July 17, 2014


Breaking Ball : A Father and Son's Pitch for Baseball Glory (GEORGE NISHIYAMA, 7/15/14, WSJ)

The rules are roughly the same as in America. But how the Japanese game is played reflects the values of society at large: discipline, teamwork, obedience, and relentless physical practice.

High-school players often sport buzz-cut hairstyles to minimize individuality. They take off their caps in front of strangers. They bow to the baseball diamond after games to show respect. Teams are expected to practice seven days a week.

There's a relentless focus on basic skills, such as the "1,000-fungo drill," in which coaches hit a long succession of grounders or pop flies.

Pitchers endure "nagekomi" - literally, "to drive oneself to throwing." It involves throwing as many as 200 pitches at full force to improve strength and pitching mechanics.

Suishu Tobita, a late manager known as the "father of varsity baseball," was famous for his belief that players should at times "vomit blood" on the practice field.

"Those who believe in the rubbish that baseball is for fun cannot reach greater heights," he said in one widely-quoted mantra. "You must suffer to find meaning in baseball."

Proponents say the system helps players respect authority, master the fundamentals, and build stamina.

"Throwing 200 pitches for a week straight every day of the week was something that I did and something that I enjoyed," Daisuke Matsuzaka of the New York Mets said in an interview. "I don't think it negatively affected me at the time."

Detractors say it can lead to injury or breakdown, especially for pitchers. (Read more on Japan's injury debate.)

Last year, high-school pitching sensation Tomohiro Anraku threw 772 pitches in five games over nine days - about as many pitches as most American players throw in a month. After dominating a major tournament, he fell apart and his team lost 17-1 in the final. He struggled much of the following year with an elbow injury.

"American coaches would call that child abuse," says Robert Whiting, author of "You Gotta Have Wa," a study of Japanese baseball.

The U.S., of course, has its own problems with pitching injuries. Major League Baseball this year is suffering from a rash of elbow injuries that has led to a surge in the number of Tommy John surgeries, in which damaged elbow ligaments are replaced with tendons taken from elsewhere in the body. Masahiro Tanaka, the New York Yankees ace, went down with a partial tear of an elbow ligament this month and will be out for at least six weeks. Doctors aren't sure why so many injuries are occurring.

Shota and his father are part of a small group who, over the years, has sought to challenge the established thinking in Japan by insisting on rest. Many experts agree there should be limits on the number of pitches a high-school player throws in a game, as happens in the U.S. There, coaches follow Little League rules stipulating no more than 105 pitches per game for 17- and 18-year-olds, with a minimum of four days' rest after a game if a player throws 76 or more pitches.

"I think 100 pitches and a day of rest afterward should be imposed on high-school players," said Daisuke Nakai, a specialist on shoulder and elbow surgery at Hachioji Sports Orthopaedic Clinic near Tokyo.

That's not the traditional path to a pro career in Japan, however. Stars with their sights on the professional league usually have to show a willingness to pitch all games, especially on Japanese high-school baseball's biggest stage: the annual Koshien competition.

Held near the city of Kobe each August, Koshien is the biggest high-school baseball tournament in the world, featuring 49 of Japan's roughly 4,000 high-school teams. Millions of Japanese fans watch broadcasts of the games.

Teams train intensively. "The really tough things I had to endure in those times, that experience alone - there will never be anything tougher than what I went through," said New York Yankees outfielder Ichiro Suzuki of his high-school baseball years leading up to Koshien, when he also played as a pitcher.

Winning pitchers face an almost assured route to the pros in an otherwise fierce competition for spots: Japan's teams usually draft fewer than 100 of Japan's roughly 200,000 eligible players.

Private schools that epitomize the Japanese way of baseball have recently dominated Koshien. Shota's team, in his hometown of Koryo, has never made it through the regional tournament that serves as a Koshien qualifier.

That regional tournament, which involves some 40 high-school teams in a knock-out competition, began on July 12. Shota's high school plays its first game Sunday and must win the tournament to enter Koshien.

Many of Shota's teammates say they never dreamed of competing at summer Koshien - until he came along.

Posted by at July 17, 2014 6:27 PM

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