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Roki Sasaki, after sitting on Koshien, has perfect play and Japan’s attention

TOKYO — All of Iwate Prefecture relied on Roki Sasaki three years ago. Sasaki, then 17, broke Shohei Ohtani’s high school record by throwing a fastball at 101 mph and was expected to lead Ofunato High to its first shot in 35 years when competing at Koshien, the considered high school’s annual tournament. as one of Japan’s most sacred sports. events.

That’s when coach Yohei Kokubo did the unthinkable: he benched him.

Kokubo was concerned about the stress the hard throwing put on Sasaki’s developing body, but his decision was at odds with the country’s notoriously brutal and win-at-all-costs teen baseball coaching culture. After Ofunato lost in a Koshien qualifier without Sasaki, fans flooded the school with angry phone calls.

Three years later, Sasaki looks set to follow Los Angeles Angels star Ohtani again, catching the attention of Major League Baseball scouts as potentially the next big thing. In April, Sasaki pitched the first perfect game in Japan’s major leagues in 28 years, becoming the youngest to do so. The following game, he followed that up with eight more perfect innings before being retired. The 20-year-old right-hander with a 100mph fastball and confusing splitter catapulted into a global sensation – and sparked a debate in Japan about how the country nurtures its future superstars.

“I can feel people’s interest, which I’m really grateful for and feel absolutely honored,” Sasaki said in a write-in interview with The Washington Post last month. “One of my goals is to play until I’m 40. I hope I can continue to play successfully not only this year but for a long time for those around me, and also prove that the decisions and the considerations made for me were the right decisions.

Born in Iwate, one of the regions hardest hit by the March 2011 triple disaster that devastated Japan, Sasaki was 9 years old when he lost his father and grandparents in the resulting tsunami. a massive earthquake and triggered a nuclear meltdown. After their home was washed away, Sasaki, his mother and siblings were moved from Rikuzentakata to a temporary home about 20 km north of Ofunato, where they lived until 2017.

“Eleven years have passed, but the hardships and sadness I felt back then still haven’t gone away,” Sasaki told a news conference on the 11th anniversary of the tragedy. . “And it’s because of everyone’s support that I’ve been able to focus on baseball under these circumstances. … Don’t take what’s in front of you and the important people in your life for granted.

It was on a makeshift field at Ofunato Middle School, which was an emergency shelter for tsunami victims, where Sasaki found joy and inspiration in baseball. Training conditions were less than ideal, with limited training space as temporary accommodation lined the school grounds.

The Fukushima tsunami 10 years later: the day that changed Japan

Nevertheless, Sasaki was moved by baseball, especially by Masahiro Tanaka of the Rakuten Eagles, from his home region of Tohoku. He remembers watching Tanaka close out the winning game in 2013 for the team’s first and only Japan Series championship, cementing Tanaka’s status as Japan’s No. 1 pitcher. Tanaka then left to play for the New York Yankees.

“Now that I myself have become a professional player, I hope that I too can bring so much joy and hope to children,” Sasaki told the Post.

In 2019, he was drafted in the first round of Nippon Professional Baseball to play for the Chiba Lotte Marines. While Sasaki has already caught the eye of MLB, he faces complicated international posting restrictions if he leaves the Japanese league before he turns 25.

The Marines sidelined Sasaki in 2020 to bolster his forces. He made his debut on May 16, 2021, and on April 10, he became the 16th pitcher in Japanese baseball history to pitch a perfect game, 28 years after Hiromi Makihara in 1994. On April 17, Sasaki followed that up with eight perfect sleeves.

He is now dubbed the “Reiwa-era Monster”, putting him on par with Daisuke Matsuzaka, the “Heisei-era Monster”, who pitched for the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets before returning in Japan and to retire in 2021. This summer, Sasaki was ranked first by fans in NPB’s All-Star Voting.

“It was beyond what I imagined. I was truly stunned,” Matsuzaka said after the two met in February, complimenting Sasaki’s control over his fastball.

His early accomplishments underscored efforts to overhaul the notoriously brutal teenage baseball practice culture in Japan, with hour-long daily practices in an effort to play summer Koshien.

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Baseball is hugely popular in Japan, and Koshien, an annual tournament named after the stadium where it takes place, is a revered event. Since Koshien started in 1915, 21 years before the first professional baseball game in Japan, it was only canceled for World War II and, in 2020, because of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a tradition for those who don’t make it through the knockout tournament to scrape dirt from the pitch into a bag, often in tears, as a memento to remember playing there.

In the 2019 Prefectural Tournament, Ofunato High was just one game away from the coveted chance to play Koshien. Sasaki had thrown 435 pitches in the eight days leading up to the game. He wanted to play in the final game of the Prefectural Finals, but Kokubo decided not to play Sasaki in two consecutive games to avoid injury. Sasaki had thrown 129 pitches the day before.

Ofunato High lost 12-2 to Hanamaki Higashi High, who represented Iwate Prefecture in Koshien that year.

Despite his unpopularity with local fans, the decision helped Sasaki preserve his strength, allowing him to grow stronger and better control his 6ft 3in body, experts say. Surveys by the Baseball Federation of Japan and Japanese sports doctors have revealed that 60-70% of young baseball players in Japan suffer from pain and injuries, especially in the shoulders or elbows, and the injuries are worse for pitchers.

Repetition is especially problematic for powerful young pitchers like Sasaki, said Takashi Kawamura, an associate professor of health and sports sciences at the University of Tsukuba and an expert in baseball and coaching biomechanics. He said that although the physical record of young athletes is being recognized more, it remains rare for coaches to sacrifice a chance of winning for the health of a single player.

“The long-standing mentality and culture of winning is still intact, especially putting Koshien as the ultimate goal, not considering a long-term career beyond that,” said Kawamura, who mentored Kokubo. “Whether they turn pro or not, baseball shouldn’t stop at middle school or high school, but should be played in a way that it can be enjoyed for a long time. So I hope that mentality continues to spread and be put into practice.

Fresh off of a perfect match, Japanese phenom Roki Sasaki almost throws another

Experts say that while it may take a long time, changes could be coming for Japan’s youth baseball culture. It’s worth noting that despite the backlash of 2019, Kokubo’s decision is now accepted – which may signal the potential for public acceptance of alternative paths to fame, said Jim Allen, a longtime writer on the baseball in Japan.

“Japan is changing enough that [Sasaki] doing it differently — four years after his senior year of high school, when it was a national scandal — is now accepted as part of the landscape,” Allen said. “To me, that’s really the meaning, that he symbolizes change.”

Sasaki is the product of a new path his coaches have charted outside the system, Allen said, and could inspire other coaches and parents to emulate them.

“He’s sort of the new wave, and because of his success, he’s going to be a signal that things don’t always have to be the same,” Allen said. “He’s doing it the only way he’s allowed to, and it just happens to be a different way. … Even though he’s not the revolutionary, he’s the revolution.

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