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Sunday, May 6, 2007

MEDIA MIX

Baseball federation and schools cause student players to suffer


Some scandals shock the public and others don't. The latter type usually involves organizational malfeasance that people suspect is a normal fact of life. However, in some rare cases a scandal of this type will actually strike people in a contradictory way: The purported malfeasance is not a surprise, but the fact that it's considered a malfeasance is.

In the middle of March, it was discovered that Katsuhito Shimizu, a member of the Waseda University baseball team, had received money from the Seibu Lions organization, which wanted Shimizu to join their pro ball club when he graduated. The payments were clearly a violation of the Student Baseball Charter, which governs amateur baseball. Shimizu was dropped from the team and Seibu launched an investigation into its own recruiting operations.

As a result, it was also learned that Shimizu had not paid for his tuition when he was a student at Kitakami High School in Sendai, where he was also a star baseball player. Waiving a student's tuition so that he can play on a school's baseball team is also a violation of the charter, and the Japan High School Baseball Federation has called on high schools who have given scholarships to baseball players to 'fess up.

Though Seibu's secret payments to Shimizu (and his coach) were roundly condemned by the media, the corollary scandal involving tuition has mostly been met with silence. The public, on the other hand, seems thoroughly baffled. A letter-writer to the Asahi Shimbun asked why scholarships for other athletic disciplines and academic excellence are OK but those for baseball are not. This person specifically called on the Asahi, which is the sponsor of the annual summer high-school baseball tournament at Koshien Stadium, to discuss the matter in depth "since you are very much involved in it."

For sure, the Asahi has a big stake in the scandal since Koshien is arguably Japan's biggest sporting event of the year. For a high-school baseball player the tournament is the key stepping stone to a professional career, and many of the teams that repeatedly make it to the tournament belong to elite private high schools that actively recruit teenage stars from all over the country.

Last month on one of the morning news shows, Yoshio Yokomine, the father and coach of pro golfer Sakura Yokomine, also expressed puzzlement at the prohibition and pointed out that his daughter and Ai Miyasato, the two hottest female golfers in Japan right now, both attended high school on golf scholarships. Golf is a sport that we almost never associate with underprivileged youngsters. Anyone who grows up playing golf on a competitive basis is probably well off and can afford the tuition for a private high school.

Young baseball players represent a broader economic spectrum and without financial assistance many would be unable to attend those private baseball powerhouses that go to Koshien year after year. When the Mainichi Shimbun, which sponsors the spring invitational high school baseball tournament, asked why it was wrong for students to accept baseball scholarships, the federation insisted that this doesn't mean baseball players cannot receive scholarships based on financial need or scholastic achievement, only that they cannot receive scholarships specifically to play baseball, and that goes for university as well as high school.

The federation said it will "not be swayed by public concern." If a student is treated special because of his baseball skills "it is bad for his personal growth," and once money enters amateur baseball it leads to an escalation of "improper behavior," but they're probably talking about adult behavior, not teenage. What the federation is really worried about is corruption of a nominally pure system — amateur baseball as an ideal. But baseball in Japan is an industry and its success is market-driven. As with any sport — or any trade, for that matter — there is a formal process an individual goes through to become a professional baseball player in Japan, and that process includes Koshien. The media is as caught up in this market as the athletes and administrators are, which is probably why they almost never scrutinized the "special treatment" (tokutai) system for amateur baseball players, even though they knew it violated federation rules.

But now that the issue is out in the open, how can high-school baseball continue when it's so obviously dependent on the tokutai system? As of May 3, more than 350 schools had owned up to waiving tuition for star baseball players. The Tokai University High School in Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture, whose baseball team often goes to Koshien, reported that it "discovered" several players were receiving scholarships and removed them from the team, as if the players had somehow waived their own tuition without anyone noticing. Even Tokoha Gakuen Kikukawa of Shizuoka, which won the invitational tournament at Koshien in March, removed seven top players because they had received scholarships. Not surprisingly, on April 28 the team lost the first round of its prefecture's spring tournament.

Some of these schools are trying to avoid federation sanctions by voluntarily dropping out of local competitions, perhaps in the hope that by the time the summer Koshien tournament rolls around things will be back to normal. It's self-punishment, but the people who suffer are the student players caught between a federation with unrealistic standards and administrators who want winning teams to boost the image of their schools for enrollment purposes. These kids are just doing what all good students are supposed to do: working toward their futures. The fact that they hope to become professional baseball players shouldn't be held against them.



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