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Sunday, Sept. 5, 2010


Pitching for change

Baseball legend Masumi Kuwata reflects on life, his stellar career — and how he would like to see Japan's favorite game develop

Staff writer

Masumi Kuwata has spent most of his life in the spotlight of stardom and publicity.

News photo
Making a point: Masumi Kuwata, a former star pitcher with the Yomiuri Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates, seen during his recent JT interview at the Royal Park Shiodome Tower hotel in Tokyo's Minato Ward.

A hard worker by nature, Kuwata has made himself fluent in English, although this interview was in Japanese. Before signing with the Pirates to playing for the Major League team in 2007-2008, however, he negotiated all his contract himself.

"I used no interpreter or agent," he recalls. "Sometimes I would be on the phone (with the Pirates people) for two hours, using my electronic English dictionary."

As one of Japan's all-time outstanding baseball stars, with a 23-year professional career behind him, this 42-year-old from Osaka Prefecture began capturing headlines at the tender age of 15 when he first shone as a pitcher for Osaka-based PL-Gakuen in the national high school baseball tournament held annually at Hyogo's Hanshin Koshien Stadium — popularly known as the "Koshien."

The tournament, held every year since 1915 (apart from a five-year break during World War II), is arguably the most popular amateur sports event in Japan, and to merely take part — let alone win — is the dream of every young player in the land.

So imagine the level of excitement the nation experienced in the summer of 1983 when the short, slightly-built right-hander fresh from entering high school a few months earlier not only pitched successfully against the big hitters at this most prestigious venue of the nation's most popular participant sport — but also won game after game as his team went on to triumph in the summer tournament.

Even more amazingly, he repeated the feat two years later — along with another PL star player named Kazuhiro Kiyohara.

The stellar performances of the "KK duo" — as Kuwata and Kiyohara were called — remain fresh in the minds of many. Television programs and sports magazines never tire of revisiting their exploits — especially during Koshiens, including this year's, which concluded on Aug. 21 with Konan Senior High School from Okinawa clinching victory.

Kuwata, who is now retired, has long tried to distance himself psychologically from the media hoopla and live his life "in his own way," as he says — no matter how much others might try to influence him.

The first test of his determination came even before he entered PL-Gakuen. Already acknowledged for his outstanding talent, Kuwata, while attending a junior high school in Osaka's Yao City, was pressured by his teacher to go to a high school he wasn't interested in. In fact, that school wanted to recruit Kuwata so badly that it offered to accept many other players from his school on the condition he went there.

Kuwata declined the offer, despite the teacher's pressure and taunts of being a "traitor." Instead, he followed through with his decision to go to PL-Gakuen, even though that meant he had to transfer to a different junior high school only two months before graduation.

Then, at the dawn of his professional career, Kuwata was again thrown into a media frenzy when he announced he was going to join the Yomiuri Giants right after high school — despite having previously said he aimed to go on to study and play baseball at Waseda University in Tokyo. This stunned the nation, and Kuwata was heavily criticized by the media for "secretly" negotiating his way into the Giants. That event also created a long-lasting chasm between him and his closest teammate, Kiyohara, who had openly declared his wish to play for the mighty Giants but instead ended up going to the more lowly Saitama Seibu Lions.

Subsequently, Kuwata's professional career — 21 seasons with the Giants and then two pre-retirement seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates — also saw its share of ups and downs related to injuries and a few scandals, including one (from which he was cleared) alleging links to an underworld gambling ring.

Then, after he retired from professional baseball in 2008, Kuwata again surprised many when he opted to go to college. Fulfilling his longtime dream of attending Waseda, in his studies there he dug deep into his lifelong theme — the roots of Japanese baseball and its often unscientific, unreasonable and militaristic training. As a result, he concluded that baseball in Japan continues to be deprived of "enjoyment" after having been subsumed in wartime nationalism as coaches in those days — notably the late Waseda University manager Suishu Tobita — tried to protect it from being banned as an "enemy sport."

News photo
Young blood: Kuwata at the batter's box during his second grade at elementary school — when he says he was already competing with sixth-graders. COURTESY OF MASUMI KUWATA

His dissertation, which advocates new ways of coaching baseball in this country, won the best thesis award in Waseda's graduate class of 2010.

Kuwata now lives just south of Tokyo in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, with his wife and two high school sons — one of whom made his final bid for the Koshien this summer but failed when his team lost during the West-Tokyo regional knockout.

Amid his busy schedule — coaching a boy's baseball team in Kawasaki, coaching managers of amateur baseball teams and commentating on games live on TV — Kuwata recently sat down with The Japan Times at a Tokyo hotel, where he recounted his tumultuous life, his unwavering love for baseball and much, much more.

When did you first start to play baseball?

My father introduced me to the game when I was 2, and photos show that I used to throw or hit a ball from that age. And from early on I had a dream of becoming a professional baseball player.

Was your father strict?

He was. I'm not sure if this is the correct term to use, but he was a yakyu baka (baseball fanatic) — someone who thinks about nothing but baseball. He was a typical baseball coach of that time, and would punch or kick (children) to make them do what he wanted them to do.

What else do you remember about him?

He was an optimist, basically — but he had nothing but baseball on his mind.

Is it true that as a child you were careful not to get injured in your daily life, even when you were walking on the street?

I always thought I must avoid having a big injury. When I was on a skiing trip, I kept thinking, "If I do this, I might break my leg." And people around me would urge me to avoid any risk of injury, telling me to do nothing but baseball. For example, a gym teacher (in junior high school) told me to skip swimming lessons — even in the middle of the summer! So I had to sit out and just watch the others swim. That was hard.

News photo
Special moment: Kuwata pats the pitcher's mound at Tokyo Dome in April 1997 in his first game as a Yomiuri Giants pitcher after a yearlong break due to injury. KYODO PHOTO

So people had high hopes for you from very early on.

Yes. I actually wanted to play basketball, volleyball and soccer but I had to miss all those. The teacher would say, "What if you hurt your shoulder?" I guess he needed to limit my participation to make sure the school baseball team I belonged to would win (the local championships).

Was there anything else that had interested you personally?

No. I was a (Yomiuri) Giants fan. I had always dreamed of becoming an ace pitcher for the Giants.

You often use the term "Baseball God" in your books and lectures. When did you start feeling there was such a being?

Back when I was in first grade at senior high school, supernatural things started happening to me. I still believe in the Baseball God. I certainly had one for myself. And I think it's fine for musicians to have the Music God and for chefs to have the Cooking God. I think believing in something is important.

When you were a third-year student at a junior high school, you ended up having to transfer to a different school right before graduation because the teacher in the first school tried to force you to go to a high school you weren't interested in. How did you feel?

That hurt me — but it's not an isolated incident. Even now, 30 years later, there are a lot of kids whose choice of high school is dictated by their teachers. As I look back on my experience, I'm glad I didn't give in.

How were you able to resist?

I had a strong feeling that I wanted to decide my own future. My life is mine, and I thought it was important that I lived a life I believed was right. Everyone is destined to die. Until that moment comes, I want to live my life in my own way at my own pace.

Were you really that independent-minded at such a young age?

Well, I was hurt, but I learned from the experience. My lesson was, "The adult society does things like this." It was a good lesson. Today I coach junior high school students (through my club Asao Giants) and consult them on their choice of high schools. But I would never tell the kids which high school to go to. I say, "go wherever you want to go," and I tell them that the school they pick is the best school for them. Entering a school with a strong reputation for its baseball team is not the most important thing. I would never try to get a kid into a school because it also offers admissions to other kids.


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