For a week in August, I experienced what I would soon discover to be the holy grail of high school baseball.
No, I was not anywhere near Cooperstown nor Williamsport. In fact, I was halfway around the world from those places (almost 6800 miles away to be exact) at a professional stadium with a skin infield covered by chocolately brown dirt and a perfectly manicured, green outfield in front of an old, barely electronic scoreboard.
The occasion was the 100th annual summer Koshien national high school championship tournament, which is Japan’s, and perhaps the world’s, most prestigious baseball event. It is a multi-week, single elimination affair that features 56 high school clubs spanning the Japanese archipelago, playing in front of crowds easily exceeding 50,000 people and all vying for the title of national champion and a lifetime of glory.
The game itself is seeped in respect. Before each game, the two teams will greet their assembled fans (who sit in special spectator sections down each baseline) with a deep bow. What follows is what can be best described as “the charge” - both teams line up in front of their dugouts, rush each other until they reach home plate, and, along with the umpires, take another grand bow to one another. Then the home team's rush onto the field is punctuated by an air raid siren. The stadium ambiance is punctuated by each school’s pep band, which loudly play popular tunes the entire time their team bats, and the constant calls of stadium vendors.
Respect also carries over to the player’s interactions with their coaches, the umpires and even the field. When a coach would call a conference in front of the dugout, all of the players would remove their caps and make direct eye contact with the coach. Players would be seen regularly tipping their cap to the umpire during their first at-bat. These same players also hold a certain reverence for Koshien, viewing it as an almost religious ground. This would become evident through the regular bows the players would make while taking their positions and the restraint they showed in not spitting while on the field.
Japanese society views high school baseball as an important method of furthering the player’s personal development. This is on full display at Koshien as players take on most of the responsibilities normally delegated to adult coaches in America. Players coach both first and third base, making the do or die calls on whether to send runners on to home plate. They will also handle mound visits and take care of injured players.
Following the game, the losing team participates in one of the most time honored traditions of Koshien - in front of their dugout, the defeated team falls to its knees and begins to gather handfuls of Koshien’s famous black dirt. A personal memento of their time at Koshien that they'll cherish for the rest of their lives.
The games themselves move quickly. Pitchers throw only a few warm-up pitches in between innings, having already thrown in front of their dugout before their team makes the 3rd out on offense. Full nine-inning games would generally only take between 2 and 2 and a half hours.
The respect for the game and officials, joyful playing spirit and focus on making the game experience the best possible development experience for the player was deeply impactful and one that I hope to translate to my players back in the USA.