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Japan Reaches Fever Pitch Over Youth Baseball

The stakes are high and the pressure great as teams head for the final showdown in the annual make-or-break tournament.

August 19, 2000|MARK MAGNIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Imagine combining football's Rose Bowl with basketball's March Madness, and you begin to appreciate "Koshien fever." Each year in August, high school baseball teams from Japan's 47 prefectures battle for glory, with this year's final showdown set for Monday.

For two weeks, Japanese television covers every itch and twitch of "Koshien"--the tournament named after the 60,000-seat stadium near Osaka where games are played--as normally diligent "salarymen" slip out of work, bars are mobbed and entire student bodies wait in anxious anticipation.

Started by a newspaper in 1915, the amateur series is seen as the epitome of youthful innocence, free of multimillion-dollar sports contracts, giant egos and secret payoffs. It's also a testament to gambaru, the samurai fighting spirit and dogged persistence so admired in Japan.

"People are attracted to the purity and devotion to play," sports critic Shunji Matsuo says.

Disciples crusade to the stadium in a month known for its 100-degree temperatures. Proposals to shift the tournament to a cooler season or location are ignored.

To reach Koshien, the final teams have had to out-duel nearly 4,000 high school teams at the prefectural level. From there, it's single-elimination games until only one team is left standing.

Baseball is a very different game in Japan than in the United States. Recreation, at least as defined in the U.S., is not a key ingredient. Young players practice up to six hours on weekdays and 12 on weekends for years, to the exclusion of their social lives, studies, family life and free time. Vacations are spent in spartan baseball camps.

The word of the manager is absolute, reinforced by a strict hierarchy between junior and senior players. Youngsters endure gibes and abuse, and must perform menial tasks until they earn the right to inflict the same on their juniors.

There is enormous pressure to conform. Early this month, a 17-year old Okayama boy attacked his teammates with a baseball bat before bludgeoning his mother to death. He blamed relentless bullying by teammates after he refused to wear the official team haircut.

Those who make it to Koshien hold a hot ticket. Up to half of Japan's professional rosters are filled with Koshien alumni. Strong hitting or good pitching can open doors to Ivy League universities such as Waseda, Keio and Meiji regardless of grades, in a country where "entrance exam hell" and years of academic anguish are the norm.

Even high school players who don't pursue a baseball career gain lifetime bragging rights--and, in some cases, promotions and special assignments--in a nation that sees enormous educational value in the experience.

Naoya Takaku, 27, who works in the marketing department of Kirin Brewery Co., says his baseball experience helped him get hired. "Enduring baseball's stormy hierarchy is seen as an important skill for surviving at a Japanese company," he says. "I really appreciate it now."

The media frenzy surrounding Koshien rivals a good soap opera. Cameras cover every joyful expression of victory and agonizing grimace of defeat. In a tradition started in 1949, members of losing teams collect dirt from the field, the equivalent of moon rocks, as ground-level cameras record the moment. Two tons of new dirt are brought in each year to maintain a level playing field.

And, of course, there's the drama on the field. "Photographers love the crying," says Ken Marantz, veteran sports writer with the Daily Yomiuri. "There's crying when you win and crying when you lose."

Regional fan support is another crucial element. Entire rural towns travel with their teams, and student bodies beat plastic cones in unison and sing "Popeye the Sailor Man" and other fighting-spirit songs from cheering sections known as "The Alps."

When legendary slugger Hideki Matsui was intentionally walked five times in the 1992 Koshien tournament, supporters tossed garbage on the field--not a huge deal abroad but absolutely shocking in well-mannered Japan. Yomiuri Giants center fielder Matsui has since become Japan's answer to Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire.

Some critics believe that the tone of lily-white innocence is overplayed, particularly in recent years, with TV contracts, school reputations and personal careers raising the stakes. Gifts, bribes and maneuvering behind the scenes reportedly have surged.

"People often say 'Sacred Koshien,' but what a joke," says Masahiro Ueno, a sociologist at Shizuoka University of Arts and Culture. "It's become almost like flesh trading."

*

Hisako Ueno in The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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