Currently in Japan, one of the great sports traditions is taking place, THE NATIONAL HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL CHAMPIONSHIP. (This year is the 91 year of the tournament.)
Each year, every high school, 4041 this year, from all 47 Prefectures in Japan compete for the National Championship. Prefectures are similar to states in America. Every prefecture sends one team to the championship tournament at the hallowed Koshien Stadium in Osaka, home of the Hanshen Tigers, which was originally built in 1924 specifically for this tournament before professional baseball was even formed.
It holds 55,000 people and is where we won our Nippon Series Championship in 2005. Koshien reminds me of a combination of Fenway and Wrigley and is steeped in tradition. Unlike Fenway and Wrigley, Koshien has an all dirt infield, which is very common at the high school level in Japan. For those of you who have played at Belltown Park in Stamford, you have an idea.
Tokyo and Hokkaido prefectures send 2 teams since they are so large geographically, so there are 49 teams that make it to Koshien. The tournament runs for about 2 weeks and the teams with the best ace pitcher usually advance. There are traditionally the same strong schools represented every year, but all one team needs is that stud pitcher to carry them through. Once the teams reach Koshien, it is very common for the ace pitcher to pitch just about every inning of every game en route to the championship.
Two years ago we watched a thrilling championship game that was suspended after 15 innings. They suspended the game due to extreme heat and fear of exhaustion. The teams came back the next day for another full 9 inning game to decide the championship. One of the teams had the same pitcher pitch all 15 innings on the first day then return and pitch all 9 the following day. Unheard of! Can you imagine a high school coach trying to get away with that in the states?
But here, that’s the tradition.
By the way, that pitcher’s name is Yuki Saitoh and he is now at Waseda University, a baseball powerhouse, and is billed as the next Japanese superstar pitcher. Saitoh’s pitching opponent in the championship game (or should I say games) was Masahiro Tanaka, one of the top pitcher’s in our league now, who we lost to last night, and was a member of the Japanese WBC team. Tanaka pitched 12 1/3 of the 15 innings and came back the next day to pitch 8 1/3.
Saitoh threw 6 complete games, 949 pitches in 69 innings (both tournament records) over the 2 week span, including 4 complete games, 43 innings and 553 pitches in the final 4 days of the tournament. He also had 78 strikeouts which is #2 on the all time list. Is that incredible or what!!!!!!!!!!!
In 1998 Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka pitched 17 innings (250 pitches) in his quarterfinal game, 1 inning the next day in the semifinal game, then pitched a 9 inning no hitter the next day in the final game, which was the first tournament no hitter in 59 years.
This year’s top pitcher in the tournament is left hander Kikuchi, who has the interest of many MLB teams.
The tournament is absolutely awesome. Every game at Koshien, and many leading to Koshien, are televised and people are glued to TV’s all over the country. There are office pools similar to our NCAA basketball pools. Fans come from all over the country to cheer their teams on in the sweltering heat of August and the tears flow when they go down in defeat.
Each games starts with the sound of a siren going off in the background to signify the start of the game.
Prior to the game, both teams line up in front of home plate to wish each other luck. After the game they do the same but now the losing team congratulates the winners. The winners’ school fight song is then performed by that schools band as the players stand in front of the cheering section (Oendan).
Another popular tradition is as each team is eliminated from the tournament, all the players scoop some of the dirt from the field to save as a memory of the great tournament.
It really is hard to put into words. One really has to see it. Certainly one of the best traditions of Japan.