High hopes for Okinawa high schoolers

by Shoji Kudaka
Stripes Guam
Okinawans used to ask, “Which would happen first, an Okinawan becoming the Prime Minister, or an Okinawan high school team winning the Kokoyakyu baseball tournament?”
 
High school baseball has been carrying the hope of Okinawans for a long time.
 
When I grew up in the 80s and early 90s on the island, people were glued to the TV once their teams set foot in Koshien stadium, the holy ground of high school baseball. People tuned in during work hours and cars disappeared from streets; a victory for their team carried that much importance to the locals.
 
Young baseball players were heroes who went up against strong opponents from mainland. The locals were hoping the young players would embody the “catchup and takeover the mainland” mentality that many Okinawans used to have.
 
“For seniors, the summer tournament is the last opportunity. So every team will put their blood in each game,” said former manager Hiroshi Arasaki, looking back at the old days.
 
The enthusiasm for high school baseball carries on today in Okinawa. Some islanders would still put priority on high school baseball games over their jobs, and they still joke about how streets see less traffic when a game is on.
 
However, if compared with the enthusiasm in the past, Okinawans’ love of the game seems to have moved on a bit. As someone who witnessed the fever through the 80s and 90s, I now sense less madness in the way Okinawans root for their teams or the local media covers the games.
 
Whether or not my view is correct, it would be hard to deny the impact that four national titles won by Okinawan teams between late 1990s through 2010 had on locals - especially when Okinawa Shogaku Senior High School won the first ever national title for Okinawa in 1999.
 
The fulfillment those four titles gave them may have made their love of the game mature. And more importantly the titles surely brought some changes to high school baseball in Okinawa. 

Chatting with one hopeful infielder

I was able to catch up with Richard Sunagawa, a senior infielder, who shared his experience of playing for Okinawa Shogaku High School. The cleanup hitter is familiar with Stars and Stripes, as his father works on a U.S. military facility. 
 
- How’s the mood of your team?
Sunagawa: There is a sense of tension, in a good way. We are determined to go to Koshien, so we practice hard.
Note: The team was unable to qualify for the tournament this year.
 
- There is this public image that high school baseball players stick to the fundamentals. Do you put more of priority on fundamentals than say hitting the ball deep? 
Sunagawa: It depends upon situations. If I have runners on first and second, it would be pointless to pop out. I would pull or hit to right to avoid a double play. If I have a runner on the third, I would think of hitting a fly ball into the outfield to bring the runner home.
 
- What is unique about your team? 
Sunagawa: Here, players come from different places. They have different ideas or styles of baseball from one another. Building a team with players with different backgrounds can be challenging at first. Freshmen would hesitate to talk to their teammates from different places. When I was a freshman, I found it difficult to talk to someone from Naha. I am from Kitanakagusuku village. To me, Naha is a big city. I assumed that people from Naha would not talk to someone from a local village. But now, everybody gets along. Plus, we have the RYCOM MALL in Kitanakagusuku village, so my teammates from Naha won’t make fun of me anymore.

Conversation with celebrated manager

It was Okinawa Shogaku Senior High School that made history in 1999 by winning the first ever national title for Okinawa. Almost 20 years since, the school continues to be one of the top teams in the prefecture. The team won another championships in 2008, and has sent players to the Nippon Professional Baseball league. Currently, four alumni play for in the NPB.
 
I recently visited the team at its baseball field in Yaesae Town in the southern part of Okinawa. They were the No. 1 seed in preliminary competitions for the summer tournament, and had just survived a 5-4 thriller against Naha High School.
 
After instructing his players to lick sour plumbs and get moving to beat the heat, Manager Kouya Higa sat down with me for an interview. As the ace pitcher on that inaugural championship winning team in 1999, Higa knows a lot about baseball on Okinawa.
 
- Tell me about your team. How many players do you have? What does their regular practice look like? 
Higa: We have 77 on the team. Among them, 20 will be in the dugout. On weekdays, we practice for three hours. On weekends and holidays, twice the length - sometimes seven hours. Basically, we practice defense first. And then move on to offense with runners on base. Finally, we do batting practice in cages. But if there is anything we find that needs to specifically be worked on after a game, we will put focus on that.
 
- What is the slogan of your team? 
Higa: Most of the kids come to our school because they want to play baseball. But we ask them to understand that school comes first, not baseball. Here, baseball is part of academic life, not the other way around. We motivate kids to avoid being someone who knows only baseball.
 
- Would you say discipline is very important in high school baseball played in Japan? 
Higa: I would assume that players are expected to follow signs given by the manager. On the other hand, though, there are situations where players need to make their own decisions.
 
- How do you describe the balance between the two? 
Higa: Well, on our team, players make their own decisions mostly. I have my game plan as a manager, of course. But basically, I let the kids play as they want. For example, there are situations I give signs for players not to swing at a specific pitch. But basically, I let them bat as they want, pitch as they want. 
After each game, I point out mistakes made by the players, but during the course of a game, I just let players show what they got from practice.
 
- Regarding high school baseball in Japan, some people say pitchers throw too many pitches or players practice too hard and end up injured. Is that the case for your team? 
Higa: No. It’s not good to force kids to practice too hard. I myself experienced elbow injuries, so I make sure that pitchers don’t throw too many pitches. However, there are kids who will not play baseball after high school. If I impose a limit on them, they would not be satisfied. So I make decisions on a case-by-case basis.
 
- Some people say that there are many good teams on the island now. Compared to when you played, has the overall level of high school baseball become higher?
Higa: I think so. When I was a student, there were only several schools that had good players. But now, you see so many teams with good players. And the managers are getting better. In addition to that, the championships that our school and Konan Senior High School won surely made other schools think that they can do it, too.
 
- Do players still carry on a rivalry against teams from mainland Japan?
Higa: No. when I played for the team, I saw old people with that mentality. But even then, I didn’t share that feeling. One of the reasons why I didn’t have that sentiment is that teams from mainland Japan came and visited Okinawa for practice games. Likewise, my team had the opportunities to go to the mainland for practice games. Now, many teams from mainland Japan come to Okinawa in March. Kids these days don’t have any special feelings or hesitation toward playing against teams from mainland Japan. Some kids from Okinawa even play for high school teams on the mainland, which is a huge difference from the time I played. Now, good players leave Okinawa to go to high schools on the mainland, which is becoming common.

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