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Friday, Dec. 3, 2004

SPORTS SCOPE

Tigers sending wrong message with Tsujimoto signing


"A mind is a terrible thing to waste."

Jack Gallagher

That was a promotional phrase for the United Negro College Fund in television and radio commercials back in the 1980s, and I hadn't thought of it for quite a while until I learned of the recent signing of 15-year-old pitcher Kento Tsujimoto by the Hanshin Tigers.

I must say that I was amazed at how in Japan, where education is supposed to mean something, nobody even batted an eyelash over this dubious transaction.

Quite the contrary, as the national media played up the news as if it was something to be proud of.

Well, it isn't in my book.

How in the world is a kid allowed to skip high school to go straight into professional baseball without any questions being asked?

News photo
The signing of 15-year-old Kento Tsujimoto by the Hanshin Tigers contradicts the conventional wisdom that education is important in Japan.

The sad fact is that Tsujimoto's signing by the Tigers revealed one of Japan's dirty little secrets -- that high school education is not compulsory. Complete the ninth grade and you are free to start working for a living.

The only problem is, if you don't have a great fastball, you will likely end up working construction, driving a truck or frying food in a kitchen somewhere.

It really is outrageous that this young man was allowed -- and even encouraged -- to make this "career" decision. I think something is very wrong with the system.

Why?

Because the signing of Tsujimoto is going to give a lot of other young baseball players in this country the idea that they can do exactly the same thing. The reality is that the odds of signing a contract with a pro baseball team are incredibly long.

There will be those who say, "Well, he wasn't on track to go to college anyway, so what's the difference?"

What about his social skills?

And growing up with those in his age group?

Those are also very important factors in the maturation of a young man.

But they have been cast aside with Tsujimoto, who has already moved into the Hanshin dormitory with players much older than he.

Others will cite the signing of young soccer players in Europe and South America in their defense of the Tigers. But that argument doesn't wash with me, either.

We are not talking about a kid here who is trying to bring his family out of poverty in a third-world country.

Japanese baseball is going through major changes at present, but it appears that some parts of it will always remain the same. Specifically, the inability to think about anything but the game and making money.

In an effort to try and elicit some answers on the morality of Tsujimoto's signing, The Japan Times contacted both the Tigers and the Nippon Pro Baseball office, to see what they had to say about it.

Their responses were very telling.

The Tigers said, "The PR staff is too busy to answer questions today."

Yeah, right. That's a good one, especially in the offseason.

But wait, it gets better.

The NPB office -- the definition of the word clueless -- stated, "It's just a 15-year-old boy getting a job. Being a professional baseball player is no more than getting an occupation. That's it and there is no problem."

No problem?

If that's the case, why did the guy making the comments abruptly hang up the phone without giving his name?

I just wonder what is going to happen to Tsujimoto if he blows out his arm in five years and his baseball career comes to a premature end?

He won't be going back to high school, that's for sure.

Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles general manager Marty Kuehnert, who wrote a book last year entitled Bumbu-ryodo Nihon ni nashi ("There are no scholar-athletes in Japan"), says the issue of sport vs. education is deeply entrenched in Japanese society and includes the high schools.

"If you go to a baseball powerhouse -- like PL Gakuen (in Osaka) -- you don't study, and everybody condones it. Teachers, parents, media. I don't agree with it," says Kuehnert.

"If you are Ichiro or one of the Matsuis, not only are you allowed to play baseball all day, you are encouraged to. Teachers turn a blind eye when kids come to class and go to sleep."

Kuehnert has a very firm stance on cases like those of Tsujimoto.

"I don't think anybody should be drafted before they get out of high school."

Kuehnert is hoping to help Japanese pro baseball turn over a new leaf in Sendai, where he will institute a counseling program for players on the Eagles, to help them have careers after their baseball days are over.

In his book, Kuehnert quoted U.S. Olympic swimmer Matt Biondi -- winner of eight gold medals in his career and now a high school math teacher in Hawaii -- about why it is important to go to class and pay attention.

"Education," said Biondi, "is an insurance policy for life."

Amen.



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