In Which I Play Baseball With A Japanese Junior High School Team, Live To Tell The Tale

November 2, 2010

Another Friday nearing completion and another week of school ready to become just another faint reflection in a growing mental flash-drive of them…November, already?…, I decided to kill the last hour of my work day walking around the school grounds underneath a late-fall sky of bleghish gray. I figured I’d check in on all the various clubs activities happening and keep my fingers crossed that I’d run into the cute science teacher who also tends to wander aimlessly around. It’s become a common habit.

Instead, I met the coach of the school’s baseball team. A clean-cut man complete with a short haircut a military recruiter would love, I best knew him as the guy who always said “good morning” to me in perfect English every morning before going on his way and saying nothing to me for the rest of my time in the office. Until this week, when he noticed me drinking orange juice. “Orange juice?” he said. “Yes, orange juice,” I said, “I like it a lot.” “Ahhh very good.” This brief conversation seemed like an astronomical leap in our professional relationship. So three days removed from this incident, he looked at me and asked “Do you like baseball?” I sure do. “Train with the baseball team today.” Now, I asked with my trusty confused stare applied to my face, a mask that has worked wonders for me here. “Yes.” With an hour left before leaving time and no science teacher in sight I fetched my sneakers.

Onto the large dirt field in the back of the school I walked. I approached about 30-some boys wearing white and red uniforms lacking any sort of logos or school identification, the team looking like the Cincinnati Reds circa the Stockings era. Most team members were engaged in a rapid-fire throwing drill, so the teacher led me over to one boy who didn’t have a partner. After finding a spare glove for me…a sorta catcher’s mitt which presented a whole new set of challenges to an individual already lacking in any sort of baseball skill…I started playing catch with the kid, who could throw pretty well. After a few early flubs, even I started shaking off the cobwebs that had been collecting since I retired from college inter-dorm softball.

During this back-and-forth I tried asking the student questions in English. It’s one of the aspects of my job I’m slightly confused about – the Board of Education wants me participating in club activities, but do I just show up and play silently so kids can be like “look, Americans like table tennis too!” Or is it another chance to provide a small English lesson, giving kids who will mostly likely be shuttled to private cram school after completing club for the day, which already followed a full day of school. So, while playing catch, I awkwardly asked the kid questions in English vaguely related to baseball. “What’s your favorite team” and “How long have you played baseball?” He seemed far more interested in chucking the ball than learning the finer points of grammar.

Failing at getting anyone interested in English, I settled for just trying to not humiliate myself completely when I was introduced into the team-wide throwing drills. I got put into a group made up mostly of younger students, I guess the teacher assuming I’d face less of a threat being plonked in the face with these guys. Yet they still were insanely good baseball players, launching the ball faster than anyone I can remember playing with (a list made up of: my dad, fellow ten-year-old kids in Little League, my college roommate and my dorm softball team). Naturally, I did embarrass myself multiple times via easily missed catches and throws that managed to end up near the distant soccer players. The kids were very kind in assuring me I didn’t need to apologize, even when I managed to help our squad record the slowest time in the competition portion of the drill (I couldn’t master the “space jump” as the kids called, nor did I ever figure out what that was). We were rewarded with team-building activity of running between first and second five times.

The head coach wisely limited my playing time in the day’s final exercise, a simulated game where he hit the ball and had the defense attempt to get runners out. I acted as the pinch runner/National League pitcher…complete with dopey sweater… who only ran to first when the coach attempted a sac bunt. I did manage to beat one out! Otherwise, I stood on the side watching as players on both side freaked out over a fake game. Whereas when I was there age, we mostly approached real games with the mindset “please, let this end quickly and without anything hit towards me,” looking forward to the almost-certain post-game McDonald’s run. These students, meanwhile, reacted to every choreographed line-drive single like it could win them the World Series. It was pretty exciting. After that, the day ended and I realized I’d been at school an hour longer than planned. Yet I enjoyed myself…and didn’t get hit in the face.

(Japanese Fun Fact #85: Signs English should just be abandoned as a subject in the Japanese educational system – saw a student today wearing a big badge parodying national book-chain Book-Off which simply said “Fuck Off.” Nobody batted an eye and I feel the student had no idea what it meant either.)

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