coach comes screaming at us and whacks all of us on the head!

I was very confused but thought to myself if this is how I am going to get better; I am going to have to live with it. So I did for two more years. The next day I could barely walk. I couldn’t believe that I had to do the same thing the next day and for the next two years on weekends.

The first month of practice, I was placed with the younger baseball players, because there wasn’t an older team yet due to lack of players. When we got our team organized, the training really began in earnest. We played in the Japanese Little Senior Baseball Association (ages 13-15).

We play other teams that are located in Kyushu (the lower island). The season lasts year-round. So instead of playing games regularly, there are tournaments held a couple of times a year. These tournaments were the most organized events I have ever been a part of.

When a team participates in a tournament, there are opening ceremonies at a big stadium where the championship game will be held. Every team lines up with the smallest person in front with the team’s name on a sign, the captain behind him with the team flag, and the rest of the squad lined up by two’s from biggest to smallest.

Once these teams are lined up properly, the squads then march on to the field in order.

They march onto the field past the umpires (every team is expected to bring umpires along which are usually the dada). Then the ball clubs pass all the owners of the team s and all the people who give speeches. After that, the groups walk past the coaches, and finally line up facing home plate.

Once everyone is lined up properly, an official says a few words (I never knew what they were saying since I don’t speak Japanese that well) and then we all turn around and face center field a the Japanese national anthem is played.

After that, we turn back around. More speeches are presented. Then we are done and head to another big stadium to play our games.

At the games, all parents have a definite job. The moms usually make lunch and take out little cups of tea to the umpires in between innings. The dads normally work the scoreboard, umpire, or cheer for the team. Japanese games are the loudest games in the world.

If your team has many players, the ball players on the bench will have some bottles with beads in them. They make as much noise as they can, yelling chants.

The players in the game always have to yell “Oii!!” I learned that the hard way. One tie my coach got so mad at us because we weren’t yelling loud enough during practice that he made us run around the track 30 times. I calculated the distance to be about 18 miles.

A usual practice day started off with getting to the field and waiting for the team and the coach to arrive. When most of the team and the coach were there, he told us how much we had to run. It was usually five laps around the track.

After we ran those five laps, we would walk once around the field slowly. When we got to the other side, we would stretch and wait for the rest of the team to finish. After everyone finished, we started our sprints and other conditioning runs.

All our sprints and conditioning runs are 90 feet long, and we did five of each. Here is a list of some of them we performed:

• Duck walking.
• Running while looking at sky like we were chasing a fly ball.
• Leap running.
• Run, stop, turn, run, stop turn (lots of those).
• Backwards running, then quick sprint forward.
• Jog then sprint.
• Crawl while dragging legs.
• Hop on one leg (both legs five times).
• Line up balls and go around them.

Those were just the main exercises we did every day. After we were done with our conditioning, we played catch. Every time we play catch, we have to bow to the person we are playing catch with. We all line up, and the captain yells, “Kyotsuke” (stand straight), “Re” (Bow), then everyone says one “Gaishimasu” (I could never figure out what that means, but I think it lets the person know you are ready).

We would throw the ball and move slowly back to the fence continuing to throw. Once we all made it to the fence, the captain told us to run in until we were approximately 90 feet away and start throwing quick throws to each other.

After that, we would bow again to each other and say, “Thank you.” When we were done, one player would bat and the other player would throw soft pitches to his partner. The hitter had to hit 20-30 balls (depending on coach’s mood) in a row right back at the pitcher. After that, roles were reversed, and then we had batting practice.

Sometimes (depending on coach’s mood) we had fun competitions. One of the most interesting was when the coach pitched. If you struck out, you got your hair cut extremely short. And for every extra strikeout, your hair would be cut even closer to your scalp. Luckily, I only had to get my hair cut twice. We usually had batting practice until lunch.

When that time came along, the coach would have a short meeting with us. Then we had to bow to the field and then bow to him. One of the interesting things about Japanese baseball is the unbelievable organization that always takes place. All our gloves had to be lined up straight. The same was true with the bats and batting helmets.

After lunch, we all came back to the field and then had to run another five laps around the field. After that, we stretched and played catch again. This time, we did it at the 90 foot mark. After that, we did defensive drills until 5-6 p.m.

Special Defensive Drills
Here are some of the defensive drills we performed:

• “Knock.” Knock is just a Japanese way of saying defensive practice. We all went to our designated positions, and the coach would hit it to us. Sometimes after he hit it a couple times, we would do different situations.
• “American Knock.” We start from one side of the field, and the coach hits a ball on the other side as we have to run and get it and throw it home. We did a bunch of these.
• Sometimes we practiced on the field on Hario base. Then at lunch, we would eat at an American restaurant. When we went out to perform this drill, the coach would warn us a certain amount of players must throw up before the drill would stop. I could never throw up because I was used to the food. But the Japanese threw up very easily. At this time, it was 95 degrees with 95 percent humidity.
• “10 minute knock.” In this drill, a defensive player would receive a number of ground balls for 10 straight minutes. These aren’t balls hit right at you. They are balls that you have to sprint to and dive to catch.
• “Every position knock.” We start at pitcher and take one ground ball. Then we move to third to short to second and then to first.

After we take ground balls from each of those positions, we move to the outfield and then finish. The catch is that if you make an error catching or throwing, you have to start over.

More Conditioning Drills
Those were just the main ones we did. After we finished one of those, we go out and do more conditioning drills. Here are some we routinely did (three sets of each):

• 100 pushups.
• 100 sit ups.
• 500 stair climbers.
• 100 arm circles with balls in hands forwards/backwards.
• 10 minutes of lifting our legs three inches off the ground.
• 10 minutes of putting hands in air while squatting.
• 100 knee to ground touches on each leg. We have to hold one leg and squat to the ground until our knee hits the ground and comes up.
• 100 swings.
• 100 balls through legs. We sit on the ground and lift our legs, then take a ball and go around our legs in a figure eight.
• 100 squats with person on our back.
• 100 pushups while someone holds our legs in the air.

Those were just the drills that I can remember. There were lots of others I just can’t remember. We did something called 5-4-3-2-1. We would run five times to first turning to the right. Then we would run four times to first cutting to the left. Then each of us would run three doubles, two triples and finally one home run. Then practice was done. The coach would talk to us about our practice or an upcoming game, and then we would bow to the field and bow to him and go home.

Every time we left the field or entered, we always had to bow. I never figured out why. But I still did it. Every practice was long, but I learned to love it. I am so thankful I joined that team because my baseball skills have gotten so much better as a result.

 

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