As promised, here is Joe Udell’s second story from his recent trip to Japan, where he followed the Hawaii Island Movers baseball team and the Team Honolulu girls softball all-stars in Hiroshima and Kitakyushu. This one focuses on the Movers in Hiroshima as they play a mini-tournament against the region’s best college all-star teams.
SCORING FROM THE DUGOUT
A Close-Up Look at the Hawaii Island Movers in Hiroshima
Hiroshima Big6 All-Stars, June 26
As the players on the Hiroshima Big6 All-Stars finish their warm-up routine, Donald Takaki stares at them from behind the foul ball territory at Coca-Cola West Hiroshima Stadium, marveling at how they have evolved over the years.
“They’re not the skinny, scrawny players they used to be,” says Takaki, chairman of Pacific Region Baseball. “Times have changed. We’re not looking down at them; they’re not looking up at us — we’re looking straight across at each other.”
Every other year for the past 23 years, the Hawaii Island Movers baseball team, which Takaki formed to promote cross-cultural exchange between Japan and Hawai‘i, has traveled to Hiroshima to face the prefecture’s best all-star teams before playing exhibition games on a month-long tour across the country. It used to be easy for the Movers, who feature recent high school graduates and college players from Hawai‘i, the mainland U.S. and Japan, to get a win against Japanese squads. But with the talent growth of Asian baseball over the last two decades, victories have been much harder to come by.
“When I first played against them, I wasn’t impressed,” says head coach Rich Olsen, who pitched for the Hanshin Tigers in the early 1980s and is now in his eighth year with the Movers. “But the change over the last 15 to 20 years has been dramatic. Just look at what they did at the World Baseball Classic (Japan has won the triennial international tournament both times since its inception in 2006.). The talent is there all over the country.”
While this is the 12th time the Movers have started their biennial tour in Hiroshima, it also coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima-Honolulu sister-city relationship. In a true sign of the times, the Movers’ starting pitcher in the first game of their scheduled doubleheader is Hiroshi Kobayashi, a talented pitcher at Osaka Gakuin University.
“We come all the way to Japan and open up with a Japanese pitcher,” Takaki says, proudly. “That’s how international we’ve become and that’s how engaged we are.”
To round out their roster and give the Japanese players valuable game experience, the Movers traditionally “borrow” players from Osaka Gakuin, a mid-sized liberal arts school that boasts over 100 players on their baseball team. While most athletes from Osaka Gakuin are naturally skilled but unseasoned, Kobayashi is an exception.
The junior pitcher (unlike America, schools in Japan are year-round, beginning in April and ending in March), who barely speaks any English, has already carved out a reputation for himself as one of the better college pitchers in the country and Olsen is sure that he will be an early pick in the Japanese draft.
“Oh, he can throw gas,” Olsen tells me as Kobayashi trots out to the mound. “Just wait until you see him pitch. He’s a player.”
Outfitted in a pair of custom Asics shoes with “Hiroshi” stitched on the sides and a special glove from Rawlings with “Hiro-15” embroidered in pink stitching on the back, Kobayashi is everything that the Movers expected. Through three innings he is perfect with five strikeouts, thanks to a head-scratching array of curveballs, sliders, forkballs and a 93-mile per hour fastball.
“He doesn’t miss his spots,” says shortstop Pi‘ikea Kitamura, a highly touted player out of Kamehameha in his own right, who will star for the University of Hawai‘i next season. “Even when it’s a ball, it’s a ball off the corner.”
Buoyed by Kobayashi’s dominance, the game seems to be shifting in the Movers’ direction when the team puts men on first and third with one out in the top of the fourth inning. ‘Iolani outfielder and Gatorade Player of the Year Breland Almadova, who will play alongside Kitamura at UH in 2010, comes to the plate and hits a potential double play grounder to the shortstop, Shunsuke Ikemoto, only it appears that Almadova beats the turn throw by a step, securing an RBI in the process.
The umpire, however, sees the play differently and calls him out. The dugout groans. The momentum is crushed. Instead of going up by a run with an out to spare, the inning is over and the game remains locked in a scoreless battle.
“Hard to believe that,” Almadova mutters to himself as he enters the dugout, tossing his helmet to the side.
“He was safe by a step,” chimes in pitcher Kevin Matsumoto, who is moonlighting as first base coach on his off day. “It was terrible.”
If there is any consolation, it’s that Kobayashi continues to be solid. Even when his perfect game is broken up with a double to center field in the bottom of the fourth, Kobayashi bears down, allowing only two more hits in a complete game shutout. Pulama Silva, the team’s ever-talking closer, calls him a “strikeout machine.”
Kitamura wonders if there is any way that UH can sign him to a scholarship.
Still, his masterful performance — nine strikeouts and no walks — is marred by a tie score, 0-0 (exhibition games in Japan do not play extra innings), and the fact that the Movers leave six men in scoring position on base. The call at first on what would have been Almadova’s game-winning hit was questionable, but it was certainly not the only opportunity the team had.
“It’s too bad; we had chances,” Olsen says to the team following the game. “We had some bad calls, but we missed a lot of opportunities, too. That’s why when you win, they’re tough wins.”
Chugoku All-Stars, June 26
On any other afternoon, the Movers might have taken some time to dwell on their mistakes and missteps — but not today. There is only time for a quick bentö lunch and a green tea box drink before the second game of the doubleheader against the Chugoku All-Stars, who hail from the westernmost region of Honshü.
Much like the previous game against Hiroshima, the Movers and the coaches know nothing about the opposing players, only this time they will not have the advantage of throwing a top-tier Japanese pitcher — who is familiar with the habits of Japanese batters — on the mound.
Instead, Clayton Uyechi, a yonsei co-captain who recently finished his athletic career at the University of Hawai‘i-Hilo, will start for the Movers. At 5-foot-8 and 190 pounds, he is the most physically impressive pitcher on the team’s staff as well as a pillar of mental toughness. If any pitcher is up for the challenge, it is Uyechi.
After all, he has already been through far, far worse.
During his freshman year at Wai‘anae High School in 2002, Uyechi, then a promising pitcher on the junior varsity squad, nearly died when a homeless man driving a stolen vehicle crashed into him while he was crossing Farrington Highway. The driver fled the scene and was later arrested, while Uyechi woke up with a broken shoulder, a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee and a jaw broken in three places.
After three surgeries and a lengthy rehabilitation process, Uyechi gained back the 25 pounds he lost when his jaw was wired shut and earned the Oahu Interscholastic Association Western Division Player of the Year award his senior year. Now, after a successful college career in which he led the 2009 Vulcans in strikeouts, this is a farewell tour of sorts for Uyechi, who will focus on finishing his degree in kinesiology and exercise science following the trip.
The farewell tour, however, does not get off to a good start.
In the bottom of the first inning, Uyechi finds himself in a quick jam after walking the first batter, allowing a line drive that darts past Kitamura, and then giving up a bloop RBI single. The following inning, an error by Danny Higa, the normally sure-handed third baseman from the College of Southern Nevada, and a blast to center field puts men at the corners with just one out.
Olsen usually lets his players work through their mistakes and find their rhythm silently, but, sensing the game is slipping away early on, he becomes more vocal.
“Let’s go,” he says from his seat at the front of the dugout. “Find your zone.”
Whether it is the pressure or the encouragement, Uyechi comes around. He strikes catcher Ryosuke Soga out with a breaking ball that second baseman Russell Doi describes, in typical baseball terminology, as “filthy,” then gets outfielder Goya Kudo to fly out to end the inning.
When the Movers pour on two runs in the top of the third inning, thanks to big hits by Higa and designated hitter Jordon Monico, Uyechi responds in kind. His curveball carries a little extra movement on it and his fastball picks up some velocity. Two scoreless innings later, Uyechi turns the game over to Jyungo Murayama with a 2-1 lead. His line for the day: a very respectable four innings pitched with one earned run and five hits.
But things do not turn out so well for Murayama. The skinny right-hander from Osaka Gakuin gets off to a rough start immediately, hitting a batter, then loading the bases on two consecutive singles before giving up two earned runs. Even when the Movers tie the score at 3 in the top of the seventh on an RBI single by Daniel Johnston, a 6-foot-4 All-American first baseman from Cañada Junior College, Murayama gives it right back with a deep RBI triple that puts Chugoku up 4-3.
There is a quick lesson for Murayama and the Movers amidst their pitching struggles: Japanese batters hate to strike out. Murayama is not necessarily pitching a bad game; in fact, he was way ahead in the count several times and did just what he was supposed to do in those situations: throw a pitch outside of the strike zone and entice the batter to chase it. The only problem is the Chugoku players have no problem slapping a desperation hit out of the dirt and hoping that it falls in play.
“They’re real good at making contact,” third base coach Ryan Monico says to me in the bottom of the seventh. “They foul off a lot of pitches and they’re really good at hitting two-strike pitches.”
With a runner on third and no outs in the seventh, Olsen decides it is time to put in closer Pulama Silva to stop the bleeding and possibly save the game. And if there is one thing other than talking that Silva is good at, it’s saves.
As a freshman at Yavapai College this past season, the Castle High School alumnus led all junior college pitchers in saves with 17. But Pulama, the son of former UH pitcher Glenn Silva, has spent most of the afternoon cracking jokes, providing game commentary and trying to invent new pitches between innings. He appears more ready to take an open mic at a comedy club than to pitch in relief.
But when Silva gets the nod from Olsen, a switch seems to go off. Gone are the smile and the wisecracks, replaced by a right-handed side-armed delivery and a deceptive moving fastball. At 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, Silva is not imposing by any means, but his stare is cold and his pitches make the Chugoku players look foolish. Before the runner can even settle in at third, the inning is over on three consecutive strikeouts.
The Movers, however, fail to capitalize on the shift in momentum. In the top of the eighth they go down 1-2-3 and, followed by another solid shutout inning by Silva, fail to put a man on base in the ninth, ending the game 4-3. Foiled by umpires, tainted by miscues, and haunted by men left on base, it is a bumpy start to a long trip.
“Overall, we played well, but we’ve got to take advantage of guys in scoring position,” Olsen says, trying to sound upbeat in front of his crestfallen players. “We’re a good-enough team to win, but we have to capitalize on those opportunities. You only get so many chances. Now, we’ve got a game tomorrow; we’ll get it back then.”
Back in the Diamond Hotel 30 minutes later, Almadova is in his room, beating himself up. Out of all the Movers, the former standout prep player is the hardest on himself when it comes to poor performances.
“You really want to talk to someone who went 1-7 today?” he asks me, startled that I want a word with him. I tell him I want to know how difficult it is to transition from high school pitching to college pitching.
“They’re good,” he says in a low voice. “They throw strikes, they got some good breaking stuff and it’s nothing I’m used to right now. It’s probably some of the best pitching I’ve seen.
“I just want to forget today and look forward to tomorrow.”
Shikoku All-Stars, June 27
The next morning, Olsen has put the struggles of yesterday’s games behind him. Soft-spoken and even-keeled, he knows that this month-long trip is a slow-growing process involving athletes from across the nation. Considering that his team was thrown together less than a month ago — and then shaken up once more with the recent addition of the Osaka Gakuin players — he saves concrete judgments and final evaluations until the end of the tour.
“Team chemistry is so important,” he says. “It’s hard in the beginning of the trip when they’ve only been playing together a few weeks. What we really hope is it all comes together the last few weeks of the trip.”
Even then, coaching is just one of his many job descriptions. Olsen has the onus of stewarding these young athletes into adulthood and, although it is just for a few weeks, he is responsible for them during what is a landmark moment in many of their lives.
“For the majority of these guys, it’s the longest they’ve ever been away from home and you can see it on their faces,” Olsen says. “Some of them are homesick; that’s why we keep them active and that’s when the captains step in.
“For some of these local kids, they’re learning how to interact with people who aren’t from Hawai‘i,” he continues. “It’s a great learning experience for them to get out of their bubble.”
But while personal growth is undoubtedly taking place, it is not something that the Movers are focused on at the moment. What is on their minds is the cloudy day at Coca-Cola West, where a field of haze is blanketing the sky and locking in the humid conditions.
“I know it’s going to be hard to see out there, that’s for sure,” says Higa, squinting his eyes as he looks out on the field.
It could be the sweltering weather or the hangover from the draining doubleheader, but the team is noticeably flat. The players look sluggish during warm-ups and, because fan turnout is normally low for exhibition matches such as these, Olsen fears that the game will not be taken seriously. It also doesn’t help that the team is playing the Shikoku All-Stars, a squad from the smallest and least-populated island in Japan.
“They’re an island, but that don’t mean they can’t beat you,” he warns the Movers before the game, trying to coax some energy out of them. “They’re all athletes; it just means they have a smaller pool to choose from. We’re dragging today and that’s easy to get into, but we’re here for three hours. Let’s get it in and go hard and get a win.”
If the Movers are struggling to muster up energy before the game, their demeanor changes drastically once Jordon Monico, the powerful cleanup hitter from Savannah State University and brother of third base coach Ryan, comes to the plate.
Nicknames are as integral a part of dugout culture as sunflower seeds and batting gloves, and Monico seems to have more aliases than anyone on the team. It is almost a spectacle when he steps into the batter’s box, as the players begin to loudly reference his many monikers, among them, Bamm-Bamm from “The Flintstones” cartoon, and Farva, the stocky star of the cult comedy “Super Troopers.”
Even though Shikoku’s starting pitcher, Yohei Kono, retires Monico, it does not seem to matter. The team is feeling loose and the tone is set. Two batters later, co-captain Kyle Kanaeholo is hit in the head with the bases loaded, walking in the first run of the afternoon. He laughs, shakes his head and smiles. It’s just that kind of game.
In the bottom of the third inning, Monico rips a double into center field, eliciting the requisite movie quotes; Toshihisa Hirai, a cat-quick outfielder from Osaka Gakuin, legs a single out of a grounder to short; Kanaeholo is hit by yet another pitch — and then the runs start pouring in. Osaka Gakuin’s Takayuki Yamashita walks in a run, Kitamura singles in another and, in a form of poetic justice, Almadova rips a line drive deep to left field, bringing in two more. Movers 5, Shikoku, 0.
For Almadova, the hit is an important one. Not only does it give the Movers a comfortable lead — it exorcises the demons from yesterday’s games, proving that he can compete at the next level.
“I think that double really boosted my confidence,” he would say after the game. “It kind of made me feel that I can hit against these guys and I can do well. From now on, I feel that it’s just a matter of getting better, and today was one of those days where I could play with them.”
On defense, pitcher Toby Inouye turns in a clinic, rivaling that of Kobayashi’s the previous day. In seven innings of work, Inouye, a right-handed junior-to-be at Hawai‘i Pacific University, strikes out 11 and gives up just two hits. It is a somewhat startling performance, only because Inouye has barely said anything this entire trip.
“We have to tell him to stop disrupting practice,” pitching coach Blane Muraoka jokes. “The guy never talks.”
Indeed. While the Movers are on offense, Inouye is silent as usual. He throws on a grey windbreaker and sits alone in the dugout, watching the team bat with a blank grin on his face, almost like the way a child watches Saturday morning cartoons. When Olsen asks him how his arm feels, Inouye responds with one of his two favorite words: “alright” or “good.”
But on the mound, Inouye, armed with a solid curveball and a deceptive changeup, makes striking out batters look easy. So easy that in between innings, Silva puts on a catcher’s mask and nearly sneaks on to the field before Olsen catches him.
Silva’s antics are just the icing on an afternoon that has been characterized by surprises. What started out as a hazy, humid day turned out to be rather enjoyable when a breeze found its way onto the field midway through the game. The team bounced back from its lifeless warm-ups to complete an energetic 5-0 victory, and Inouye, the bashful pitcher, had his coming out party in dramatic fashion.
As the rest of the team celebrates Inouye’s performance in the dugout following the game, the only Mover who seems unfazed is Kevin Matsumoto, Inouye’s teammate at HPU. “That’s normal for him,” he says in a deadpan voice. “He always does that. He’s a K (strikeout) machine.”
Inouye looks back at him, but doesn’t say a word.
Hiroshima Big6 All-Stars, June 28
Unlike yesterday’s game against Shikoku, which was played at 9 a.m., well before the late afternoon weather settled in, there will be no pleasant surprises today. The 1 p.m. rematch against Hiroshima has already proven to be the hottest day so far, with no relief — or clouds — in sight.
“This is what it’s all about; this is the rubber match,” Olsen says to the Movers, now dripping with sweat after warming up under the merciless sun.
In the corner of the shaded dugout — the last refuge from the dogged heat — sits Matsumoto, the team’s starting pitcher, quietly preparing his mind for the game.
A highly touted player out of Kailua High School, where he led the Surfriders to the 2005 state championship game, the yonsei has been besieged with injuries in what has thus far been an up-and-down career at HPU. Now entering his fifth and final year, Matsumoto turned to the Movers this summer to give him an extra edge heading into his penultimate college season.
“Getting another voice from another coach has really helped me to improve my mechanics,” Matsumoto explains. “Being with the same coach for four years, it’s like you’ve been told everything they have to tell you and it’s repetitive. But hearing Coach Blane’s and Coach Rich’s perspective on things has really helped me.”
Muraoka, a former HPU pitcher who has been helping Matsumoto harness his fastball, which clocks in around the low 90s, has an interesting scouting report on his protégé.
“He’s effectively wild,” Muraoka says. “He falls behind in counts sometimes, but he gets guys out.”
True to his reputation, Matsumoto has difficulty keeping his pitches down in the strike zone and falls behind in the count several times early on. But the only trouble comes in the top of the second inning when he allows a sacrifice fly with runners at the corners that puts Hiroshima up 1-0. Even then, there is a silver lining to the slight damage.
“They’re late on the fastball,” Muraoka tells Matsumoto between innings. “Until they can prove they can hit it, stay with it. Bust them.”
And bust them he does. While Matsumoto isn’t overpowering, he holds Hiroshima to just one run through five innings, getting the opposing batters to ground out by mixing his fastball with pitches outside the strike zone. It isn’t until the bottom of the sixth that things fall apart like a Greek tragedy.
The inning starts off innocently when outfielder Yuki Oda hits a line drive that soars over the head of Kitamura. Then Yoshinori Nobuhara, another outfielder from Hiroshima University of Economics, hits into a double play ball, only Johnston drops the turn throw at first. The miscue proves to be costly when Nobuhara attempts to steal second and catcher Lyle Kitagawa’s pickoff throw gets away from Ryson Mauricio at second base and rolls into the outfield.
But the real killer comes a few seconds later when Kalei Hanawahine, a speedy outfielder from Kamehameha who will play at the University of San Diego next season, misplays the ball in center field, allowing Nobuhara to score and put Hiroshima up 2-1.
In a mental sport like baseball, one disheartening error can spell doom for a team, particularly one that has only recently been assembled. The Movers, however, blink, but do not falter. Brett Kilburg, the relief pitcher from Cañada Junior College who supplies most of the movie quotes; Chris Pascual, a left-handed Kamehameha graduate who will attend UH-Hilo in the fall; and Silva, once again with his warrior face on, all pitch in relief to hold Hiroshima scoreless for the rest of the game.
Then, in the ninth, the Movers’ offense shows just how resilient it can be. With Higa on first and Almadova on third with two outs, the team attempts a rare delayed double steal in which Higa steals second, followed by Almadova stealing home after the catcher commits his throw to second.
It is a risky move with two outs and two chances for a pickoff play, but the Movers execute it to perfection. Hiroshima is caught off-guard: The shortstop, Shunsuke Ikemoto, fires the ball home before tagging Higa out, only his delivery is rushed, causing his throw to go off the mark. When Almadova touches the plate safely, the dugout explodes as the Movers pour out to greet him.
“Now this is fun baseball!” Silva yells, literally jumping out of his seat.
After a Hanawahine strikeout and a perfect ninth inning by Silva, the game ends in a 2-2 tie, securing the Movers second place in the mini-tournament with a 1-1-2 record. While the team could have easily gone undefeated in Hiroshima, the strides they made both individually and collectively will be valuable in the long run: The pitching, for the most part, was excellent against unfamiliar and unorthodox hitters; the team got great defensive play out of Kitamura and Higa, who are only entering their freshmen and sophomore years, respectively; Johnston showed that he can hit for both power and average, going 3-4 in two of the four games; and Almadova bounced back from a frustrating first day to display the versatility that made him such a feared player in high school.
As Olsen tells me after the game, those improvements are much more important than victories.
“Overall, I’m pretty happy with the team,” he says. “After three games at home and then heading into tournament play here, they performed well. Sure, we would have liked to win every game, but these kids played hard. They battled.”
But as the team walks back to the hotel in high spirits, looking ahead to tougher competition in Kitakyushu and beyond, there is a looming specter hovering over the Movers — one which can’t be seen but has already made its presence known.
It started yesterday, with a few coughs echoing throughout the dugout. Some players looked lethargic while others complained of stomach pains and body aches. Considering the close quarters that the Movers keep, the spread of illness is inevitable and would normally be toughed out. But when word reaches the coaches that a group of 11 Hawai‘i teens traveling to South Korea tested positive for the H1N1 virus and were subsequently quarantined, Olsen and his staff realize just how easily an entire trip can be derailed.
In a few days, the coaches would learn just how much the two groups have in common.