BASEBALL/ For top academic universities, brawn defeats brains

October 21, 2011

By YUKI YAMAGUCHI / Staff Writer

They may be the most elite universities in Japan in terms of academics, but they have failed to think up a strategy that can end more than a decade of futility on the baseball diamond.

Even before their final games, the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University had already secured the bottom-place spots for the autumn seasons in their college baseball leagues.

Kyoto University finished in last place for the 22nd consecutive season in the Kansai Big Six Baseball League. The University of Tokyo has been even more inept. Todai has ended its 28th straight season in the basement of the Tokyo Big Six Baseball League.

On Oct. 3, in a loss to Kwansei Gakuin University, Kyoto University set a league record of failing to score in 70 consecutive innings. The team's post-game meeting was as silent as the players' bats.

Kyoto University has not crossed the plate since the third inning of the fall season opener on Sept. 5.

The team's loss to Kansai University on Oct. 15 marked its 50 straight defeat, a slump that started in May 2009.

The University of Tokyo has also set records for futility. In an Oct. 2 loss to perennial powerhouse Waseda University, Todai pitchers gave up 23 runs on a league-worst 26 hits.

Todai has lost eight straight games since the season opener. It also extended its own record for the longest time at the bottom of the league, a streak that started in 1998.

The University of Tokyo and Kyoto University offer no athletic scholarships, which means their baseball players probably did not star in their high school leagues.

Although both universities have been scouting high school ballplayers, they also want prospects to be up to the academic levels of the two national universities.

Candidates have been given tips on preparing for the extremely tough entrance exams of the two schools. But so far, this hasn't bridged the gap with private universities on the baseball field.

About 90 percent of the roughly 50 members of Kyoto University's team played baseball before university, but none of them competed at the coveted Koshien high school tournament.

The team has no dedicated training ground, and teammates hardly ever spend time together off the field because they have different class schedules. Despite these hardships, the players practice together three hours every weekday and five hours on weekends.

"We're getting better," team captain Hidetaka Sawai says. "All we need now is the determination to win."

The University of Tokyo's baseball team has 64 members, including students who played soccer until high school and others who took the entrance exam four times before being accepted.

But this team has the facilities to produce a winner, including a dedicated training ground with artificial grass.

Captain Shuhei Iwasaki has high expectations for the team.

"I want to win a game at Meiji Jingu Stadium against the players who fought at Koshien," he says.

Despite its dismal record in recent years, Kyoto University has had a golden era. The team, which was founded in 1898, won the former Kansai Big Six Baseball League in autumn 1934 and autumn 1939.

The University of Tokyo's baseball team, which was founded in 1919, joined what was then the Big Five baseball league in 1925, after earning respect in its games against Waseda, Keio and other private universities.

When the Tokyo Big Six Baseball League was formed, Todai won five games in the first league tournament.

In recent years, the talent gap between public and private universities has increased, and Todai has been unable to brush off its image as the league's doormat.

But few question the significance of Todai participating in a league that has permanent members and does not hold relegation games.

In the 1950s, there was debate over whether to kick Todai out the league. But the idea was reportedly rejected by Meiji University manager Kichiro Shimaoka, who said, "Anyone who has the mental capacity to pass such a difficult entrance exam has got to have something that helps them excel in baseball as well."

Perhaps that explains Todai's occasional flashes of brilliance.

Yuki Saito, the popular Waseda University alum who now wears a Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters uniform, was the losing pitcher in a game against Todai last fall after giving up three runs after the seventh inning.

"Contrary to the image I had before entering Waseda, Todai is not a weak team," Saito says. "Their determined plays are stimulating. I was able to grow because I lost that game."

The university baseball leagues are based on the underlying philosophy of being a part of educational activities, as stipulated under the Japan Student Baseball Association Charter.

For some university teams, losing is not an option, and they have farm teams much like professional baseball teams.

But former Todai baseball team captain Haruo Wakimura, who served as chairman of the Japan High School Baseball Federation, says: "Fans are also expecting Todai and Kyoto University players to train really hard and become a threat to the powerhouse private universities. Winning may be important, but the appeal of college baseball is the sight of college students playing with determination."

This means that no matter how much they lose, the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University are playing a crucial role in amateur baseball.

By YUKI YAMAGUCHI / Staff Writer
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