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Saturday, Oct. 23, 2010

News photo
Bessie Noll gestures during one of the games of Musashi Fuchu's little league baseball team COURTESY OF BESSIE NOLL

Ballplayer is in a league all her own

U.S. teen hopes toughness, skills from Musashi Fuchu stint earn her a spot on university club

Special to The Japan Times

Bessie Noll won't celebrate her 16th birthday for another year, but she's already got a sweet swing on her future.

Noll hopes her experience as the starting center fielder for Musashi Fuchu's little league baseball team in the competitive Tokyo League will give her an edge toward securing a softball scholarship at a Division 1 university in the United States. She believes her experience within the competitive system of male-dominated Japanese baseball has given her perseverance, determination and a reflective perspective to bridge cultural divides.

Noll came to Japan with her parents when she was 8 years old, a third-grade tomboy with a passion for sports. Enrolled at the American School in Japan, where her parents are both teachers, she immediately joined the elementary-school swim team. T-ball had been her favorite sport back in Minnesota, so as soon as her parents settled from the move and found a little league team nearby, Noll joined.

Although she did not realize it at the time, Noll's entry to the team was unusual to say the least. Only the second girl to go through their system and the first foreigner, Noll recalls the day with a full awareness now of the strange scene they made: "We rode up on our American bikes that we had shipped over, a Burley hooked up to the side of my dad's bike so my little brother could come along. I was dressed in just a shirt and pants, and all the Japanese kids were so formal in their uniforms."

What she remembers most is the hospitality the team showed that first day: "Some of the older kids were very nice, and there was one girl there, the first one in the system, Megumi. They sent me off to practice base-running from home to first. They all kind of laughed at me, but by the end of the day we were talking, asking questions in basic English, and I felt welcomed."

For the next six years, Noll played for the Fuchu team, a Tokyo powerhouse that regularly qualifies for the Little League World Series. Her highlights include some big at-bats when she was 11 years old against "a team twice our size and twice our age, but I hit two home runs in one game."

A year later, she took a no-hitter into the bottom of the last inning.

"I bumbled their bunt and ruined my own no-hitter," but the memory is still a good one, almost as good as Noll's lead-off homer against Team Korea in 2008, along with a diving catch in the outfield that earned her the front cover of Japan's Little League Baseball magazine, Bokura Little League.

Throughout Noll's years with the team, her natural determination hardened into steadfast discipline, thanks to the Japanese way of baseball. "It taught me how to become a person. The whole basis of Little League in Japan is to build strength."

Of course, Noll's strength in baseball increased, but more importantly, she attests to an increase in mental strength.

"Being a girl and a foreigner, it was hard to assimilate completely. Sometimes I felt like an outsider, looking in. It taught me to be OK, and comfortable, with being alone sometimes as a person," she said.

Noll believes the Japanese system, in contrast to American Little League, encourages effort over fun.

"It is definitely the time put into everything. As you get older, practice starts earlier and finishes later," she said. "By my sixth year, I was there by 7:30 in the morning until 6 at night, every Saturday and Sunday, year round. We only took one weekend off for Japanese New Year's, and whenever there was a national holiday, you were expected to be at practice."

Noll credits this disciplined, repetitious approach with her own high skill level and ability to work hard. She also admits she finds it hard to relax. "It drives my parents crazy," she says, laughing, "but I always have to be doing something."

Noll is still working hard to improve her softball skills, her goals predictably high. She plays for a competitive summer league in the U.S., gaining the opportunity to showcase her ability at various tournaments attended by a range of Division 1 university softball scouts.

Despite her success, Noll's experiences in Japanese baseball were not always positive. In addition to the years where she felt like an outsider, there were also many cultural aspects she found difficult to accept.

"Some things can't help but look sexist," Noll says, citing the example of toban: "Once a month, each mother has to take a turn for the entire day of practice, and what you do, basically, is feed the men and clean the bathrooms."

Noll also found the high level of competition tended to spoil team unity because players looked toward their own improvement first, especially as she got older.

"Senior League in the Japanese system is even more intense . . . it's seen as your recruiting chance into Japanese high schools, and boys were mean to each other, mean to me. As a first-year, you don't get any playing time on the field at all, so you have to wait a whole year for even a chance to play."

And Noll's focus has always been to play. Turning her attention to softball during the summers, she keeps up her athleticism by taking advantage now of the three sports seasons at the American School. In fall she runs cross-country, in winter, plays girls basketball, and in spring she takes the field with the ASIJ baseball team.

Noll keeps in touch with the friends she made in the Japanese system and clearly relishes many happy memories. She realizes a girl in a competitive American system would have faced similar difficulties. "The biggest problem was I didn't know how to stand up for myself because I couldn't speak the language well enough. I could get by, but it is not the same as if someone told me something in English that I didn't like."

Noll recommends Japanese sports to anyone interested in improvement, but has no real advice to give.

"You are going to hate it more than you love it, especially in the winter when you get up on those cold mornings and you don't want to go. But if you really want to get better, if you want to become strong, you just have to do it."

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