West Marin in Tokyo

West Marin in Tokyo

Our goal was to reach Kitasuna’s field several minutes before 1pm, insuring my son sufficient time to prepare for the afternoon practice session with the world’s most famous Little League team …

He had been invited to a practice the previous September; however, everything from soccer, to golf, to a stint with the local Adachi Little League had gotten in the way. Now it was the last weekend in July and Kitasuna had just qualified for another trip to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, site of the Little League World Series. It was their third trip in four years; no small feat considering the hundreds of excellent Little League teams in Japan.

My eyes quickly scan the surrounding area of the train station where we stand. “This is not the place!” I holler to my son. “Your mama said it was definitely Nishi Kazai, but that’s wrong! It’s got to be the next station. Let’s go!” Definite concern covers the boy’s face.

Ten minutes later we arrive at Kazai station, causing me to proclaim, “Nope, this isn’t it either! We need to find a Koban!”

Years of doing business in Tokyo had left their mark; I knew anytime help was needed the answer lay within the Koban, Japan’s ubiquitous police box. The Koban offered everything from a pump to inflate a bicycle tire, to an umbrella for the unexpected rain storm, to money in case someone found themselves short of cash. Mostly for me it was directions that brought me to a Koban – Being a gaijin, a foreigner, in a city housing plus/minus 40 million people, ‘lost’ was a regular occurrence.

“Huh, Kitasuna Little League, I’ve never heard of it,” said the policeman kindly. “Are you sure they train in this area?” Kitasuna may have worldwide fame, however, in Japan, 90% of the baseball playing kids choose nanshiki (a low-cost version played with a rubber-ball) over koshiki, the hardball of Little League. The result is Kitasuna, the team from Tokyo that represented Japan in the Little League World Series in 2001, 2007, 2012 & 2014, and will again in 2015, is known inside their own country mostly by, well, other Little Leaguers.

“It’s where Kiyomiya played baseball as a boy,” I toss into the mix.

“Kiyomiya? That’s the field over by the Edo River!” the cop excitedly exclaimed. “Go back two stations, to Minami Sunamachi!”

Kiyomiya?

None other than Kotaro Kiyomiya, the most exciting high-school player to hit Japan since Hideki Matsui stole Japanese hearts in the early 1990’s. Not a day goes by without some mention of the young Kotaro in the newspaper or on television. Though Japanese professional baseball may have lost a bit of its lustre with many of its stars opting for the bigger stage of the Major Leagues, Japan’s love affair with high-school baseball is as fervent as ever, particularly when this year marks the 100th anniversary of the summer Koshien games and the hottest star is a tenth grader playing for home-run king Sadaharu Oh’s alma mater, Waseda Jitsugyo. Being the first son of Japan’s most famous rugby player adds even more emotional spice, making this year’s Koshien a doozy … One that’s unfolding on live television!

Every August, forty-eight high school baseball teams, one from each of Japan’s forty-seven prefectures plus an extra from Tokyo, gather on the country’s most revered baseball field, Osaka’s Koshien Stadium, and face-off in a single elimination, nationally televised, winner-take-all tournament. There’s good reason why most international sports aficionados refer to Koshien as ‘The World’s Greatest High-School Tournament’, baseball or otherwise.

The transcendent story of the 2015 games features an 8-year-old Kotaro Kiyomiya while watching Koshien, suddenly proclaiming to his father, “Otosan, I want to be a baseball player!” Katsuyuki Kiyomiya looked away, hiding his momentary shock. In his mind Kotaro was destined to carry the family’s mantle on the rugby field. Finally, he turned back toward his son. “It is a most difficult sport. You have what it takes to be a rugby star. Why risk it on baseball? It would be a very tough hill to climb.”

“I know Otosan, but I want to play baseball!”

“Ko-chan, if that is what you want then I will do everything I can to help you succeed. But you must promise me something.”

“What is that Otosan?”

“You must promise me you will work hard everyday.”

“Yes, Otosan, I promise I will.”

As fate would have it the local Little League in Tokyo was Kitasuna who, under the tutelage of the renowned Yoichi Kubo, had represented Japan at the Little League World Series twice in the previous seven years, bringing home a championship as well as a runner-up trophy.

Approaching Kubo-san Kiyomiya-san bowed deeply, offering apologies for interfering with his time. “It is me who should be bowing to you, Kiyomiya-san,” responded Kubo-san. “Many times I have watched you play rugby. You have inspired Japan’s people. Please, how may I help you?”

“Kubo-san, my son wishes to play baseball. I believe he could be a professional rugby player; however, he says he wants to play baseball. Kubo-san, may he play on your team?”

Yoichi Kubo smiled broadly, he knew what a great athlete the boy’s father was, and he felt the excitement of such a boy playing for him. “Kyomiya-san, how old is your son?”

“So sorry but he is only eight-years old.”

Perfect, Yoichi Kubo thought to himself. “Kyomiya-san, that is very young. Has he ever played baseball?”

“Kotaro has only played rugby.”

Kubo-san savored the sweet taste forming in his mouth. “Then it will be very difficult for him. But Kitasuna Little League is open to all of our town’s children. Ask your son to report to the minor team over there, on the far field.” Kubo-san gestured to a baseball diamond off in the distance. A group of young children were running about, as if training for baseball.

True to his word, Kotaro Kiyomiya dedicated himself to the ‘most difficult sport’, training many evenings on his own after finishing his school work. Neighbors grew accustomed to the sight of Kotaro swinging his bat in the street and the sound of his ball being pitched against a wall. By the time he entered his last year of Little League eligibility, he had sculpted himself into a potent force on the field at first base, on the pitcher’s mound, and in the batter’s box. Under the leadership of Coach Kubo, the Kiyomiya-led Kitasuna Little League team blossomed into a magnificent machine; one that dominated the competition. No one was surprised when they won the Japan Regional championship and in so doing earned their third trip in eleven years to Little League World Series.

If there was any question Kotaro Kiyomiya could perform on the world stage, he answered with a resounding … YES! In five World Series games, he hit an astounding .667 with 3 home runs and six RBIs. As impressive as that was, his work on the mound was even more so. In 6 & 2/3’s innings he struck out 15 batters while allowing only one hit and one run, a homer in the championship game to Tennessee’s Brock Meyers; a game Japan won by ten runs! No question, Kiyomiya’s future was bright. By the time he reached Waseda Jitsugyo, he was the player every baseball fan in Japan, and that includes nearly everyone, wanted to watch.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Exiting the cab that brought us from the train station I was suddenly overcome by a powerful apprehension … What was I thinking?

Kitasuna had just earned another trip to the Little League World Series and here I was preparing to ask if their offer of allowing my son to practice with their team was still good. Talk about making a fool of yourself!

“Good to see you again!” A voice to my left breaks into my bout of self-chastising. I turn, shade my eyes, still not sure who the voice belongs to. A man steps toward me, smiling broadly. He bows slightly before extending his hand. “Welcome back.”

“Thank you,” I respond, trying to clear my thoughts. For a moment I pretend to know him; then it hits me. He’s Tomita-san, the person who ten months earlier had extended an invitation for my son to train with the team. His twin boys – Shingo & Kengo – are players on the team. “Hey, how ya doing? Thank you. Sorry to show up like this.”

“No problem. I see Echan’s got his glove. Come on over to the field. He’ll need to warm up.”

Minutes later my son’s on Kitasuna’s Field of Dreams tossing the ball back and forth with their right fielder, Nobuyuki Kawashima. ‘Nobu’ lived in Encinitas on the coast north of San Diego for a few years, playing baseball on a team in the Encinitas National Little League while attending Flora Vista Elementary. It’s a natural for my son and Nobu to be throwing together – They’re both Californians, they’re both fluent in Japanese & English, and they both love Trader Joe’s Apple Bacon …

Kids!

I kick back, grab a seat in the shade behind home plate. To my left are a group of adults also sitting in the shade, focusing on the action on the field. Many are wearing red t-shirts with Kitasuna emblazoned across the front. “They must be regulars,” I think to myself.

Soon a L-Screen is rolled to a spot in front of the pitcher’s mound. From the first-base dugout a player strolls out, kicks a few times at the dirt in front of the rubber, then slowly winds and throws a ball at another player who has slipped behind home plate in full catcher’s gear. I ask a man close by who the kid on the hill is. “Kabu Kikuchi,” he responds, then adds, “He was born in America, in New York City; even has an American passport, but he doesn’t speak any English. He’s our ace.”



I study the kid, looking for any sign of America. I see nothing other than a kid who’s looks pretty average compared to other Kitasuna players. I do, however, notice his mechanics are spot on. Clearly, he’s been well schooled.

After a couple minutes the pitcher nods to a coach sitting behind a temporary screen that’s been placed half-way between home plate and the backstop. A tall, lanky kid paws his way into the leftside of the box. It’s Shingo, one of Tomita-san’s twin boys. I immediately recall seeing him on television last year playing for Japan – He was the catcher who got the ball stuck in his chest protector. Funny, but no one seemed to know what to do. Logically, the best option was to give ‘em a ground rule double & move on. But baseball’s a game of tradition; something that’s never happened before suspends logic, freezes minds. The good news is, was, Shingo’s didn’t, enabling his selection to the Top Nine of the 2014 Little League World Series … An All-Star of All-Stars!

The pitcher winds & fires. Huh? Wow! I’ve never seen speed like that, and he’s just a bit over 45 feet from home plate! Calmly, Shingo follows the ball into the catcher’s glove then steps out of the box, takes two swings, the second a bit faster than the first, then steps back in, and prepares for the next pitch. Bam! A screaming line drive is rocketed to the left center wall. The left fielder expertly grabs the carom and in one continuous motion throws a laser beam to the second baseman who snaps his glove at the sliding Shingo. Safe! I explode to my feet, banging my hands together. Then I look around. Other than a few smiles on the ‘regulars’, the place is quiet. I ease back into my seat.

Another Kitasuna batter steps into the box. A sizzling fast ball down the middle. Must be breaking 80 I think to myself. “That’s over a hundred from Major League distance,” I say out loud in English. No one even looks my way. Apparently this is common to the Kitasuna regulars. Bam! A rip to right center. Shingo scores on a cake walk as his teammate glides into second standing up. Too bad my son’s coaches & friends in West Marin Little League can’t see this; the standard is way beyond their collective imaginations. West Marin goes so far as to punish the hard-working players by denying them the chance to compete for a permanent position on the field – The League requires all players to ‘rotate’ every two innings …

Volleyball?

My son steps in on the left side, waggles a bit; he’s ready. An 80 mph fastball hits the mit. What seems a full second later he looks back, then steps out. A couple swings; I’m thinking his bat head looks slow. He steps back in. Another fast ball hits the catcher’s mit. He’s swung, but far too late. Then another, and he’s heading back to the dugout; bewilderment covers what was seconds before a confident-looking face. I watch as he leans back into the shadows, his young eyes locked on the pitcher’s mound.

Nobuyuki Kawashima is next. The second pitch he bounces between 3rd and short. ‘No problem’ is Nobu’s look as he stands at first. Pitchers & batters come & go. Hits are banged out; balls bounce into outs; strike outs. I flash on my oldest son’s comment after his first practice at nationally ranked Wake Forest. “The pitchers up & down are the best I’ve seen. Infielders get to everything. The outfielders all have rocket arms. The batters hit the heck out of the ball. It’s the first team I’ve been on where everyone, and I mean everyone, is really good!” It’s a thought that fits in Kitasuna.

Last batter is # 25, Fukutaro Kiyomiya, Kotaro’s younger brother.



Other than hitting from the right side, he’s Kotaro’s spittin’ image. Considering paparazzi catches everything older brother does, it’s impressive there’s not a camera in sight. I briefly entertain the thought of bringing out my iPhone, but smartly do not – Being the only gaijin carries an obviousness.

On the pitcher’s mound, Masafuji Nishijima methodically begins a windup that leads to the release of a screaming fastball. RIP! Young Fukutaro swings for the fence, but comes up with only air. Staying in the box he digs with his right foot while his left hand rythmically floats the bat toward the pitcher. Nishijima winds & fires again, this time an off-speed breaker that has Fukutaro way out in front. It’s enough to move the younger Kiyomiya out of the box. I watch the expression on his face change from embarrassment to focus while simultaneously thrusting his bat forward at supersonic speed. I’m thinking Nishijima has him, and will clinch the deal with a slider away. Nishijima complies, flinging a three-quarters spinning ball at the center of the plate that just before reaching its target starts a long & lazy downward turn beyond the plate’s far side.

Again I’m watching Fukutaro’s face as his leans in. For the briefest of moments he looks as if he’s about to bite, but he doesn’t. Instead, he waits and watches. Then, a split second before the ball hits the catcher’s extended glove, Fukutaro throws the head of his bat at the ball, his right hand floating smooth like a fly fisherman’s before dropping off, leaving it to his left to finish up. Whoosh, a liner soars beyond the reach of the second baseman into right field. Kotaro Kiyomiya’s younger brother is safe at first. To think this kid’s still got one more year of Little League … Wow!

I shoot a glance at Kubo-san, who’s sitting a few feet away. There’s an unmistakable grin that’s formed subtlely on his face. He knows Fukutaro has the potential of being the second coming, and he couldn’t be more pleased.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Later, as we cruised along the Hibiya-sen on our way home, the thought hit me that perhaps next year Tokyo Kitasuna Little League would once again represent Japan in Williamsport. My son was next to me deep asleep, his head resting on my shoulder; his baseball bag on the luggage rack over us. “What’s he dreaming about?” I wonder. Maybe he sees himself representing Japan, playing for Kitasuna in the Little League World Series. As incredible as it sounds, it is possible; he’ll just need to tap his own Kiyomiya, and chase that dream with hard work. Maybe it’s even got a name …

West Marin in Tokyo!