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Pitching for change

Baseball legend Masumi Kuwata reflects on life, his stellar career — and how he would like to see Japan's favorite game develop

by Tomoko Otake

Masumi Kuwata has spent most of his life in the spotlight of stardom and publicity.

As one of Japan’s all-time outstanding baseball stars, with a 23-year professional career behind him, this 42-year-old from Osaka Prefecture began capturing headlines at the tender age of 15 when he first shone as a pitcher for Osaka-based PL-Gakuen in the national high school baseball tournament held annually at Hyogo’s Hanshin Koshien Stadium — popularly known as the “Koshien.”

The tournament, held every year since 1915 (apart from a five-year break during World War II), is arguably the most popular amateur sports event in Japan, and to merely take part — let alone win — is the dream of every young player in the land.

So imagine the level of excitement the nation experienced in the summer of 1983 when the short, slightly-built right-hander fresh from entering high school a few months earlier not only pitched successfully against the big hitters at this most prestigious venue of the nation’s most popular participant sport — but also won game after game as his team went on to triumph in the summer tournament.

Even more amazingly, he repeated the feat two years later — along with another PL star player named Kazuhiro Kiyohara.

The stellar performances of the “KK duo” — as Kuwata and Kiyohara were called — remain fresh in the minds of many. Television programs and sports magazines never tire of revisiting their exploits — especially during Koshiens, including this year’s, which concluded on Aug. 21 with Konan Senior High School from Okinawa clinching victory.

Kuwata, who is now retired, has long tried to distance himself psychologically from the media hoopla and live his life “in his own way,” as he says — no matter how much others might try to influence him.

The first test of his determination came even before he entered PL-Gakuen. Already acknowledged for his outstanding talent, Kuwata, while attending a junior high school in Osaka’s Yao City, was pressured by his teacher to go to a high school he wasn’t interested in. In fact, that school wanted to recruit Kuwata so badly that it offered to accept many other players from his school on the condition he went there.

Kuwata declined the offer, despite the teacher’s pressure and taunts of being a “traitor.” Instead, he followed through with his decision to go to PL-Gakuen, even though that meant he had to transfer to a different junior high school only two months before graduation.

Then, at the dawn of his professional career, Kuwata was again thrown into a media frenzy when he announced he was going to join the Yomiuri Giants right after high school — despite having previously said he aimed to go on to study and play baseball at Waseda University in Tokyo. This stunned the nation, and Kuwata was heavily criticized by the media for “secretly” negotiating his way into the Giants. That event also created a long-lasting chasm between him and his closest teammate, Kiyohara, who had openly declared his wish to play for the mighty Giants but instead ended up going to the more lowly Saitama Seibu Lions.

Subsequently, Kuwata’s professional career — 21 seasons with the Giants and then two pre-retirement seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates — also saw its share of ups and downs related to injuries and a few scandals, including one (from which he was cleared) alleging links to an underworld gambling ring.

Then, after he retired from professional baseball in 2008, Kuwata again surprised many when he opted to go to college. Fulfilling his longtime dream of attending Waseda, in his studies there he dug deep into his lifelong theme — the roots of Japanese baseball and its often unscientific, unreasonable and militaristic training. As a result, he concluded that baseball in Japan continues to be deprived of “enjoyment” after having been subsumed in wartime nationalism as coaches in those days — notably the late Waseda University manager Suishu Tobita — tried to protect it from being banned as an “enemy sport.”

His dissertation, which advocates new ways of coaching baseball in this country, won the best thesis award in Waseda’s graduate class of 2010.

Kuwata now lives just south of Tokyo in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, with his wife and two high school sons — one of whom made his final bid for the Koshien this summer but failed when his team lost during the West-Tokyo regional knockout.

Amid his busy schedule — coaching a boy’s baseball team in Kawasaki, coaching managers of amateur baseball teams and commentating on games live on TV — Kuwata recently sat down with The Japan Times at a Tokyo hotel, where he recounted his tumultuous life, his unwavering love for baseball and much, much more.

When did you first start to play baseball?

My father introduced me to the game when I was 2, and photos show that I used to throw or hit a ball from that age. And from early on I had a dream of becoming a professional baseball player.

Was your father strict?

He was. I’m not sure if this is the correct term to use, but he was a yakyu baka (baseball fanatic) — someone who thinks about nothing but baseball. He was a typical baseball coach of that time, and would punch or kick (children) to make them do what he wanted them to do.

What else do you remember about him?

He was an optimist, basically — but he had nothing but baseball on his mind.

Is it true that as a child you were careful not to get injured in your daily life, even when you were walking on the street?

I always thought I must avoid having a big injury. When I was on a skiing trip, I kept thinking, “If I do this, I might break my leg.” And people around me would urge me to avoid any risk of injury, telling me to do nothing but baseball. For example, a gym teacher (in junior high school) told me to skip swimming lessons — even in the middle of the summer! So I had to sit out and just watch the others swim. That was hard.

So people had high hopes for you from very early on.

Yes. I actually wanted to play basketball, volleyball and soccer but I had to miss all those. The teacher would say, “What if you hurt your shoulder?” I guess he needed to limit my participation to make sure the school baseball team I belonged to would win (the local championships).

Was there anything else that had interested you personally?

No. I was a (Yomiuri) Giants fan. I had always dreamed of becoming an ace pitcher for the Giants.

You often use the term “Baseball God” in your books and lectures. When did you start feeling there was such a being?

Back when I was in first grade at senior high school, supernatural things started happening to me. I still believe in the Baseball God. I certainly had one for myself. And I think it’s fine for musicians to have the Music God and for chefs to have the Cooking God. I think believing in something is important.

When you were a third-year student at a junior high school, you ended up having to transfer to a different school right before graduation because the teacher in the first school tried to force you to go to a high school you weren’t interested in. How did you feel?

That hurt me — but it’s not an isolated incident. Even now, 30 years later, there are a lot of kids whose choice of high school is dictated by their teachers. As I look back on my experience, I’m glad I didn’t give in.

How were you able to resist?

I had a strong feeling that I wanted to decide my own future. My life is mine, and I thought it was important that I lived a life I believed was right. Everyone is destined to die. Until that moment comes, I want to live my life in my own way at my own pace.

Were you really that independent-minded at such a young age?

Well, I was hurt, but I learned from the experience. My lesson was, “The adult society does things like this.” It was a good lesson. Today I coach junior high school students (through my club Asao Giants) and consult them on their choice of high schools. But I would never tell the kids which high school to go to. I say, “go wherever you want to go,” and I tell them that the school they pick is the best school for them. Entering a school with a strong reputation for its baseball team is not the most important thing. I would never try to get a kid into a school because it also offers admissions to other kids.

What kind of “supernatural” experiences did you have in your first year at PL-Gakuen?

When I entered PL, expectations for me were huge and I was also confident about my ability, but I soon realized that I wasn’t good enough. I was failing as a pitcher for the team, so I was given few chances to practice pitching. But then, when somebody gave me just one chance, I could pitch remarkably well. I couldn’t believe it myself. It was impossible. I wondered what the heck happened. Then, before I knew it, I was competing in the Koshien and we won the tournament. Later, when I returned to the dorm, I looked back at the series of events (that eventually led to our win at the tournament) and wondered why they happened the way they did. I could find only one explanation: the Baseball God.

Was that the moment you felt you would have the Baseball God on your side as long as you worked hard?

Yes. In fact, for two months before that I started to do something.

How do you mean?

Well, I think there are two kinds of effort.

On top of working hard at practice, I think it’s just as important to greet everyone, arrange everyone’s shoes in order, pick up garbage from the ground and clean toilets. I had the feeling that, through such work, you can accumulate luck, chance or fortune for yourself. It’s just the same with saving money; if you don’t save, you can’t spend. I call such work “the behind-the-scenes effort.”

So I started doing such things daily, then I realized that, when I pitched, batters would manage to hit my balls, but they happened to fall right where my fielders were standing and they would get the batters out. Or, when I thought my ball just missed the strike zone, a judge would call it a strike. Then when I went to the batter’s box, somehow the balls would come right in the middle of the strike zone (to make it easier for me to hit). Such amazing things started happening to me.

Do you think the same kind of things could happen to other players who taxed themselves in the same way?

I do believe so. Somehow the way you live is reflected in the way you perform in the games. Your daily behavior and your daily attitude really make a difference, I think.

You had a glorious career at your high school, PL-Gakuen, racking up a total of 20 wins at the Koshien, which is more than any other postwar pitcher who has played in that prestigious tournament. On the other hand, around that time you also started questioning various aspects of baseball, such as the ban on players drinking water during practice. Is it true that you once secretly drank water from the toilet bowl because you were not allowed to drink tap water?

That’s right. You know a lot (laughs). When I was in elementary school there wasn’t a day that went by when I wasn’t beaten by my coach. In junior high school I was pretty good, so my coaches didn’t beat me — but pitchers in the second grade would bully me because I was only in the first grade and I was already an ace pitcher for the team. I put up with that. It was the same in high school.

I really hate (violence). I know beating students doesn’t make them play better. So I want to change the way it is. I also have an issue with the long hours of practice. I really don’t believe in long practices. I have advocated shortening the practice time — and letting players spend the rest of their time studying or having a rest. That’s how you feel more energetic to play again the next day.

After graduating from PL-Gakuen you realized your childhood dream of playing for the Yomiuri Giants. But in the years after that, you became embroiled in a few scandals, including an accusation that you leaked to underworld figures involved in illegal gambling the dates on which you were scheduled to pitch. That led to you being pilloried in the media.

It was pointless to argue back. Regarding that, I was asked to go to dinner with my senpai (senior) player, where a yakuza member was present. I said to my senpai that I had to excuse myself early because I had to work the following day. Then somebody took a picture of me and the yakuza alone, and I was accused of having leaked my pitching dates to him. I was only 18 or 19. I knew nothing — and I didn’t even know that that person was a yakuza. I just tagged along. However, even if I had explained it like that, the media wouldn’t have written it like that. And they had a picture to “prove” it (my connection with a yakuza). If I had named my senpai, he would have been accused of being friendly with the yakuza.

I understand that you once contemplated jumping to your death — from a hotel in Sapporo.

That was hard.

What made you stop yourself?

I had many thoughts, but one was that I felt it was silly. I came to realize that my life was given. Since I was destined to die anyway, I felt it would be such a waste to take my own life. I decided to live my life my way.

After that, you went to Major League Baseball. Any athlete is doomed to peak out and retire, but why did you decide to go and play in the United States past your prime, at age 39?

I don’t like to be fixed in certain stereotypes. Baseball is a sport that doesn’t discriminate. I know this because I always played along with players older and bigger than me in my junior high and high school years. When I became a pro at the age of 18, I pitched against 40-year-olds. But no handicap was given to me — even when I faced a 120-kg player or a guy 2 meters tall. So, in taking on the challenge of MLB, I felt that being 20 or 40 didn’t make any difference. All the time I kept saying, “Age doesn’t matter.”

I see. In the MLB, I imagine you must have experienced many cultural differences between baseball in the United States and in Japan. What do you especially like about the majors?

Enjoyment. Both the players and the spectators are very good at enjoying the game, and institutions work hard to create an enjoyable atmosphere. As for the players, they have such physical power and are much better built. I felt like an elementary school student compared to them.

On the other hand, I believe you have also been critical of U.S.-style baseball, haven’t you?

True. I learned the good and bad sides of U.S.-style baseball for two years, thinking about the culture and history behind it.

Many players today hail from the Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries. Many of the players (grew up in poverty and) could not afford to buy a glove when they were younger, but as they rose through the ranks and got to the majors they (forget what it was like before and) changed completely.

I felt sad, seeing how money changes people’s attitudes. They don’t treat their equipment well. They said, “Why bother? I have money. They give me new gloves.”

And yet they would ask me to give them old gloves so they could send them to their home countries where kids can’t afford them. So I asked them, “Why is it then that you don’t treat your gloves well?” They would say, “I have money.”

Is that right?

Well, then I would say, “Instead of getting other players to donate their gloves, why don’t you buy new gloves for those kids yourself?” They were like, “Well . . . ”

I had no idea you had such conversations with other players. I’ve noticed that some Americans seem to regard (Seattle Mariners outfielder) Ichiro Suzuki’s meticulous polishing of his gloves as if it were a peculiar habit.

I was the only one on my team who polished my gloves, too. They would ask me what the heck I was doing. And they would ask me, “Why?”

What did you say to them?

I said, “I’m lonely on the pitcher’s mound. So gloves are like a friend to me — they help me.” They were like, “Uh-huh.”

So do you strongly believe in taking care of your equipment?

I think that treating your belongings well is such a nice thing to do. If you can treat your things nicely, you can treat people nicely as well. You have the heart for that.

What’s good about Japan is its emphasis on greetings and good manners and the respect for senpai players and consideration for your kohai (junior players). But like anything, it has two sides. Along with such a wonderful baseball culture, we also have unfair relationships ruled by seniority rank.

Is that something you want to change?

Precisely. In the U.S., there is no rank (by seniority or age).

After you retired from professional baseball, you went to Waseda University Graduate School, where you researched the roots of those unreasonable relationships in Japanese baseball determined by rank, as well as the corporal punishment and excessively rigorous training. Your insights are quite astounding, but I wonder why no one else was interested in those issues before you?

I think some people have been, but nobody listened. I’ve said many things about how the Koshien is run. In fact, in postwar history there is no one who has won more games in the Koshien, or who has pitched in more games there than me — so I think my argument should carry some weight. But so many people refuse to listen. The baseball world has talked about reform forever, but has never acted. They have this change-aversive nature.

You really think so?

Yes. And I think it is because of World War II. We don’t play baseball to nurture soldiers anymore. And we don’t have to find great causes for protecting baseball. As I said, the biggest difference between Japanese and American baseball is that there is no enjoyment in Japanese baseball. When we smiled on the ground, we used to be scolded and told, “What’s so funny? Don’t fool around.” But sports should be enjoyed, don’t you think? Why can’t we smile? That’s nonsense.

I guess baseball has turned into a form of martial art in Japan.

I want to minimize elements of martial arts in baseball.

But hasn’t the baseball world warmed up to your proposals to get rid of unscientific training and instead make practices more efficient and reasonable?

Several of my friends are trying hard to make changes. But high-ranking officials in baseball institutions don’t support us. For them, my proposals would constitute a denial of what they have practiced and preached for a long time, and they are worried about losing clout in their institutions.

I don’t give in, though. In fact, I have been advocating changes in coaching policies ever since I was a high school student.

When I was a pro, I would sometimes refuse to practice throwing (to give my arm a rest), and I was criticized for that. But now, it’s much easier for pitchers to rest their arm because a pitching coach would ask you and give you a choice of not throwing on certain practice days. In my time, I was treated like a criminal. And when I said I wanted to go and swim for training, my coaches would ask me, “Why would you do something to cool your body (and harm it)?” When I said I wanted to go and do some weight training, I was stopped by people who said, “You shouldn’t carry anything heavier than a ball!”

That’s quite astonishing.

Right. But that was when no idea of sports medicine/science existed in Japan. Now we know that senbon-nokku (the common practice of swinging a bat 1,000 times a day) is not necessary.

I’ve read old (books) on baseball in which it said that you should practice until you could see the skin on your palm come off and see blood dripping from it, and then have the flesh of your hand come off!

With a condition like that, do you think you can play well in actual games? That’s impossible. You don’t need to practice that hard, because, at that point, it hurts!

. . . (Laugh)

Some other teachings included the idea that you should get bruises of five colors on your body — from being hit by balls during practice. A bruise is red when it’s fresh. Then it goes blue, and then it blackens. It was said in the past that you should have five-color bruises all over the body and then you would become a better player. That’s silly!

Instead, we should coach children how to catch balls that bounce off the ground better, for example. But some coaches are adamant about catching balls “with both your hands” — that’s because the form of the gloves in the old days wasn’t as good and it was difficult for players to maneuver them.

Today, however, it’s much more efficient to catch with a single hand. But even now, when some high school boy catches a ball with one hand, someone would always say, “That was a sloppy play.”

How do you envision reform in high school baseball?

Certain things have been improved. In my days, no trainer was allowed to get inside the dugout. Now (sports) doctors check the conditions of the shoulders and the elbows of pitchers. That’s good. But schedules (for the Koshien tournament) need to be more flexible. A pitcher must make three consecutive pitches [meaning he must pitch through most of three, nine-innings games] if his team goes on to the finals. And there are possibilities that “golden eggs” (young rising stars) could ruin their future (from overthrowing at short intervals).

These days, weather forecasts are much more reliable, so weather permitting, we can give players some rest by setting a no-throw day between the games. And it’s not something for the players, but for the officials of the Japan High School Baseball Federation, to think about.

I know about this more than anybody, because I did pitch four consecutive games in Osaka, and then I pitched another three consecutive times in the Koshien — in a matter of weeks. Do you know how many balls a pitcher would throw in total in such situations? And do you know how many golden eggs across Japan have disappeared out of sight every year?

The media are to blame, too, because they love running stories about how they kept pitching every game even though they had to be put on a drip (in hospital), and how someone’s elbow was bent from overthrowing but how he would go ahead and play “for the team.”

We don’t need such heroic tales. We don’t want players to say, “I pitched even though my arm was broken.” We don’t want that.

You have now realized your longtime dream of going to Waseda University in Tokyo — and you are still only 42. What’s next for you?

I want to give back to baseball, because I have received so much happiness from it. I have so many good memories, including winning the championships, shutting out games, hitting home runs. I also have sad, heart-wrenching memories as well, but I cherish every one of them and feel you couldn’t buy them with any amount of money. I would like to give back.

As a coach?

As a coach, yes, and I would like to help make the whole of Japanese baseball better — not just professional baseball. I feel just as strongly about amateur baseball, because that is what all the kids grow up in and where they get ready for professional baseball. I need to improve the bottom layers of baseball. And I truly believe that Japanese baseball is the best in the world. I want to make the entire game better.

Finally, what role do you think sports — not only baseball but other games — can play in Japan in the context of the nation’s dwindling population and its waning economic power?

I think sports can help people beat the blues of the recession. Sports can move people in ways nothing else can. The results are totally unpredictable. That’s why sports, the organizations that manage them and the players, are important.

If we improve sports, I think the economy would improve as well. That’s why it’s all the more important for people involved in sports management to get rid of bad traditions and incorporate new elements, such as sports science. With the help of sports science, we have so much more potential to improve baseball skills. I think that’s important in the promotion of the sports business as well.