Jason Coskrey, staff writer
Yuki Saito, as a high school senior pitching for Waseda Jitsugyo, may have become the most famous athlete in Japan during Summer Koshien in 2006.
Saito stood out at the annual tournament, both for his pitching and the light blue handkerchief he used to wipe away sweat. With rock star looks and a game to match, he became a national sensation with fame that would probably make even one of Japan’s ubiquitous pop idols jealous. He was mostly unaware during the tournament, with his focus only on trying to capture the title.
“It’s the All-Japan tournament, so it’s a really happy thing to be able to pitch there,” Saito told The Japan Times this week from Kamagaya Stadium, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ ni-gun headquarters. “Because it’s the tournament to decide the No. 1 in high school baseball, players take a lot of pride in pitching there.”
It’s possible no matter what Saito, now a pitcher for the Fighters, goes on to achieve, he’ll always be best remembered for leading Waseda to the title in 2006 and being the Hankachi Oji (Handkerchief Prince), the nickname he was given during the tournament after cameras caught him using the cloth to dab away sweat during games. It wasn’t until afterward he realized just how big he’d become at the time.
“It was during the 2-3 month period after I finished playing baseball in high school and before I went to college,” he said of becoming aware of the attention. “People who were not big baseball fans noticed me. I saw there was an amazing amount of coverage on television and in newspapers and magazines.
“Generally, the focus shifts to the next generation of players after you finish high school baseball, but for those two or three months, all of the coverage continued to be about me. Then I really felt the attention of being called the Hankachi Oji and understood it.”
The annual summer tournament may be a high school affair, but players who shine there become legends. That speaks to the level of reverence the event is treated with in Japan.
“The high level of baseball being played (arguably No. 1, most likely No. 2, in the world in this age group. Most star players in the tournament go on to become professional stars) and the 100-year history of the tournament speak for themselves,” says Zac Ikuma, a freelance sportscaster currently doing play-by-play for Yokohama BayStars games on Abema TV. “Not to mention, Koshien Stadium, the site of the tourney is an institution — the Japanese Wrigley Field or Fenway Park.”
The things that made baseball such a comfortable fit in Japan in the beginning — the idea of unity and sacrificing of one’s self for the group — are readily on display. Many teams still wear all-white uniforms, another nod to the past, and players have shaved heads, which are seen before and after games when they remove their caps and bow to each other. Players are lauded for their “fighting spirit,” as they go diving into first base, and sacrifice bunts are plentiful, to say the least.
“Everyone has their role in preserving the wa, even the fans cheering in unison in the stands. In 2008, a few members of Japan’s Olympic team, made up of NPB stars, tried to capture this spirit by shaving their own heads, a case of the pros imitating the high schoolers.
Every prefecture sends at least one team, and fans from across Japan fill the stands. Even more watch on TV, with every game televised nationally.
“The sweaty players with similarly buzzed haircuts are considered the classic young Japanese sportsmen,” said Ikuma. “The drama is told very effectively and to a large audience by the national network NHK. During the tournament, the news about the tournament is everywhere.
“Before every game broadcast, each team’s captain does a short on-camera speech (with teammates in the background) introducing his school on the broadcast. In many intros the players seem nervous and rigid, which makes them wholesome and folksy, making you want to root for them even more.”
The event is big enough the Hanshin Tigers, second only to the Yomiuri Giants in prominence and history among pro teams, leave Koshien Stadium for a three-week road trip for the duration.
“Usually pro baseball would be in the spotlight,” Saito said. “But for some reason in Japan, high school baseball gets a lot of attention. I think around Japanese baseball, a lot of fans cheer the game itself. To them, there is no difference between professional and high school baseball.”
The 2006 tournament
When Saito pitched at Koshien, his school was starved for success. Its only title had come during the spring tournament in 1957, when Sadaharu Oh, his hand riddled with pain and bloody from blisters by the final, pitched Waseda Jitsugyo to the title. The school reached the 1980 summer final behind heartthrob pitcher Daisuke Araki, but fell to Yokohama High School.
The 2006 team had plenty of good players, but no pitchers as good as Saito. So he was sent out for every game.
“As you go deeper in the tournament, the schedule gets tougher,” Saito said. “If you don’t have second- or third-string pitchers, you have to shoulder that burden by yourself.
“But still, winning the championship can’t be traded for anything.”
In the final, Waseda met Masahiro Tanaka’s Komadai Tomakomai, from Hokkaido, a two-time defending champion looking for a third straight crown.
Saito and Tanaka staged an epic pitching duel. Saito struck out 16 in a 15-inning complete game, while Tanaka threw 12⅔ and fanned 10. The game was tied 1-1 after the 15th, which by rule meant it wouldn’t count and a rematch would be played next day.
Saito threw all nine innings in the rematch. He took a 4-3 lead into the ninth, and with two outs had to face Tanaka in one of the most famous scenes in all of Japanese baseball. Their tense battle lasted seven pitches before Saito struck out Tanaka to clinch the title.
Saito had thrown 178 pitches in the first game and 118 in the rematch. It was a jaw-dropping display even pro players wouldn’t dare replicate.
“It’s probably unbelievable for people from outside Japan,” Saito said. “That’s one of the good things about Japanese and Japanese culture. Even if your shoulder, your elbow or lower back is damaged, we think the sacrifice can be a beautiful thing. It’s our culture to think that way. We have to persevere for someone else. We also think even if we get injured, we’re optimistic we can hold on somehow. I wasn’t worried about it too much.”
In all, Saito threw 948 pitches in seven games from Aug. 6-21. It’s still the tournament record. Recently, voices from outside Japan, and some from within, have been highly critical of how pitchers are used during the tournament, citing the risk for injury.
One tipping point was Saibi High School’s Tomohiro Anraku, who threw 772 pitches in the 2013 Spring Koshien, which drew lots of coverage in the U.S.
“No one, including fully-fledged adults, should throw 150 (pitches) in a game, let alone 200,” said Kazuto Yamazaki, who has written for Baseball Prospectus and in 2016 authored an in-depth report on pitch counts during the 2016 summer tournament for Beyond the Boxscore. “But this is how it’s always been done and in this country, changing something is a big no-no, even if it’s immoral. The kids are (in a bad situation), and it reflects the bad side of the Japanese culture.”
Others, including Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan, who mentioned Anraku’s case in, “The Arm,” his book on the growing epidemic of arm injures among pitchers, have also voiced criticisms.
Saito is not among them.
“I think it’s OK,” Saito said. “Only doctors can give the medical reasons. As players, we don’t really feel it’s dangerous when we’re playing. Only injured players really know about their injuries. It’s only after someone gets hurt you say ‘oh, he threw too many pitches.’ Maybe doctors would say it’s not good, but it’s the players who are out there on the field.”
As the high school teams and fans prepare to converge on Koshien Stadium again this summer, Saito is pushing forward with his own career. While Tanaka went on to great success in NPB with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles before moving to the New York Yankees, it hasn’t been the same for Saito.
After choosing college over turning pro in 2006, he was a star at Waseda University. The Fighters drafted him with their first pick in 2010, but Saito is just 15-24 with a 4.33 ERA in 76 games on the top level since debuting in 2011. Some of it has been due to injuries, including some shoulder ailments around 2013 and 2014.
“It’s not so good,” he said of his performance. “It’s not something I feel good about.”
Still, he remains determined to reach his goals of becoming a double-digit winner in NPB and sticking in the rotation for an entire season while helping his team capture a title.
“Right now, I’m 30, but I don’t have a lot of pro experience,” he said. “But I am still able to continue playing baseball because I still carry that feeling from Koshien. When I think about giving up, the memory of Koshien pulls me back.”
As he looks ahead, he hopes the players who take the field over the next few weeks are able to live in the moment.
“I want them play with all they have and enjoy it,” he said. “You can’t go back to high school baseball after everything is over. So I want them to enjoy it and be aware of all the support they have.”