OMIYA, SAITAMA PREF. - Yu Kato wants to bring women’s baseball into the spotlight. She wants people to see what she can do on the diamond and also how talented the rest of her Saitama Astraia teammates are. She wants to everyone to know there is quality baseball being played in the Japan Women’s Baseball League.
Mostly, she hopes to show girls with a passion for baseball they can have a future in the sport.
“When I was a kid, there weren’t any women’s pro leagues, and there were no goals we could set,” Kato told The Japan Times before a game earlier this month. “Now that I’ve become a professional, I want to be the kind of player kids can look up to,” she added.
Kato is in her third season in the JWBL as a member of the Astraia. Last season, she helped the team overcome a slow start to win the JWBL title.
“I didn’t play well in the first half, but got it turned around and was able to contribute to the team in the end,” she said.
She’s having a strong year at the plate this season, hitting .353 out of the leadoff spot through 31 games.
“I’ve been able to do a lot of the things I’ve been working on since last year, such as strengthening my body and improving my technique,” Kato said. “I’ve followed the coaches’ advice and managed to play well and stay in good shape.”
After initially struggling to maintain her optimum playing weight during Japan’s grueling summer months, she’s found a happy medium this year.
“I lost a lot of weight during the summer in my first two seasons,” Kato said. “That affected me, and I struggled to maintain my level of play. I’m trying to avoid that this year.”
The JWBL was established in 2009 as the Girls Professional Baseball League. In 2013, the league had a slight reorganization, which included changing the name to its current form.
The JWBL consists of four teams: the Aichi Dione, the Astraia, the Kyoto Flora and the Sendai-based Reia. It’s the world’s only professional league for women and has given female ballplayers a home domestically while also strengthening Japan’s female national team, which has won the past five Women’s Baseball World Cup titles.
“It’s not a coincidence that Japan has dominated the Women’s World Cup when the top Japanese players get to play many more games because of the JWBL,” said J.J. Cooper, executive editor of Baseball America magazine. “There is no equivalent in the U.S. or elsewhere, which has been a huge help for women’s baseball in Japan.”
The challenge for the JWBL is to attract more attention. The league has taken a number of steps toward widening its appeal, including working with NPB clubs on occasion.
“More (exposure) on TV,” Kato said when asked how the league can attract more fans. “Plus, if the men’s league helps us become more widely known, their fans might also become interested in the women’s league.”
Kato has been the source of some of that exposure. She’s arguably the league’s most visible player, having participated in several television programs and featuring in magazines and newspapers. She’s thrown out the first pitch before a couple NPB games and helped lead a fan event after a recent Seibu Lions contest — she’s an ardent Orix Buffaloes fan. In 2015, she debuted as a singer and released a pair of singles.
She admits the attention is humbling.
“I’ve personally gained a lot of confidence because I’ve been able to put up career highs and have good results,” Kato said. “But I still have some issues. In my first two seasons, I didn’t have a chance to play in a lot of games and when I played, there were games where I didn’t play well. When you get media exposure, you’re supposed to be playing well. Otherwise, it makes me feel a little uncomfortable.”
She’s also been singled out because of the Japanese’s media’s tendency to refer to her as the “baseball player who is too beautiful,”a moniker she tolerates more than likes.
“I’d rather it not be like that, but you can’t gain exposure without drawing some kind of attention in the first place,” she said. “If it gives people a chance to learn more about us, then I’m OK with it. If people see me and feel like coming to watch me play and as a result they become interested in women’s baseball and start to support us, I don’t really care how it started. There was a time I couldn’t accept it, but I’ve kind of backed off a little.”
Kato, who is from Hadano City in Kanagawa Prefecture, was introduced to baseball by her father, who had played in high school and continued to play in his spare time. She got her start at age 5, when he organized a rubber-ball team at her elementary school. In junior high, she was the only girl on her baseball team.
Like many girls, she switched to softball in high school. Before long, however, she yearned for a return to baseball. While Kato switched back, a lack of opportunities in baseball leads many young women, in and outside Japan, to remain in softball.
“It’s very difficult,” Cooper said of the situation in the U.S. “It’s hard to imagine a group of players who love baseball more than players who are on the women’s national teams. There are a number of players using their vacation time to represent their countries.
“But there are not many opportunities to play baseball post-high school, much less post-college, unless a player is fortunate enough to play at a college with a club women’s baseball team.
“The best female high school baseball players almost always end up playing fast-pitch softball, because it is a scholarship sport for college (where baseball is not). So even the biggest baseball fans usually play softball because it is a way to pay for college.”
It’s mostly the same in Japan, though little by little girls are beginning stay in baseball.
“Nowadays, the number of women’s high school baseball teams is increasing,” Kato said. “Girls who have been playing baseball for a long time keep playing without moving to softball. In Japan, girls feel the physical difference between themselves and the boys and stop playing, but recently there are girls who are able to keep playing with boys in junior high and they stay in baseball.”
Kato hopes to see the number of girls in the sport increase, and for women’s baseball to gain more traction. She’s hopeful one day girls will even compete at Koshien, which is hallowed ground in Japanese baseball.
“I want to see it,” she said. “I wanted to play there myself. Koshien is the most renowned place for high school baseball. Now that the number of women’s teams is increasing, I hope there is a chance for girls to play at Koshien in the future.”
As she looks ahead, Kato hopes to have been part of a positive change for the game by the end of her career.
“I want to get married some day, though it doesn’t really matter if I’m playing baseball or after I retire, and give my parents grandchildren,” she said. “But I also want to help increase the profile of women’s baseball.”