The agony and the ecstasy

Baseball is by some distance the most popular sport in Japan, and in order not to feel left out when the subject comes up in conversation, I have been trying to learn a little more about it. Obviously there is a national league with its dominant team, the Yomiuri Giants, and several Japanese play in the American major leagues – most notably Ichiro Suzuki of the New York Yankees, who just passed 4000 career hits, something that only six other players have managed before him –  but it seems to me that the true spirit of Japanese baseball is embodied in the Kohshién (甲子園).

Kohshién is the common term for Zenkoku-kohtoh-gakkoh-yakyuu-senshuken-taikai (全国高等学校野球選手権大会 / the All Japan High School Baseball Championship Series), which takes place in August each year at the eponymous Kohshién stadium in Hyogo Prefecture, and while a similar tournament, Senbatsu-kohtoh-gakkoh-yakyuu-taikai (選抜高等学校野球大会 / the Invitational High School Baseball Tournament) takes place at the same stadium every March and April, the former is the bigger draw. This, I suspect, is partly because playing a full baseball match in the blazing heat and humidity of a mid-summer’s day makes the players – some of whom are just fifteen years old – seem just that little bit more heroic and self-sacrificing, and indeed, this year the heat came into play in the most unwanted fashion for the representatives from Ibaraki Prefecture, Johsoh-gakuin.

Each of Japan’s forty-seven prefectures sends a team to the Kohshién, and Johsoh can boast two of Ibaraki’s three overall victories in the post-war years. This summer they won their first three matches to earn a place in the quarter-finals against Maébashi-ikuéi from Gunma Prefecture, and by the end of the eighth inning of that match (each team bats nine times in a game, hence ‘bottom of the ninth’ being such an oft-heard phrase, even if most non-baseball fans have no real idea of what it means) were on the verge of a place in the semi-finals.

That ninth inning, however, seems to me to place a greater burden on the players involved than the climactic moments of almost any other sporting contest, and in particular on the pitchers (ie – and if you’ll forgive me for stating the obvious – the guys who are throwing the ball, as opposed to the ones who are attempting to hit or catch it). If a pitcher goes into the final inning with his team leading the match by just a point or two, the pressure on him to protect that lead is enormous, and while catchers, fielders and batters can and do make mistakes during the course of a ninth inning (see below), the onus is very much on the pitcher to protect a lead rather than on the batter to claw it back (in the same way, the expectation in a penalty shootout at the end of a football match is that the outfield player will score, not that the goalkeeper will make a save). As a result, bottom of the ninth collapses, comebacks and turnarounds are a relatively common – and if you happen to be on the losing side, gut-wrenchingly depressing – occurrence.

In this particular match, Johsoh went into the final inning with a 2-0 lead against Ikuéi, and  rather than have a meltdown, their star pitcher – Harumi Iita – succumbed to a combination of the heat, exhaustion, and quite possibly some psychosomatic pressure into the bargain. While professional baseball teams have a whole roster of pitchers on which to call over the course of a season, high school teams will often reach the closing stages of the Kohshién having relied on a single pitcher for the entire tournament, and quite possibly in the preliminary, prefectural rounds as well. Not only that, but the Kohshién takes place over the course of just two weeks, with fewer and fewer days off to recuperate between games as it progresses.

As the match wore on, Iita began to tire – in the words of Johsoh’s catcher Yusuké Yoshinari, ‘his pitching got slower and his curve balls stopped curving’ – and while Iita was warming up before the ninth inning, he got a cramp in his leg. After spending five minutes off the field receiving treatment he resumed his warm-up, only to get a cramp in the other leg. Because this was diagnosed as being possible evidence of the early onset of heatstroke, Iita was taken out of the match, leaving Johsoh’s second-choice pitcher, Yuta Kanéko, to handle the all-important final inning.

To liken the situation to a cricket match, this is a little like asking a player from a pub team who just happens to be in the stands to step onto the field and bowl the final over of a match between England and Australia.
‘Oy, Dave! Jimmy Anderson’s stubbed his toe. Reckon you can come on throw a few balls down the pitch? They only need a couple of runs to win the game and get into the final of the World Cup, but don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll be fine. Go on, put down your pint and I’ll find you a pair of trainers.’

To be fair to Kanéko, he very nearly fulfilled his emergency role, and reached a point where there were no ‘runners’ (ie batters who had hit the ball and made it to first, second or third base) and just one more batter to get out. The next batter hit the first pitch that he faced from Kanéko towards a Johsoh fielder, Suguru Shindoh, who instead of collecting the ball and calmly running the batter out, fumbled it and threw high and wide of his teammate.

Kanéko was soon in full meltdown mode, and it wasn’t long before Ikuéi’s star player, the all-rounder Hikari Takahashi, had scored a three-base hit to bring the teams level at 2-2 and send the game into overtime.

By now my colleagues and I had taken an unofficial tea break to watch events unfold on the Board of Education office TV, although the psychological pendulum (if you’ll forgive the Colemanballs-esque metaphor) was swinging inexorably in Ikuéi’s favour.

In his capacity as pitcher, Takahashi registered three successive strike outs to end the tenth Johsoh inning in a matter of minutes, and as he stepped up to pitch Ikuéi’s tenth inning, poor Kanéko was probably shaking like Shakin’ Stevens and William Shakespeare doing the Shake ‘n’ Vac while sharing a milkshake.

Almost every ball he threw seemed to get dispatched to some far corner of the ground, and before we knew it, he had surrendered the winning run and Ikuéi had triumphed 3-2. In a post-match interview, a clearly traumatised Kanéko (his eyes ‘red with tears’, as the Tokyo Newspaper described it) said, ‘All of a sudden I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere in the stadium. I don’t remember anything [about the tenth inning] at all.’

The Ikuéi players ran onto the field to celebrate, scores of Johsoh cheerleaders cried into their pom-poms, and Johsoh’s head coach Riki Sasaki looked on from the dugout, no doubt wondering how his side had managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Not that it would have been much consolation to Johsoh, but Ikuéi went on to win the tournament, one of the few teams in history to do so at their first attempt. Their coach, Naoki Arai, took up his position about ten years ago when there were problems with bad behaviour within the baseball club. Now, though, his players are so disciplined that he has them get up every morning and walk the streets collecting rubbish, an activity during which they are not allowed to talk to each other. As Arai says, ‘A person who picks up rubbish is a person who doesn’t drop rubbish.’ Wise words indeed.