There Can Be Only One (Twice Each Year)

Since there are no Kansas teams left in March Madness (the National Collegiate Athletic Association Men’s Division 1 Basketball Championship), and I am now reduced to shopping around for a new team to follow (Early candidates: Florida, out of respect for an acquaintance; and Louisville, or whoever plays Kentucky if Louisville loses.)

For those not from the USA, March Madness is one of the greatest sports spectacles in the world. There are teams full of young players who are there representing their universities and Kentucky, who’s young players are there auditioning for the professional draft. There are emotions and moral dilemmas (do I cheer for Kansas University if Kansas State and Wichita State have already been eliminated or do I want to watch them bleed? Unfortunately, as they are wont to do, Kansas University has been eliminated early, so we’ll never know what my choice would have been.)

All this madness, though, has got me thinking about Japan’s equivalent of March Madness: the Summer National High School Baseball Championship.

This is event, nicknamed “Koshien” because it is typically played at Hanshin Koshien Stadium near Kobe, takes place every August. After a long series of regional championships, each prefecture sends its best team–Tokyo and Hokkaido each get two teams–for a grand total of 49 teams. They then compete in a single elimination tournament, sponsored by the Asahi Newspaper chain, that’s been taking place since 1915 (with a few years off for things like World War II).

It’s no exaggeration to say that participating in Koshien is a religious experience. Every Japanese boy who plays baseball dreams of playing there. If one player on a team causes trouble before the tournament, the entire team is suspended. In 2006, a FORMER player of a Hokkaido team was caught drinking and smoking and the team was banned from the tournament. Teams wear predominantly white uniforms to represent their purity. There are no “home” and “away” uniforms so it’s common for two teams with nearly identical uniforms play each other which begins to play tricks on the eyes after a while. Players from losing teams tearfully gather bags of soil from the field after their loss to scatter in their home fields. Graduating seniors collect vials of soil to keep as souvenirs.

Any player with a chance to go professional gets shocking amounts of news coverage and scrutiny and, if they are a pitcher and the team’s ace, may find themselves pitching every pitch of every game. For example, Yu Darvish was forced to throw every pitch in a loss in 2003 and in 1998 we saw Daisuke Matsuzaka pitch an entire 17 inning game (I think he threw 250 pitches). It’s not unusual to see the ace pitcher pitch full games three days in a row.

I don’t even like baseball (which is basically just a bunch of people standing in a field watching two guys play catch) but I like watching Koshien. There really is nothing like it, at least in the USA. March Madness is close, but cheering for A team from Kansas, is not the same as cheering for THE team from Kansas. (Note: The FIFA World Cup has its moments, but is hindered by crappy play in the group stage and lots of flopping about in order to draw penalties.)

There is a spring invitational tournament held at Koshien (and sponsored by the Mainichi Newspaper chain) but it is a distant second to the emotion and spectacle of the summer tournament. The only suspense is if a team can become only the 8th to win both tournaments in the same year.

Unfortunately, after the boys of Koshien are gone, all that’s left on TV is Japanese professional baseball. The only suspense then is which player is going to bolt for the US major leagues. That’s when I start playing free games on the internet and, oh, yeah, writing something every now and then.

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