Here is Joe Udell’s third and final 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 Kitakyushu, where bad weather nearly derailed the team’s plans.
CRAWLING UP THE WALL IN KITAKYUSHU
When Bad Weather Strikes, the Movers are Pushed to Their Limits
Seinan Gakuin University-Kurume University, June 30
“I’ll check on him later today, but if he doesn’t get better soon, we might have to take him to a hospital as a precaution,” says Rich Olsen, head coach of the Hawaii Island Movers.
The player in question is pitcher Toby Inouye, who came down with a bad cough yesterday as the team traveled from Hiroshima to Kitakyüshü. With the H1N1 virus — and the paranoia associated with it — spreading rapidly throughout Japan, the Movers are taking a cautious approach to any sign of illness.
Fortunately for the team, each player is assigned his own room on this leg of the trip, which should help prevent the spread of germs. Of course, it is almost impossible to eliminate communal time completely: The team eats together, sits elbow-to-elbow en route to games, spends each contest in poorly ventilated dugouts and congregates in hotel rooms during their free time.
“It’s inevitable that kids will get sick on a trip this long and this demanding,” says Olsen, now in his eighth season with the Movers. “And with the amount of time they spend together, all we can do is tell them to take care of themselves, wash their hands and not to share food.”
Olsen informs Inouye and Pulama Silva, the Movers’ loquacious closer, who is nursing a persistent headache, that they are quarantined in their rooms and will eat separately from the rest of the team until their symptoms go away. Olsen believes the illness is simply the common cold, but he also does not want to take any chances with his players’ health.
“We have to hope that we’ll nip this thing in the bud with rest and plenty of liquids,” he says. “But if we don’t, we have to be prepared for that, too.”
If there is one thing that Inouye and Silva can take solace in, it is that they will not be missing much. Rain has started to wash over Kitakyüshü, a city in Fukuoka Prefecture where the Movers are scheduled to play a mini-tournament and, judging by the downpour, it does not look like the team will be taking the field for their match against Seinan Gakuin University-Kurume University today (The Movers will take on teams made up of two college squads each, culminating in a final game against the region’s best players.).
June and July are considered Japan’s rainy season and weeklong typhoons are not unusual. Despite the stormy weather, the opposing coaches have told Olsen that they still want to meet at the stadium to exchange omiyage. The request means that the Movers will spend over two hours in transit this afternoon for what amounts to a five-minute cultural exchange.
“This sort of thing is very, very important to the Japanese,” Olsen says. “So while it might not be something that makes a lot of sense to some of the players, this is all part of the culture that we are experiencing.”
Donald Takaki, chairman of Pacific Region Baseball and the team’s sponsor, has organized this trip for the Movers for the past 23 years. Every time the team travels to Japan, Takaki is there, trying to instill the importance of goodwill in his players.
For example, the exchange of omiyage is not just a chance for the Movers to immerse themselves in the Japanese culture, but is one of many opportunities the team has to strengthen the Hawai‘i-Japan relationship.
“Baseball is just one aspect of this visit,” Takaki says. “Something like this is really important for Hawai‘i, especially in this down economy and the fear of the H1N1 virus. These kids are a living, breathing example of all that Hawaii has to offer. And in the process of this trip, they’re taking in all the great things about Japan too.”
One of the great things about Kitakyüshü is Chikuhou Ryokuchi Baseball Stadium. Hidden alongside rice fields, slow-moving streams and humble one-story houses, the stadium is a true reflection of Japan’s love of integrating nature with modern architecture — not to mention, it is a particularly unique baseball structure.
With an AstroTurf field that appears to blend into the towering mountains overhead; a garden of rocks, trees and pristine grass lining the outfield fence; and a spacious dugout that is normally home to the Fukuoka Red Warblers of the semi-professional Shikoku-Kyüshü Island League, the stadium temporarily helps the players forget about the postponed game and the cramped bus ride.
“It’s so amazing,” says relief pitcher Brett Kilburg as the rest of the Movers take photographs of the rain-soaked playing field. “It’s in the middle of nowhere; it’s surrounded by greenery. Everything just fits.”
After hearing the players gush over the stadium, it is obvious that, in addition to the goodwill visit, the trip to Chikuhou Ryokuchi is a blessing for the Movers.
Once the players exchange gifts with the Seinan-Kurume team (The Movers give each team caps from the 2008 Sugar Bowl and have received everything from towels, T-shirts and fans from their Japanese counterparts.), they board the team bus, where Olsen tells them that they have the rest of the afternoon off to relax.
Of course, with the rain worsening, there is not much else the Movers can do — only now they can dream about taking the field at Chikuhou Ryokuchi.
Kyushu University-Fukuoka University, July 1
It is barely 8 a.m. and third base coach Ryan Monico has already revealed the worst possible news: According to the weather forecast, there is a 100 percent chance that thunderstorms will hit Kitakyüshü today.
Considering that the forecast means the team’s game against Kyushu University-Fukuoka University will be canceled, it is not exactly the news that Olsen and pitching coach Blane Muraoka want to hear over breakfast. Still, it is not entirely unexpected.
“Typically on a trip to Japan at this time of the year, this is what happens — some years more than others,” Olsen says. “You get momentum going and then it just stops. Either that, or you are struggling and you get a rest.”
While most of the players are anxious to get back on the field, there are some Movers who could clearly use the extended rest. Inouye is still in quarantine with a cough, and although Silva has rejoined the team, Jordon Monico, the team’s designated hitter, is the latest player to come down with flu-like symptoms.
One of the difficulties of getting sick in a foreign country is finding familiar medicine in drug stores. Although there is a supermarket across the street from the team hotel, the cold medicines are made by Japanese brands with instructions printed in Japanese.
Olsen wants to make sure that he knows what kind of treatment he is giving the players so he has Monico call his father Mario, who will be joining the team in a few days, to have him bring extra Tylenol Cold and a Maalox-buffered pain reliever called Ascriptin.
“That medicine will really help them or anyone else who gets sick,” Olsen says. “Fortunately, Toby looks like he’s getting better on his own. We’ll just have to keep a close eye on them.”
While Inouye and Jordon rest in their rooms, the remaining Movers leave for Chikuhou Ryokuchi once more to exchange omiyage. But unlike yesterday’s lax schedule, Olsen tells the team that they are going to practice today and “burn off some energy.” This is especially important for the position players, many of whom are adjusting to wood bats for the first time in their athletic careers and are going through some difficulty at the plate.
“I think most of the kids have hit with wood bats before, but what they’re coming to realize now that they’re using them every game is that hits don’t come easy,” Ryan Monico says. “That means you have to concentrate on hitting the sweet spot.”
Like anything else in athletics, success comes with practice, and the Movers, who are having the best luck at the plate, are the ones with the most experience using wood bats. That has certainly been the case with shortstop Pi‘ikea Kitamura, the recent Kamehameha graduate who went 4-14 in four games in Hiroshima.
“The transition hasn’t been too hard since I’ve been playing with wood bats for awhile now,” he says. “Since the (high school) season ended that’s all I’ve been playing with.”
But not all of the Movers have transitioned as easily as Kitamura. First baseman Daniel Johnston, for example, has been routinely hitting extra base hits and still does not feel completely comfortable without an aluminum bat.
“I wouldn’t say I adjusted easily,” he says. “I don’t think I’m hitting the ball that great; I think it’s just falling. I think I still have some adjusting to do.”
According to Monico, the best way to “see the ball better” and “translate that into runs in the game” is to take batting practice. With this philosophy in mind, Monico and Olsen take the position players to a covered batting cage near the team’s hotel, while Muraoka works with the pitchers and catchers at a separate facility.
One of the players who Olsen and Monico want to concentrate on is Kalei Hanawahine. A 2009 first team All-State selection out of Kamehameha, Hanawahine has the potential to hurt defenses with his speed and his bat, but he had difficulty keeping the ball down in Hiroshima and the coaches want him to get some extra cuts in.
“He just needs some batting practice, where you just throw and talk to him,” Muraoka told Olsen earlier in the day. “Just so he can get back on track.”
As Olsen works with Hanawahine in the batting cage, Kitamura tosses balls for Breland Almadova to hit against a netted backdrop. Almadova, the 2009 Gatorade Player of the Year from ‘Iolani, and Kitamura, a first team All-State selection, have become close — if not unlikely — friends. Despite the fact that they both played in the same league, attended the same baseball showcases and competed for the same individual awards, it was not until this trip that the two polar opposites got to know each other.
“We’re two totally different people,” Almadova admits. “He’s more outgoing, more talkative; I’m just a laid back kind of guy. I think having a mix is good — we both can learn from each other.”
“I think it’s just our competitiveness and our drive to win and want to play baseball and be the best we can that makes us get along so well,” Kitamura adds.
Before games the two can be found sitting together in the dugout — Almadova quietly focused, Kitamura talking game strategy with anyone near him. The budding friendship is good news for the University of Hawai‘i, where both will play next spring in what is likely UH coach Mike Trapasso’s last chance at a long-term contract extension.
“Right now we’re just trying to get acquainted and have a bond between us,” Almadova says. “Hopefully, going to UH, we’ll keep it and make the team strong.”
After an hour of batting practice, the position players head back to the team hotel to meet up with the pitchers and catchers and find a way to pass the time. Pitcher Clayton Uyechi chooses to mill about the hallway aimlessly, snacking on a jar of peanuts; Ryson Mauricio disappears into his room to take a nap; Hanawahine blasts music from his computer; and Kyle Kanaeholo, Russell Doi, Danny Higa and Almadova play cards in the middle of the hallway.
On the surface, the Movers’ restlessness seems like normal activity for a bunch of young adults on the road. But to those who know them best, it is obvious that the rain has evolved into a form of slow torture.
“They’re crawling up the walls right now,” laughs Olsen. “They have no idea what to do with themselves. Let’s hope for their sake that this rain stops tomorrow.”
Kyushu International University-University of Kitakyushu, July 2
After two days of wet weather, fear of the flu and general boredom, the Movers’ luck finally appears to be changing for the better. With less than 30 minutes until the scheduled 1:30 p.m. match against Kyushu International University-University of Kitakyushu, there are no clouds or raindrops in sight.
“It looks like we might actually get a game in today,” Olsen says. “I have a good feeling about this.”
With the prospect of a game in sight, the players lose themselves in their normal pregame routines. Brett Kilburg sits in a corner of the dugout with his iPod, losing himself in his music. Catcher Lyle Kitagawa meticulously lays out his equipment. Even Toby Inouye, feeling energized after two days of rest, strolls through the dugout. The only missing Mover is Jordon Monico, who is slowly improving, but will rest for the remainder of the team’s stay in Kitakyüshü as a precautionary measure.
“OK guys, let’s go out and win one,” Olsen says during his pregame speech. “We’ve been waiting three days to get here; let’s make it count.”
Although the team is clearly happy to be back in action as they run out of the dugout, it is not hard to tell that they have had an extended layoff. In the top of the first inning, shortstop Masayoshi Katoh, one of the top college hitters in Japan, blasts a ground ball past Kitamura that makes it all the way to the center field wall for a triple. The next batter, designated hitter Yohei Saruwatari, eeks a single down the right field line that easily scores Katoh, followed by outfielder Ryuzo Asoh’s RBI-triple off starting pitcher Clayton Uyechi that puts KIU-Kitakyushu up, 2-0.
Part of the Movers’ problem is obviously rust; the other is Chikuhou Ryokuchi’s AstroTurf. Thanks to the hard, flat surface, ground balls that would normally be singles on a grass field roll all the way to the outfield wall for doubles or triples.
“The ball carries over here like crazy,” says Hanawahine, who has been given the day off. “There’s going to be a lot of runs scored today.”
The Movers leave the inning deflated, but they quickly prove that the fast field can also work to their advantage. With Johnston on first and one out, Mauricio, a second team NAIA All-American from Oregon Tech, hits a towering RBI-double off the left field wall. Moments later, Kitamura’s grounder flies past Katoh at short and into left field for a double. Even when Almadova strikes out to end the inning, there is now life in the Mover dugout.
“If we keep hitting like this, the ball is going to get by them fast — real fast,” closer Pulama Silva says.
After KIU-Kitakyushu scores two more runs on a bases loaded bloop single in the third, Almadova comes to the plate again in the bottom half of the inning. It has been a rough start for the Movers thus far, but an even worse one for the ‘Iolani product who, after grounding out with two men in scoring position in the first inning, misplayed a ball in center field for an error.
But Hanawahine, whose Kamehameha Warriors battled Almadova’s Raiders for ILH supremacy, knows that the lithe center fielder hits better when he is mad. Hanawahine takes one look at Almadova’s grimaced face in the batter’s box, turns to me and whispers, “Guaranteed hit.”
Seconds later, as if on cue, Almadova unleashes a massive shot to left field — the hardest hit ball of the trip — that clears the fence for a three-run, game-tying home run.
The home run turns out to be the spark that the team needed. The following inning, Kanaeholo executes a textbook sacrifice bunt, scoring a run; Mauricio hits a two-run double; and Kitamura sneaks another RBI-grounder past Katoh to pull the Movers away for good.
But even with an 8-4 in the top of the seventh, Olsen decides to pull an ace out of his sleeve. Instead of going to his bullpen to relieve Uyechi, who finishes the afternoon with five strikeouts, he calls in Hiroshi Kobayashi. On any other afternoon, Kobayashi, one of Japan’s upper echelon players, would be the starting pitcher, only he is scheduled to play in an all-star game in two days and Olsen wants to limit his pitch count.
With a slider, curveball, fastball and a forkball in his repertoire, Kobayashi is just about the closest thing to a guaranteed victory — and the Movers know it. Relief pitchers Chris Pascual and Brett Kilburg break out their cameras to take pictures of the star in action. Kitamura compares him to Charlie Sheen’s hard-throwing character in the movie “Major League.” And Kanaeholo offers some advice to the KIU-Kitakyushu players as Kobayashi throws one of his trademark sliders for a strike: “No need swing.”
Kobayashi does, however, prove to be human by giving up a solo home run in the ninth inning. His mortality does not last long. He simply takes his cap off, wipes his brow and methodically ends the game with two consecutive strikeouts.
While all the players are happy to get the 8-5 victory, most of them were satisfied at the mere idea of playing a game today. But for Olsen and the three-year veterans of the team — Kanaeholo and Kitagawa — the win is especially sweet considering that KIU-Kitakyushu defeated them 22-2 two years ago.
After the game, a beaming Olsen takes a few minutes in the dugout alone to savor the team’s efforts.
“Oh, this was a good win for us,” he says. “Those guys just killed us the last time we played them. We could always hit, but what really makes this team good is that we have speed — and that showed today. It sure beats being back at the hotel.”
Kyushu Big6 All-Stars, July 3
“If you guys win this game, you’ll always be remembered here,” pitching coach Blane Muraoka tells the Movers before they take the field against the Kyushu Big6 All-Stars. “I’m talking about being remembered for years.”
While most people would chalk up Muraoka’s statement to hyperbole, there is a lot of truth in it, especially since the Movers have been playing Japanese teams for over two decades. With each passing year, stories from the games have been handed down from player to player, coach to coach. A win today against Kyushu’s best players would certainly add another notch to the Movers’ legacy.
Of course, Kyushu knows the stakes are high as well and comes out of the gate firing. With runners on second and third in the bottom of the first inning, Masayoshi Katoh once again displays how dangerous a hitter he is by blasting a two-run single off the Movers’ Kevin Matsumoto to start the game.
The Movers, however, rebound impressively. Matsumoto battles back from a 3-0 count against the next batter, clean-up hitter Daisaku Shikada, and strikes him out with a full-count fastball, followed by a pop-up to end the inning. The offense responds as well in the second inning when Hanawahine, looking much more confident after the recent batting practice session, knocks in an RBI-single to center field with two outs.
The players should be happy that they have made it a one-run ball game, but there is a surprising – if not alarming — lack of energy coming from the team. Instead of the normal dugout chatter, there is a lackadaisical kind of silence that eventually makes its way onto the field: In the top of the third, the team strikes out 1-2-3, while on defense, Kitamura botches a potential double play grounder. Although the Movers escape the inning without allowing a run, the team’s play is enough to incite co-captain Lyle Kitagawa.
“Let’s go!” he yells from the dugout. “There’s no intensity on the field.”
Things would only get worse from there. When Kyushu outfielder Koji Ogi steals second base with two outs in the fourth, catcher Takayuki Yamashita’s pickoff throw gets by Kitamura and rolls into the outfield, allowing Ogi to advance to third. But instead of stopping the damage there, Almadova’s relay throw is mishandled by Kitamura, which scores Ogi and puts the Movers in a 4-1 hole.
After the inning, Kitamura, normally a solid infielder, slams his glove down on the ground, wraps a towel around his neck, takes a seat in the corner of the dugout and stares blankly into the outfield.
With the Movers’ offense floundering and the defense on shaky ground in the bottom of the fifth inning, Olsen decides to turn the game into a pitching chess match. He brings in the left-handed Pascual, who pitches 1 1/3 scoreless innings before bringing in the right-handed Jyungo Murayama, who strikes out three batters in 1 2/3 innings. By the time the game is over, the Movers and Kyushu send out a combined 12 pitchers (six each).
“This is the last game here,” Olsen says, explaining his strategy. “We’re going to use our best, they’re going to use their best.”
The Movers’ solid pitching holds Kyushu at bay long enough for the offense to gather itself. In the eighth inning, with their heart of the order at the plate and the score still 4-1, the team makes one surprising push.
With men on first and second and two outs, second baseman Russell Doi hits a pop-up that would be caught by third baseman Shohei Tsutsumi probably 99 times out of 100. Only on this day, with the grey clouds overhead cutting down on his visibility, he drops the ball and allows a sprinting Johnston to make it a 4-2 ball game.
The unlikely run finally seems to light a fire under the Movers — one that Kyushu can’t seem to put out, even after they slap in a run off relief pitcher Davis Towne in the ninth to put them ahead 5-2. After Kyushu closer Kohei Iida walks outfielder Toshihisa Hirai with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, followed by a Johnston single, Ryson Mauricio — who went 4-5 with three doubles the previous day — comes to the plate representing the tying run.
It is just the kind of improbable scenario that the Movers hoped for — and it nearly has a fairy tale ending. The team gets off its collective feet when Mauricio zeros in on a slider just outside the strike zone and blasts a line drive down the first base line. From the dugout, it looks like the ball will make its way to the outfield for a double or maybe even a triple, only Kyushu first baseman Takaaki Najai makes a spectacular individual effort, diving for the ball and catching it for the final out.
Although a three-run deficit in the final inning is virtually an insurmountable lead, the bewildered look on the players’ faces suggests that they are genuinely shocked at the outcome. Had Mauricio’s hit traveled a few inches to the right, the game might have had a different outcome; still, it looks like the team will have to make its lasting mark on Kitakyushu another year.
“Well, guys, we just didn’t execute today and that’s what it comes down to,” Olsen says to the players as they gather near the dugout. “We were right there. We execute next time, we win. Simple as that.”
While the loss is a tough one for the players and Olsen, the veteran coach always tries to remain positive. That’s because the Movers play a loaded schedule and “next time” will come very quickly: The team is scheduled to catch a shinkansen (“bullet train”) to Kansai tomorrow, where they will play five games in five days before playing two more mini-tournaments in Ösaka and Sapporo over the next two weeks.
“And the competition is only going to get tougher from here; that’s for sure,” Muraoka adds.
All the coaches agree that the key to a successful trip through Japan relies on the players’ having a short memory — never getting too down in defeat or growing overconfident in victory. Olsen and his staff know that the Movers have what it takes to rebound, but the hanging, almost tangible quiet in the bus proves that losses are never easy to handle, particularly in the moments after they occur.
“It would have been nice to win this one, but we’ll bounce back,” Olsen says in the bus. “These kids don’t like to lose.”
Five minutes into the journey home, the rain starts up again. At first it is a slow drizzle that forces the team to shut the windows. Then it picks up a little more, causing puddles to form on the sides of the road. Before long, the sky opens up and raindrops begin to pelt the bus.
It is just the kind of weather that makes everyone onboard look forward to brighter days ahead.
Editor’s note: The Movers would rebound in Kansai and beyond, finishing their month-long trip with a 6-4-6 record. Shortly after they returned home in August, the team won an international tournament at Les Murakami Stadium featuring the Paradise All-Stars, Sendai University, Kyushu University and the Tokyo Big6 All-Stars, who are widely regarded as the best college players in Japan.