Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Yankees' Masahiro Tanaka Epitomizes the Japanese Approach to Baseball

A big front-page report at today's New York Times, "A Passion to Pitch":
ITAMI, Japan — Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees’ $155 million import, grew up in a nation where joining a baseball team was like entering a religious order. The field was hallowed ground, the equipment sacred gear. Coaches were obeyed with bowed heads.

A baseball-centered life required absolute devotion to the team. Practice made perfect, so the young athletes trained year round with seldom a day off, their after-school drills commonly lasting seven hours. Pitchers sometimes threw 300 times in a single day; hitters took 1,000 swings. And then the team finished its work by picking up stray baseballs and raking the dirt to cleanse it of cleat marks.

Tanaka’s success or failure will be among the biggest story lines of the baseball season that begins in earnest Sunday night, but the fuller narrative is about the step-by-step making of a 25-year-old pitcher and the impassioned approach of the Japanese toward America’s national pastime.

Tanaka comes from Itami, near Osaka, in western Japan. But he chose to play baseball at a high school in the nation’s far north, 900 miles away. The field froze during the winter months, and suffering the numbing cold was among the ordeals meant to build an athlete’s stalwart character. The boys stamped on the persisting snow, attempting to level the slippery surface for a truer roll of ground balls.

A tall teenager, growing his way toward a husky 6 feet 2 inches, Tanaka had close-cropped hair and a wide, expressive smile. He attended special classes for athletes and lived in a dormitory with 40 teammates. Gatekeepers enforced a curfew and strict rules: no smoking, no drinking, no mah-jongg. Baseball provided its own family. Tanaka rarely went home.

“I lived so far away,” he said with a shrug in a recent dugout interview.

He seemed to his friends like two people in one: shy and good-natured off the field, yet so fierce and determined while on it that he could appear possessed. He roared as he threw a pitch. He pumped his fist after striking someone out. He scolded teammates for sloppy play.

Every young ballplayer shared a dream, to compete in the national high school tournament, known to most as the Koshien, an event in Japan as compelling as March Madness, as consequential as the World Series. Each August, 49 regional champions vie in the single-elimination tourney. Each game is nationally televised. The best players are plucked from obscurity and elevated to celebrity, as famous as any movie star.

The Koshien dates to 1915, and the 2006 tournament stands out as a classic. Two exhausted pitchers — Tanaka and another phenom, Yuki Saito — carried their teams to the final in an epic display of grit...
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