The fluttering of dozens of camera shutters following Japan’s 4-0 win over South Korea on Friday served as a reminder that Yuki Saito is never far from the spotlight.
Japan’s Hayata Ito had just hit a two-run home run that turned out to be the game winner, and team captain Shota Ishimine had cranked a two-run blast of his own.
Both were present and accounted for at the press conference after the game.
As usual, all attention was on Saito.
Which should serve him well when he finally makes the transition from amateur to professional.
Saito is in the final stages of his career with the collegiate national team at the 5th World University Baseball Championship and the media crush will only get tighter as the tournament enters its final week.
Saito has handled the media with grace, never looking flustered or out of place when the cameras were rolling while firing off savvy, media-friendly quips as easy as a fastball.
Th experience will suit him well after a team drafts him.
Many players have wilted under the spotlight that comes with pro ball, unable to handle the attention and pressure the job entails.
The glare is even more intense on young starting pitchers, who must sit, stew and be criticized for five to six days after a bad performance before toeing the rubber again.
Saito, however, is already well-versed in handling all the attention.
A throng of media and scouts have followed his every move at Waseda University and the All-Japan University Baseball Federation has never been shy about shoving him in front of the cameras each time the national team has gathered.
Japan manager Tamotsu Enomoto said on Friday Saito was the ace of the national team which, given the pitcher’s value and poise on camera, everyone probably wants to believe.
Even if the truth is his fellow national team members Tatsuya Oishi, Tomoyuki Sugano and the injured Hirokazu Sawamura might be better.
Enomoto may have just been paying lip service to the legend that surrounds Yuki Saito, the dashing prince who four years ago captivated a nation with one of the most memorable performances in the history of the National High School Baseball Championship.
At Koshien Stadium in 2006, hitters whiffed on Saito’s pitches as girls swooned in the stands, both from the searing heat of an Osaka summer and the dreamy image of Saito combating the beads of sweat on his forehead with the blue handkerchief that would become part of his image and public appeal.
Somehow failing to get caught up in the hype he had generated, Saito ignored the siren’s call of the NPB and the interest of MLB scouts and opted for a quieter career path by enrolling at Waseda, where the accolades continued to pile up.
Now, four years later, there’s no ignoring the allure of the professional ranks.
The day he finally dons a cap without the Waseda or Japan logo, it will be to amazing fanfare, intense media attention and high expectations.
When that happens, Saito, who has grown mentally during four years in college, should be ready to handle it.