Baseball in Japan! It doesn’t get much better than that!
My March trip with The Hit Factory took us to Shikoku Island and the Ehime Prefecture, where I led a group of 8-12-year-old ballplayers against local Japanese teams in a series of 8 games.
The host teams from Uwajima, Tobe and Matsuyama were incredible, and made our baseball experience unforgettable. Each day our bus arrived at the field, the host team(s) welcomed us by standing in a perfectly organized line in front of their dugout, and waited until we reached ours and were settled in. This level of respect existed with every single thing these teams did on (and off) the field. Players prepared the field before each game, raking, dragging and chalking it so it is game-ready and looking sharp. As soon as the game ended, players were back on the rakes, making sure that all footprints were raked over so their playing surface was smooth and playable for their next time on the field.
Each day we played, traditional Japanese bento boxes were served for lunch at the field. This was such a Japanese thing, but one that I really enjoyed adopting. I bought in wholeheartedly, and realized that it was the first time I ate food at a baseball field…with chopsticks. It was especially fun that we were able to bond with the opposition, as everyone ate together in between games.
The Japanese style of play in between the lines is quite unique, as they are very good at manufacturing runs. Taking advantage of the opposition’s miscues is something they do very well. On the other side of the ball, they hardly make mistakes. Solid defensively at all positions, they are very fundamental, and their level of focus on every single pitch is next-level stuff. Truly admirable. Before every pitch is thrown, each player on the field yells out loud, basically calling for the ball and letting everyone know they are ready. When I first heard this a couple years ago, I was caught off guard, but now that I understand the meaning behind it, and that it is a significant part of Japanese baseball customs and culture, I find it fascinating. It is yet another difference between the western culture I grew up with, and what has been done for centuries in Japan.
When playing at the Kihoku Townsman Stadium, our players and coaches were treated to a Japanese delicacy in between games. The parents for the host team Uwajima cut open a yellow tail fish so everyone could enjoy the sashimi (fresh raw fish cut into thin slices). This ‘event’ took place directly behind the backstop of the field, making it even more interesting.
Our final day of games was held at the Tobe Townsman Stadium, which was nestled amongst a small mountain range. It made for a really cool place to play baseball. The games featured a public address announcer, who called out the batter's name, number and position in English and Japanese. Score was kept on an old school green chalkboard, with each half-inning’s run tally being updated as soon as the half-inning ended. They were on it!
The respect for the game that every Japanese player, coach and spectator has is nothing short of incredible. The discipline instilled in every player from a very young age establishes the minimum expectations for them as they climb the baseball ranks. From bowing to umpires and the opposition - out of respect - to a player taking his hat off anytime a ball is thrown to him by someone other than a teammate, discipline and respect permeate through all aspects of the sport.
To cap off our baseball experience with the Ehime Prefecture teams and representatives, a banquet was hosted by the Matsuyama Baseball Community. The amazing hosts put on a Japanese buffet and provided unique cultural entertainment, as our players, coaches and THF families watched Japanese rice cakes (mochi) being made. Dancing, singing and crowd interaction made for a fun and amusing experience. It was very entertaining!
It has been a joy witnessing another baseball culture, and one that is so passionate. I’ve taken a lot away from the Japanese players and coaches, and how they approach the game, and can only hope our players did as well. Baseball is so much more than a game to the Japanese. Their level of detail and precision make baseball a martial art, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed watching.