This past weekend, my son's Peewee Select baseball team (just one level above standard house league), was in a tournament in Barrie, Ontario, Canada, about 90 minutes drive (traffic) north of our home and home baseball association, Bloordale Baseball (a claim to fame was that we were the home of Joey Votto, professional MLB ball player with the Cincinnati Reds).
By the way... in the photo above that's me and my son in 2017 after yet another loss, as our Select team that year was focused on developing the player's skillset and NOT about the wins. This year's advanced team, has quite a few of my players from last year's team on it... so despite the huge number of losses, we must have learned something.
I have shaved off that greying van dyke - probably right after my brother took that photo of us. He just came out to that away game to say hi.
We had a bad tournament outcome this past weekend, but the kids (11 boys and one girl) played well, with unfortunate miscues being our undoing. We can teach the kids all the baseball skills in the world, but focus remains one thing we are unable to do, or at least do properly... certainly not something we are doing for our level of player.
Our team is good - could be better - but we look after our players, making sure they are emotionally with it, as well as physically. Sometimes you can see right away whether they are going to be lights out awesome or struggling in a game... and as much to protect the team, and give them the best chance to win, my job is also to protect the player to ensure they aren't going to have their confidence destroyed.
Baseball is a game, and it's supposed to be fun - and if you aren't having fun, do something else.
My kids aren't going on to a MLB career, and I see no reason to treat them in any manner other than the fact that we are out to win some games, learn, improve as much as we can, and above all take away a positive experience from the team and the year. Above all, I want them to love the sport enough that one day they will do what I (and all the other volunteers in every baseball association) am doing, and that's be a volunteer when they are older.
I never played organized baseball when I was a kid. I didn't even know the Bloordale Baseball league existed... because if I had, I would have quit soccer - a sport I was pretty damn good at - and played baseball. I liked it that much as a kid, watching it live and on TV, and even hacking around with friends, that I would toss a ball around day after day against the backside of my house or the front stoop.
A neighbor - long since passed, Mrs. O'Hare - gave me a rusty old pitchback... a rubber covered top, that I could angle so that my pitches could either bounce back to me or go up in the sky for a pop-fly catch. My reflexes certainly became quite good.
But again... even though I didn't play organized baseball, playing with my classmates at Our Lady of Peace grade school or buddies Rob, William, Alfred and BenJohn at Wedgewood, or pals Pat T. and John K at Saint Elizabeth's, taping up a strike zone on a wall to play wallball, or with other friends from Burnhamthorpe Collegiate simply playing 500-up... baseball was fun.
Hell... I wasn't even very good. I couldn't hit, might have been able to catch, but couldn't pitch, as no one taught me how to throw a ball properly until about four years ago - thanks Rob L!
Baseball is supposed to be about having fun.
I don't believe such thoughts exist in Japan, and its appetite for winning in high school (and junior high school) baseball tournaments, is a disgrace.
There is such a thing called Koshien... a National High School Baseball Championship.
They have a Spring Koshien, and a Summer Koshien, the latter held in August - but both played at Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture.
The Spring tournament is an invitational one... the National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament.
These events, are brutal for the players - especially the pitchers... as the teams want to ride their top pitcher as often as possible, pitching in as many games as possible - and all done without any set rules for player safety.
Now I know we are talking about 17-year-old high school players versus 13-year-olds on my team, but in our tournaments, we have pitch counts, implying that if a pitcher pitches over 55 balls in one game, he must have at least two NIGHTS rest before he or she may pitch again. If they pitch (in our division) 80 pitches, they must have three NIGHTS rest before pitching again.
It's done to ensure we, as coaches do not abuse a child for the glory of the team and our own ego.
The last thing we want is to have a kid blow out an arm (which could, conceivably) still happen on Pitch # 1 of a game, by putting too much stress on a young elbow or shoulder.
But during these Japanese Koshien tournaments, there are no rules regarding how often a young Japanese pitcher can throw a ball, or how many pitches they can make in a game.
It is why, some of these Japanese ball teams - again... high school baseball teams... will trot their star pitcher out game after game after game in order to garner some sort of baseball glory that may turn into glory for the school, prefecture, and yes, the team, but also for the ball player themselves.
It's an interesting examination of Japanese culture.
In the business world, a team works together to execute a project, but in baseball culture in Japan, a superstar ball player is expected to carry the burden... and to hell with pain or fatigue... nothing matters more than winning.
For a two-week period in August, Japan's professional ball club the Hanshin Tigers vacates its home field to play on the road, while scores of Japanese high school teams compete in the Summer Kaishen tournament.
Some 40,000 fans will pack the Koshien Stadium for each game, as will scouts for the Japanese and American professional baseball teams, looking to see just what sort of talent is available.
While it is rare for North American scouts to be interested in any ball player that is NOT a pitcher, sometimes a physical specimen such as Hideki Matsui will come around... a ball player that might look Japanese, but has a monster physique that transcends borders. There was a reason he was called Godzilla... a big, strong kid.
During an appearance with his team at a Summer Koshien, Matsui infamously had five at bats, but was intentionally walked by the opposition each time. Officially, that's zero at bats, but a perfect 1.000 on-base percentage.
It shows the respect the other high school manager had for Matsui-san, afraid to let him beat their team, but also a complete lack of respect for his own pitcher, assuming he would never be able to get him out.
Baseball is funny that way. Japanese baseball and its code of respect is even funnier. Japanese culture and social norms are thrown out the window when sports, particularly baseball is in play.
Then again... it's a Japanese bushido (way of the samurai) kind of thing. Sort of. It's a win at all costs - never give up philosophy, but where is the respect for your own samurai (pitcher)?
The Bushido aspect also involves sacrificing yourself beyond whatever human limits you think you have for yourself for the betterment of your own daimyo (clan leader), or in this case, baseball team.
Think about this... back in 1998... in a quarterfinal baseball game, Daisuke Matsuzaka pitched 17-innings in one game, throwing 250 pitches... nearly two complete games in one-go... he won...
By the way... in order to keep his arm ready between innings when his team was batting, Matsuzaka, rather than wrapping his arm in a towel to maintain the warmth, he was out doing long toss - throwing the ball 100+ feet back and forth with another player...
Combine those uncounted pitches along with the warm-up pitches pitchers are allowed before the start of each inning (eight per inning), and his pitch count is through the roof.
And I'm not even counting his warm-up pitches in his team's practice area BEFORE the game... where we could add another 20+ tosses.
Prior to that 250-pitch marathon, Matsuzaka had pitched the day before in a game, throwing 148 pitches in a complete game shut out.
That's 398 pitches in two days.
Now... as if to prove that his manager wasn't a complete Hitler, in the semi-final game the very next day after the 250-pitch game, Matsuzaka was playing Left Field in the outfield.
With his team trailing 6-0 at the top of the 8th inning, the team came back with four runs in the 8th inning and three in the 9th inning... meaning they needed their ace pitcher to hold their 7-6 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning.
So... in trots Matsuzaka as the relief pitcher... throws an additional 15 pitches, and gets his Yokohama High School team into the finals.
So... the very next day, after a three day total of pitches amounting to 313 pitches, Matsuzaka - the team's ace pitcher, trots out to the mound, and throws a complete game, no-hitter. That means not a single batter from the other team managed to get on base via a bat hitting a ball. Though they may have reached base on a walk or by being hit by a pitch.
He threw 240 pitches in his no-hitter game.
All told, over a four day and four-game period, Matsuzaka tossed 553 pitches.
But again... those are just the official pitch totals over those four games.
In the 17-inning game, with eight warm-up pitches on the mound, that equates to an additional 136 pitches. This does not include the pre-game warm-up or his long-toss exercises between innings.
Also, there's his game before the quarterfinals - nine innings... that's 72 warm-up pitches (again not including the pre-game warm-up or his long-toss exercises between innings).
The semi-final game also adds eight (8) warm-up pitches for his ninth-inning.
And the Finals... adds another 72 warm-up pitches (again not including the pre-game warm-up or his long-toss exercises between innings).
Let's see: that's 553 + 72 + 136 + 72 + 8 = 841.
That's 841 hard throws by Matsuzaka in those final four games of the tournament... done in four consecutive days.
I'm not even calculating what he possibly threw in the games before that... after all, it IS a two-week tournament.
And... as bad as that was/is, consider that in the 2006 Koshien tournament, Yuki Saito of Waseda Jitsugyo High School pitched 948 official balls over 68 innings in the two-week tournament, and Tomohiro Anraku of Saibi High School threw 772 official pitches in the 2013 Spring Invitational.
Again... this does not include warm-up throwing in the bullpen BEFORE the game, or the eight warm-up tosses before each inning... so Saito-san easily topped over 1,000 pitches.
For baseball people in North America, this borders on child abuse.
But, Andrew... did Matsuzaka get hurt?
No... not at this time...
But baseball is a funny game... just because nothing broke at that time, it doesn't mean damage wasn't being done.
Let's look at it from a non-baseball angle.
You have a car... you drive the car... you drive it a lot... long distances, short distances, fast stops, regular braking, accelerating normally, or quickly. Sure you've put in the gasoline, topped up the oil, and even added some windshield wiper fluid... the car looks good, and even seems to be running as well as it was when your first bought it.
But that engine has been taxed. Sometimes it's not the distance traveled, but how hard those kilometers/miles were to get there.
If I drove a Cadillac across a bumpy road, or my Mazda 3 onto an F1 track and tried to drive as fast as I can... parts are going to show ample wear and tear to my mechanic.. but not to me, because I don't or can't look under the hood.
It's the same with an elbow or shoulder. What sort of fraying to Matsuzaka's elbow occurred or was exacerbated by his no-doubt awesome pitching performance?
It's not damage that's going to affect him now... because it didn't... but how about when he's older.
So... what happened to Matsuzaka?
Well, beginning in 1999 - his rookie year in Japanese professional baseball, Matsuzaka was rookie of the year.
He was selected for the Nippon Professional Baseball All-Star Game in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006. And then, he wanted to try his hand in North America's MLB.
Basically, he signed a six-year, US$52 million contract with the Boston Red Sox, which could have been worth as much as $60 million if he fulfilled incentives. The details of the contract included a $2 million signing bonus with a $6 million salary in 2007, $8 million in each of the following three seasons (2008–2010), and $10 million in each of the final two years (2011–2012). He also had a no-trade clause, specially constructed by the Red Sox to fit Matsuzaka's contract.
After his third start in MLB, defeating my Toronto Blue Jays, he said through his translator that gripping the North American baseball—which is slightly larger than the Japanese pro ball, with higher seams—had presented some challenges, but that he had begun making adjustments and felt they were successful.
In Game 7 of the American League championship series, he became the first Japanese pitcher to win an MLB playoff game, and the fifth rookie to start a Game 7 in the playoffs - ever. He pitched five innings, gave up two runs, and the Boston Red Sox won to meet the Colorado Rockies in the 2007 World Series.
He started Game 3 of the World Series on October 27, 2007, and led the Red Sox to a 10–5 win against the Rockies, his first World Series appearance, giving up two runs on three hits and three walks, with five strikeouts. In the game, he also recorded his first major league hit: a two-out two-run single off Josh Fogg, making Matsuzaka the third pitcher in Red Sox history to record two RBIs in a World Series game; the others were Babe Ruth (in Game 4 of the 1918 World Series) and Cy Young. Matsuzaka is also the first Japanese pitcher in World Series history to start and win a game.
Yeah... Babe Ruth was one of the best pitchers of his generation before becoming the best power hitter of his or perhaps any generation. And Cy Young... that guy has the career record for most wins, and is the guy they named the MLB best pitcher award after. So... heady company.
The Red Sox won the World Series the next day, by the way, with Matsuzaka ending up with the Red Sox rookie record for strikeouts in a season.
So... no apparent harm to the arm yet.
In 2008, after seven starts, he left the game with what was diagnosed as a tired shoulder, but it was really a mild rotator cuff strain in the shoulder.
In 2009, Matsuzaka decided he wanted to pitch for Japan in the World Baseball Classic, and while the Red Sox were concerned he might be abused, they relented.
When the regular season started, Matsuzaka was twice placed on the Disabled List (DL) with a bum shoulder... with the Red Sox suspecting it was because of the excessive pitching he did in the World Baseball Classic.
Baseball pundits wondered if the high number of innings pitched early in his career combined with a vigorous personal training regimen was a possible cause of Matsuzaka's sustained injury problems in 2009, but Matsuzaka himself has stated publicly that he feels he cannot maintain arm strength without extensive training.
But, during an interview with Japanese magazine, Friday, early in 2010, he revealed that he had hurt his right hip while training for the World Baseball Classic.
Fun fact, when you hurt one part of your body, you try and avoid the pain by now changing your delivery.
He did NOT tell the Japanese team coaches or trainers about his training injury. He says: "I didn't want to be the center of concern for people", and also added, "[The Classic] was hard. I relied on my wits and my shoulder strength. I had to be creative. I varied the paces between the pitches; I used the different kind of slider that I usually don't throw."
However, in 2010, Matsuzaka had a very sub-par performance after missing the first month of the season with a neck strain.
On May 5, 2011, Matsuzaka made his first relief appearance of his MLB career picking up the loss in one inning against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim after a two-1/2-hour rain delay. On May 17, 2011, Matsuzaka was placed on the 15 Day disabled list. On June 2, it was reported that he would be out for the rest of the season due to Tommy John surgery that would occur on June 10.
Tommy John Surgery. I'm reading a book RIGHT now called The Arm, by Jeff Passan... which is all about this surgery... it's about the UCL... the ulnar collateral ligament is a thick triangular band at the medial aspect of the elbow uniting the distal aspect of the humerus to the proximal aspect of the ulna.
When that sucker tears, until ball player Tommy John first underwent this surgery created by U.S. orthopedic surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe in 1974, it meant your career was over... because your arm hurt - a lot, and when you did throw, you had zero zip on the ball.
No one knows what causes the UCL to snap, except that the human arm is NOT mean to throw a baseball or chuck a spear... it's an unnatural movement that puts a lot of stress on the elbow... specifically on the UCL.
While some ball players can come back from this injury... nay, from this surgery (baseball fans should read The Arm, for a very detailed and understandable explanation of the surgery), not every one can.
Sometimes even when they do, that UCL will snap again... and in some instances, a second operation is possible... and it might even allow for a comeback... there are no guarantees.
So, on April 23, 2012, Matsuzaka made his first rehab start for the Single-A minor league Salem Red Sox. He was back, but he wasn't good. Still, he managed to make get back to the MLB Boston Red Sox on June 9, 2012, finishing the year 1W-7L with an earned run average of 8.28 in 11 starts.
His contract with the Red Sox was up at the end of this season, and he signed a minor league deal with the Cleveland Indians in February of 2013. He did not make the Indians' Opening Day roster, and was released from the contract, but signed another minor league deal in March, but was released from the Indians' organization per his request on August 20, 2013.
Two days later, Matsuzaka signed a major league deal with the New York Mets, and joined their starting rotation, finishing the year 3W-3L, with an ERA of 4.42
After starting 2017 in the minor leagues, he was brought up by the NY Mets on April 16, 2014, and got his first MLB save on April 24, and then on became a starter again... but gone was the dominating Matsuzaka arm that was able to throw 553 official pitches four days in a row back in high school.
With his MLB contract up again, he went back to Japan where he had been a star pitcher and attempted to resurrect his career.
Signing with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, he only pitched in one game for their farm team in 2015 because of a variety of injuries.
In 2016, he appeared in his first NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) game in 10 years, tossing one inning for the Hawks and allowed two earned runs.
In 2017, it was back to the minor leagues... and he was released by the team on November 5, 2017, pitching a total of one inning in three years for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.
Not yet ready to hang up his cleats, Matsuzaka signed with the Chunichi Dragons, and started his first game in Japan in 12 years, pitching five innings, allowing three runs in a 3-2 loss against the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants.
But don't feel too badly for our Matsuzaka, as he was named to the 2018 NPB All-Star Game this year. He is 3W-3L with just 37-1/3 innings under his belt this season.
Obviously, Matsuzaka was voted in by the fans based on nostalgia.
My point in all of this? While Matsuzaka did indeed go on to get rich and famous playing baseball after his incredible showing at the Summer Koshien back in 1998, he may indeed have done his arm no good with his over-use.
And, for every Matsuzaka who did go on to a professional career after the arm abuse, hundreds more failed to do even that.
In Japan, there has been a culture to never complain about injuries or fatigue... that damn bushido code of the warriors that the countries professional athletes take to heart, but that was war... and this is just a game.
Or at least it's supposed to be.
From THIS newspaper article, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2014/08/04/voices/dark-side-koshien-dream/#.W0uDj7hryUk : One of the main problems with youth baseball in Japan is the lack of coaching education or set rules designed to foster athletes’ all-round development. Neither the education ministry nor the Japan High School Baseball Federation require baseball coaches to actually study coaching itself.
Bizarre, ain't it? Here in Canada, I had to take a plethora of courses via the National Coaching Certificate Program (NCCP) just to be able to co-coach my kid's Select team. It's time out of my non-paid weekend schedule, but who cares... people like me do it for the kids, to ensure we know what we are doing, and to ensure they learn and have playing a bloody game.
The league, in my case Bloordale Baseball, gladly pays for the coaches education process, keen to ensure kids involved in its baseball association are looked after.
But here's what is really bad about Japanese youth baseball...
The Japan Sports Association offers training to coaches in 50 different sports, including a high-performance certification program in 29 of them, but baseball is NOT one of those sports.
Japan needs to create some formal national legislation to protect these kids not only from themselves, but from greedy adults trying to capitalize on their youthful abilities.