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Little League fundamentally different

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Gordon Edes
Globe Staff / March 23, 2008

TOKYO - Tucked underneath the Tokando Highway and the Keiyo railroad line, behind the industrial warehouses of Sanko Transport 10 minutes from Tokyo Disneyland, and separated from the Tokyo Bay by just a narrow strip of trees, a Little League baseball complex occupies a stretch of land almost hidden by the piles of dirt at a construction site.

It is here, in this gritty southwest corner of Tokyo known as Edogawa, that they come, mostly by bicycle, some from more than an hour's ride away, to play baseball at the place where it all began for Daisuke Matsuzaka.

This is not a place where they toss the ball around for an hour and a half, then everyone goes out for ice cream. This is a world scarcely imagined by American parents, one in which kids give up their weekends - 9 to 5 on Saturday, 9 to 5 on Sunday - from September until the onset of summer, to play for 66-year-old Shingo Ariyasu, who was Matsuzaka's Little League coach and freely admits that he never imagined the success the Red Sox pitcher would achieve.

"They have options to play somewhere else," said Ariyasu, a railroad construction worker who looks more grandfather than taskmaster. "The biggest attraction to them is this is the place where Daisuke Matsuzaka played, because of their admiration for Daisuke."

Ariyasu and his dozen assistants have 80 boys and one girl - the youngest just 5, the oldest pushing 13 - who draw on Matsuzaka for inspiration, and are willing to go to what, by our standards, are extraordinary lengths to pursue similar dreams.

"Sometimes I get tired," said Akihiro Takeuchi, an earnest-looking 12-year-old wearing blue-tinted glasses, "but I'm doing what I want to do, so I don't mind."

Never tempted to stay in bed late and play video games?

"No," he said.

Aren't there other things he likes to do? He gives the question some thought.

"No," he says. "I love baseball."

Takeuchi is the captain of the team, a left fielder who has inked two numbers inside his baseball cap. One is 18, the number Matsuzaka wears for the Red Sox. The other is 51, worn by Ichiro Suzuki, star outfielder for the Seattle Mariners. Under the brim of his cap, Takeuchi has written, "World champions." Alongside the numbers, he has inscribed the word "konjo," which in Japanese means "fighting spirit."

Determined drills
Takeuchi, his name on the back of his white practice jersey, began his morning with his teammates jogging, sprinting, and doing jumping exercises on a beach just out of view of the field.

The baseball drills began when they returned. Players line the baselines themselves with lime, anchor the bases, and set up the screen in front of the pitcher's mound.

Everything is done at a run. When visitors arrive to watch practice, a coach barks, "Shugo" ("Gather around"), and instantly the players have sprinted off the field and surrounded their guests. One of the older boys shouts, "Konnichiwa" ("Welcome"). The others chant the same in unison, and bow low.

If someone should dare to go half-speed, Ariyasu or one of the other coaches will command him to drop to the ground and sit "seiza" style, legs tucked under thighs, backside resting on heels, for five minutes or so as punishment.

An assistant coach sits behind home plate in a director's chair, watching players scrimmage. Others are just outside the fence, where coaches are pitching soft toss at a rapid-fire pace, the boys first showing bunt, then taking swings, the path of their swings startling in their consistency.

When the coach spots something he doesn't like, he barks at the offending player, who instantly removes his cap and stands rigidly before bowing in acknowledgment of the message being received.

There is constant chatter from the players, who yell, "Koi-Koi" ("C'mon, c'mon)" and make other sounds, virtually indistinguishable even to a native speaker, but that are designed to help promote wa, which means unity and team spirit.

Ariyasu said he instructs his players not to make faces or cast their eyes downward. Better, he said, that they shout something as a way to expel their frustration.

In "The Meaning of Ichiro," Robert Whiting's illuminating portrait of Suzuki, the author tells how, as a Little Leaguer, Suzuki had the word "shuchu," or concentration, ink-brushed on his glove. He also quotes from an essay Suzuki wrote when he was in sixth grade:

"I started practicing when I was 3. From the age of 9 I have practiced baseball 360 out of 365 days a year, and I practice hard. I had only five or six hours [in a year] to play with my friends. That's how much I practiced. So I think I surely can become a pro."

When Japanese legend Sadaharu Oh - whose 868 home runs are out of reach even for the disgraced Barry Bonds - signs an autograph, he often precedes his name with the word "doryoku," which means "effort."

These are the values that penetrate to the youngest levels of Japanese baseball. Critics say the Japanese approach stifles creativity and individual expression, but these kids show a mastery of fundamentals that would embarrass some big leaguers.

Ariyasu said he tries to teach his players patience ("nintai") and discipline ("choubatsu"). These are principles he learned as a youth studying judo, and from his father, who served in the Japanese navy during World War II. "It is a style," he said, "almost like the samurai spirit."

Those lessons have not been lost on young Takeuchi, the team captain. He admires the Red Sox because the hitters are patient and draw a lot of walks. His favorite Sox player, he said, is Kevin Youkilis.

Recalling Matsuzaka
Matsuzaka was 11, Ariyasu said, when he first came to Edogawa. Up to that age, he had not played hardball; in Japan, there are kids' leagues that use a softer, slightly smaller ball.

"His dad wanted him to play hardball," Ariyasu said, "and I remember him writing something, maybe a homework assignment, about wanting to become a professional baseball player.

"He was a very laid-back boy, not overwhelmed by his surroundings. He was always smiling, very friendly."

Matsuzaka pitched and played outfield for Edogawa, but he was considered the team's second-best starter. He pitched a complete-game victory in the opener of one national tournament, and also won the semifinal, allowing just one run, which alerted high school powerhouse Yokohama to his burgeoning talents.

"But he really didn't stand out," Ariyasu said.

"I get asked that question a lot. I never would have guessed he would be this big. I have the impression that his high school coach also felt the same."

On one occasion, it was not Matsuzaka but his mother who stood out. Japanese Little League rules stipulate that if a parent heckles an umpire, there is a warning. If it happens again, the manager is ejected. In 30 years of coaching, Ariyasu said, he has been issued just one warning.

"It was Matsuzaka's mother," he said with a chuckle. "She yelled at the umpires, 'Can you see the ball or do you have bad eyes?' She is a very funny, outgoing person. His father is very quiet."

Ariyasu said he always makes a point of watching on television when Matsuzaka pitches, and plans to go see Matsuzaka pitch the Sox' season opener Tuesday in Tokyo Dome.

"I wasn't disappointed when he signed with Boston," Ariyasu said, "because it is important that Japanese players go to the major leagues and prove they can play at the highest level."

Takeuchi said that he, too, got up in the early-morning hours before school to watch Matsuzaka pitch in the postseason.

When there is rain and the Little Leaguers cannot practice, Ariyasu says, he often finds a hall in which he can address them. Many times, his message centers on Matsuzaka, who has been back to visit on several occasions (though this isn't one of them).

"One thing was always true about Daisuke," Ariyasu said. "He would never give up. If he made a mistake, he always said, 'Give me another chance.' He would never back down. That's one thing I can tell about him."

Konjo. Fighting spirit. It is something 80 boys, ever-mindful of Matsuzaka's shadow on the field where they play, are learning to take to heart, and at least one wears inside his cap.

Globe graphic designer Daigo Fujiwara served as translator for this story.

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