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Sunday, February 26, 2017

Yakyudo: The Way of Baseball


As some of you know, I am, for the first time ever, a head coach of a youth baseball team… just a mere single rung above House League, but still, a rung above House League.

And... to be upfront, I never played baseball as a kid, but have watched it closely for well over 40 years... and probably know my baseball better than most people... but did not know how to coach it... and thus am spending a lot of time learning how to do that effectively.

I like baseball... I know more about the game's history than most people on the planet (even about the professional game in Toronto for well over a century!)... and am even now reading a biography of one of the game's most misunderstood, maligned and greatest ball players - Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty by Charles Leerhsen. Baseball fans should read it.

Here in Toronto, Canada, we are hampered by cold, winter weather for three months of the year, and cold, wet weather for Spring, where we can’t even use the city fields, as the field permits we have will not allow us onto the fields at least until April.We aren't supposed to use them after October, either.

So… for teams above the House League level, the league rents out school gymnasiums to get in some drill work.

In my case… since I wasn’t even around to choose my team – having the players thrust upon me as we made a second team of 11- and 12-year-olds who weren’t deemed good enough for the first Select Peewee team – I walked in without knowing the skill levels of any of the players save my own son, Hudson.

For most of these kids, this was/is their first kick at the can at something other than House League – and I don’t mean to disparage House League, because it’s supposed to be a fun time to get out and play the game (emphasis on game) of baseball that the kids hopefully enjoy.

Because of the lack of fields, when it comes to House League, there are few to zero practices… with all the coaching going on in game… meaning the kids don’t get a lot of time to learn.

Anything above House League… well… I began outdoor practices after the season ended and the teams were selected for 2017, in the chilly month of October 2016… once a week on a Sunday for two hours of getting to know the kids, and teaching them a few things.

We had November and December off until we could get our hands on an indoor facility, starting this past January on Thursday evenings, between 6-8PM… where myself and two assistant coaches (and dads) have begun to teach them the basics of baseball: from the standard four-seam fastball grip – used to throw straight and thus the preferred grip for pitchers, as well as infielders and outfielders when making a play; as well as how to bend down to receive a ball hit to them, as we well as how to catch a ball properly.

I taught them how to catch a ball as an outfielder – how to run back and receive it – angles... that sort of thing, because after watching my son play at a higher level last year, I watched him and others simply not know how to play outfield… because prior to that age, no one ever hit a ball into the outfield.

It sounds silly, doesn’t it? I’m teaching kids who have played from Hudson’s mere four years, to six for the others – the simple basics of baseball.

I can’t even teach them hitting, because we aren’t allowed to use a bat inside the school gymnasiums. But I can teach them… I’m just not allowed to.... not until we go outside onto a real baseball field.

So I spend my mere two hours a week teaching them how to play defense. And how to pitch… and starting next week, how to be a catcher…

I bring this up to describe what a typical Japanese Little League team (of the same age as my kids) goes through.

Every Saturday and Sunday, these kids spend 10 hours outside in the cold, or better, practicing baseball. Twenty (20) hours a week, as opposed to my two hours a week.

These kids are, like the typical Japanese child, just one-sport kids.

You join a club in school – whether it’s kyudo (Japanese archery), judo, basketball, singing, music, volleyball, soccer, kendo (Japanese fencing), table tennis, tennis, softball or baseball… you join that club and stay with it pretty much from elementary school through the end of high school.

As such, your school team will practice a club activity every day for about an hour before school, and up to two hours (maybe more) after school.

That could be anywhere from 35 to 40 hours of baseball instruction a week, if I include those on a Little League team.

That is yakyudo... yakyu is the Japanese word for baseball... 'do' (pronounced 'dough') is "the way of"... as in bushido (the way of the warrior/samurai) or kendo (the way of the sword).

Since the beginning of October of 2016, my team has had 24 hours of baseball practice.

Ever wonder why Japan has won three of the five past Little League World Series and Canada performs well, but isn’t in that same league (yet)?

During the 2016 Little League World Series, Japanese ball players marveled at the size of some of the U.S. 11-years… a couple of the kids were over 6’-4” and 6’-5” tall… wondering if they were coaches, and dismayed to find out they were pitchers throwing the ball stupidly hard.

To combat the size disadvantage, the Japanese kids played what is affectionately known as “small ball”… where, since you aren’t going to win with home run strength, win by bunting, stealing bases, sacrifice flies and squeeze plays (bunting the ball down first with fewer than two outs to try and bring a runner home from 3rd base, or to advance runners a base)… and I realize… holy cow… since I have a bunch of raw rookie kids… skinny, short but enthusiastic… I may have to do the same as the Japanese kids and coaches…

Of course… I still don’t know if my kids can hit. Heck... along with kids forgetting their baseball gloves, I've had some forget their running shoes (they wear winter snow boots, and change to running shoes at the gymnasium) when coming to practice.

I’ve also spent more than a few hours every Sunday taking my kid to indoor baseball clinics, where trained coaches provide assistance in training Hudson in how to pitch more effectively, and how to hit a ball with more power… even saw one of my team players there, as well… but the rest… I can hope they have skills I haven’t seen yet…

But I worry, when I have kids telling me they can pitch and know how to throw curve balls and sliders – I know that’s bullcrap… because we tell them Not to throw such pitches to prevent their arm from being destroyed at such an early age… and yet… I watch the Little League World Series, and I see those kids throwing nasty moving pitches… so who’s right?

I am… because none of my kids currently have enough skill to be professionals, so why blow an elbow out…

Anyhow… the Japanese Little League kids who practice 10 hours each on Saturday and Sunday… they apparently spend the first five hours of each day just fielding the ball… grounders hit to them… I spend maybe 30 minutes once a week (recall I only have them for two hours a week)…

The Japanese kids… after a lunch break (prepared by the kid’s parents for the kids AND the coaches), the batting cages come out and they practice hitting the ball: for power, placement, and even how to bunt.

I have spent zero hours, so far. I can tell you… after having to re-teach these kids the proper grip for the most common pitch, the four-seam fast ball, I’m going to spend many an hour teaching them how to hold a bat, batting stance, how to transfer power from the back to front legs, how to twist the hips to generate force, and Buddha help me, how to NOT throw their bat after hitting the ball.

Heck… I may have to break the rules and bring a bat and some wiffle balls just to get some batting practice in inside the gymnasium…

The toughest part for me, as the head coach, is the fact that despite the fact that I supposedly have a committed group of kids and parents on my team, they also play additional sports… and right now it’s hockey season… so they show up late, if they show up at all.

Then there are those who are in the Boy Scouts… and sometimes people leave early, or can’t come at all…

Hey… I don’t begrudge anyone from other activities... mostly because I’m Canadian and not Japanese, where I know that would never be tolerated…

I will state, however, that I played soccer for 12 years… and not once did I ever miss a practice or a game or have to leave early or arrive late. I also did judo – same. I also did music, first learning the accordion before switching to piano, and eventually teaching piano and clarinet. In high school I picked up the clarinet, and taught myself how to play tenor saxophone and baritone saxophone – well enough to play clarinet in the school orchestra, tenor sax in the band, and baritone sax in the stage band. I also brought home multiple instruments over the summer and can play every woodwind, brass and keyboard instrument out there.

When sports conflicted with music dates, we canceled those music dates or moved to another date and time all together.

I never missed a sporting practice or game. That’s the point I’m making…. in 12 years… I never missed a single moment of soccer (or judo) made available to me.

For the kids who play hockey… hey… right now, it’s hockey season… so I give everyone a pass… but dammit… as a baseball coach… it’s times like these when I truly wish I was Japanese.

I have no problem in giving up 20 hours of my weekend for these kids…

But heck… I can’t imagine today’s kids willing to spend 20 hours a weekend on just one sport… because when would they have time to play PS4 or some stupid game on their Tablet… or to watch videos on Minecraft on YouTube even though they don’t play Minecraft?

I guess I’m just bitter… because as a guy who can no longer play sports at an elite level (not sure I ever did)… I would give anything to be able to play sports again… it’s one of the reasons why I volunteered to be a head coach for my son’s baseball team (taking coaching clinics et al, watching videos, learning from the professionals who teach my son on the side – costs me money, too)…

I have no regrets when it comes to myself and sports… always offering 100%... and I’m willing to do that as an adult coach… but I don’t think the kids are willing to do the same.I know times are different, it's just...

I just hope they don’t have any regrets when they are older.

Banzai,
Andrew Joseph
PS: This amount of rambling took me 75 minutes to spew out here.I spent six hours at the Toronto Auto Show with Hudson and one of his friends (they sat in more cars than I did... I think I only sat in two cars... hunh)... and I am burned out... and get to be up early for hockey, and then an afternoon indoor baseball training session for the boy... and then I get to relax... and see if I can come up with something to write about for this blog.

6 comments:

  1. Japanese baseball sounds a lot more interesting than American baseball. Japanese baseball have cheerleaders and amazing opening acts for us to have a fun time before the game actually starts. Don't get me wrong. American baseball is really nice to watch and play, but I want it to be more interesting and unexpected.

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    1. Ha! I agree - it's like European soccer fans at a baseball game... sometimes at a western ball game, you can hear a pin drop.

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    2. I didn't know that you played soccer!! I am also a soccer player. I play striker and goalkeeper. What positions did you play when you was a soccer player?

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    3. Halfback... I was a Center half... but eventually I preferred to slide tackle guys AND keep the ball out of my own net, so they made me Center Fullback (in a diamond)... just in front of the keeper. From back there... I could see the entire pitch... and had lots of time to react to plays...

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  2. Congrats on being a youth baseball team. Good luck on your season!! I'll cheer for you!!

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