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Saturday, March 15, 2008

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Thoughts on the ritual of spring — and summer


Spring — in certain countries in the world — means more than just flowers, butterflies and taxes. It means the crack of bat on ball, the pounding of fist on glove, and a season of hope for something beyond just peanuts and Cracker Jack — yes, hope for a championship pennant. Spring means baseball.

Except in Japan that is, where thanks to the constant ballyhoo of sports shows and tabloids, baseball doesn't start in spring because it never goes away in fall. It is always here.

And in no place is this truer than with high-school baseball, where teams practice all year round. Talk about your grueling schedule.

Morning practices, evening practices, camps during school breaks, meetings, games, tournaments. . . if being professional means total dedication, then high-school ballplayers — especially at schools with winning programs — are Japan's genuine minor leaguers, minus the pay, with most boys dragging themselves home at night just in time to go to bed so they can get up early and do it all again from the morning. Those that can't catch enough sleep make it up in class.

Why? What would make teens sink so much of their irreplaceable youth in a sports club? Group dynamics aside, one reason is the glory of. . . (Now, blow a trumpet if you have one.) Koshien.

In a physical sense, Koshien is an ivy-walled stadium in Osaka, home to the Hanshin Tigers of professional baseball. Yet, the stadium also hosts Japan's two annual high-school baseball tournaments, one an invitational event held in March, and the other a nationwide summer elimination, with prefecture winners meeting in Koshien in August.

To play in these tournaments — all games of which are nationally televised — is the ultimate thrill for high-school boys. It's like being crowned queen of the ball or winning the lottery or finding a unicorn in your backyard. It's a lifetime honor, a defining moment when everyone looks your way. The name itself echoes with "glory." And it is the golden carrot that motivates baseball squads across the land.

Of course, only one team can win, but that's of no consequence. There's glory aplenty for losers too. For the Japanese are suckers for anything maudlin and Koshien cranks out such episodes each and every game, brought to your living room commercial free, thanks to NHK. Episodes like:

The school cheering section, beating out that infernal Koshien song, with each student on his/her feet with two out in the bottom of the ninth, the bases empty and the team down by 10 runs, everyone still praying for a victory that cannot come.

The game-ending play, with the batter sliding head first toward the bag, even though out by 3 meters.

A pair of high-school girls collapsing into each other's arms in agony, as if the outcome hadn't been decided innings before.

The losing team, lining up with tears on their cheeks, while the happy victors smile back only meters away.

Those losers again, dropping to their knees and scooping dirt into their sports bags, as a final souvenir of hallowed Koshien.

And at the end the defeated pitcher surrounded by reporters, explaining with glistening eyes that he had no regrets because he had played his heart out — despite walking 12 and giving up seven homers.

All of this on TV each and every game. Oh the glory!

And oh the violin strings. But. . .

The Japanese see something noble in defeat, especially in defiant efforts made in the teeth of impossible odds. Perhaps this signifies life itself. We are born to lose, are we not? No matter how talented, how lucky or how connected, not one of us can escape the end that awaits us all someday, somewhere. But in the face of everything, to strive with all one's might and go down with your guns blazing. . . there is something clean, something honorable, something grand in that.

From samurai to kamikaze to the blaze of cherry blossoms, Japanese feel such honor in their bones and Koshien shows this.

Everyone loses, but not everyone gets to lose so majestically on national TV. Remember the final charge in "The Last Samurai?" Hear Ken Watanabe's dying gasp — "It's beautiful."

That's Koshien.

And people eat it up every tournament, maybe precisely because it is always the same: the players with similar haircuts, similar uniforms, and one-digit numbers decided by position, the cheering fans with their interchangeable megaphones and headbands, and the school band tooting identical songs. It's been this way for decades. Every year could be any year.

Even the game itself is a rhythm of repeating patterns, three strikes, three outs, nine innings, etc. Maybe that is why Japanese like baseball so much and why they can't let it go even in the off-season. It is predictable and unpredictable at the same time.

Just like Koshien, I suppose, and just like life.

Time to play ball.



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