THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
May 21, 2020 at 18:43 JST
With his team's "Field of Dreams" reduced to a nightmare with the cancellation of the summer National High School Baseball Championship, Takahiro Sato tried to put a positive spin for his players.
Sato, head coach of Okayama Gakugeikan High School, called an online meeting with all 106 team members after the news broke on May 20 that the tournament had been called off due to the new coronavirus.
His players have trained hard to qualify for the prestigious summer tournament representing Okayama Prefecture two years in a row.
Sato prepared a special message for his senior ballplayers.
“Love this twist of destiny and live for the sake of hope. All you can do is get on to the next challenge,” he said. “But today you can cry."
Then he returned to a pep talk.
“Make a turnaround here. It’s really important. It will mature you as a person.”
Some of the players just sobbed.
All around Japan on the day, the nation's top high school baseball players in their uniforms dropped their heads and fought off tears as their coaches struggled to find words of comfort.
The organizers’ decision to scrap one of the nation's most popular sporting events, known as “Koshien” because it is played at Hanshin Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, was not completely unexpected. In March, the national high school spring tournament was also canceled due to the pandemic.
Still, it was a gut-wrenching moment for the teens to realize their childhood dreams to compete in the summer championship on a national stage had been taken away. Especially for high school seniors, the hard training and sacrifices over the years were all for naught.
“Koshien is a big stage that I grew up dreaming about playing there since I was little,” said Renki Uchiyama, captain of the baseball team at Seiko Gakuin High School in Fukushima Prefecture.
The team has made a historic run, winning the prefectural tournament to qualify to play at Koshien for 13 consecutive summers, until 2019.
It was just the day before that Uchiyama and his fellow teammates resumed team practices, hoping that the tournament organizers would reach a different conclusion.
“I don’t know what to say,” Uchiyama uttered, looking at the ground. “On one hand, I think it was inevitable, but I do have mixed emotions."
‘CAN’T EVEN GIVE IT A TRY’
Kosuke Yamasaki, captain of the baseball team at Tsuda Gakuen High School in Mie Prefecture, did not hide his disappointment.
“It’s really frustrating, honestly,” the senior said.
“We have worked really hard to make history for the school this summer,” he said, referring to the team’s goal to play in the summer tournament two years in a row. “Now we can’t even give it a try. That’s what frustrates me."
After the news broke, Tatsuo Sagawa, the team’s head coach, held a meeting with 25 senior players and team assistants.
“You all have a future,” said Sagawa, who played in the Koshien tournament as a member of the decorated PL Gakuen baseball team in Osaka Prefecture.
“That’s why I want you to keep your dream alive and try your best to move forward to the next stage in your life,” he told the students. “Your high school baseball career is far from over."
Still, some of the members could not keep from crying.
For players of the Riseisha High School’s baseball club, which represented Osaka Prefecture in the 2019 summer tournament and won it all for the first time, the cancellation dashed their hopes for back-to-back championships.
“Students’ comfort and safety should be prioritized,” said the team’s head coach, Tatsuo Okada, in a phone interview.
“I respect that the organizers looked to safety first and made the decision,” he said.
‘NOTHING REPLACES KOSHIEN’
On the other hand, Kazunari Hayashi, head coach of the runner-up Seiryo Senior High School in Ishikawa Prefecture, was bummed out.
“It’s like we lost twice without fighting,” he said, referring to the fact that both the spring and summer tourneys have been canceled.
Seiryo’s baseball team won the regional tournament earlier this year and clinched a spot in the spring tournament.
“I have no comfort to offer to (students),” Hayashi said.
Gifu Commercial and Business High School’s baseball team clinched a berth in the spring tournament for the first time in five years, and it has remained a strong contender to advance to the summer tourney as well.
For head coach Takumi Kajisha, a school alumnus who played in Koshien himself, the news was too much to bear.
“I know people are talking about a replacement, but nothing can replace Koshien,” Kajisha said.
He has been involved with the tournament for many years and worked as a play-by-play commentator.
“If there is a tiny chance, one-100th, or even one-1,000th, I so desperately want the (students) to have another chance and redo the spring and summer tournaments,” Kajisha said in tears.
Masanobu Fukushima, head coach of Tokyo Metropolitan Koyamadai High School’s baseball club, was also disappointed by the news.
The team finished second in the capital’s eastern division two consecutive years since 2018, failing to earn a Koshien berth.
“We were ready to finally win this summer,” he said. “But we have to accept it because saving lives is the most important thing.”
The club has not held a team practice since mid-March due to the virus outbreak. Still, members have participated in a three-hour individual training session every day in preparation for the summer tournament.
“What they have learned in their bid to play in Koshien will surely help the students have a goal in life and strive with all their strength,” Fukushima said.
“I will talk to them and hopefully they can put this behind them and get a fresh start.”
Hitoshi Takashima, the renowned former head coach of Chiben Wakayama High School’s baseball club, who has won 68 games in the spring and summer Koshien tournaments, the most of any high school baseball coach, understood that cancellation was inevitable.
Still, it came as disheartening news.
“I feel so sorry for senior high school students all over the country that I cannot find the words,” he said. “Now that it has come to this, I want them to shift emotional gears and think, ‘Hey, life is long and unexpected things can happen.”’
At the same time, Takashima hopes senior students get an alternative opportunity to compete in games such as a scaled-down regional tournament.
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