Amherst Baseball's Japanese Adventure
Issue   |   Thu, 08/28/2014 - 17:28

On August 3, the baseball team embarked on a 14-hour journey to the small island country of Japan as part of a cultural exchange. With the help of alumni, coaches and the school administration, Amherst rekindled a partnership with the prestigious Japanese liberal arts school, Doshisha University.

With movie options limited to “Draft Day” (quite possibly one of the worst films of the 21st century; am I really supposed to believe Kevin Costner dates Jennifer Garner?) and a Discovery Channel special on the attack methods of raptors, it was a godsend when we finally landed on Japanese soil. After getting through customs, we were greeted by our Japanese tour guide, and Doshisha alumnus, Akira. Never without a smile, Akira loaded us onto the tour bus, en route to the university dorms. Our first culture shock came in the form of our sleeping arrangements: blankets on the floor. Luckily, the bed situation did not prove to be an issue, as our jet-legged bodies possessed no strength to discriminate between bed or ground.

While a healthy portion of the cultural exchange was set aside for sightseeing and experiencing the finer points of Japanese culture, a major part of our trip was spent playing baseball with, and against, the Doshisha baseball squad.

It quickly became apparent that Japanese baseball is grounded by two main ideals: discipline and respect. While American athletes share similar principles, the Doshisha team took these values to a whole new level. When an authority figure speaks, hats come off, and a bow follows. When the field required maintenance, every single player had a rake and specific job that was completed with absolute perfection. If you think raking the infield dirt is not a difficult job, think again. The entire Doshisha field is dirt, not just the base lines; in fact, while it may seem comical to us, the Doshisha baseball team did not have access to the gym because four years ago a player “appeared to have a bad attitude.”

In terms of baseball mechanics, the Japanese players placed great emphasis on different aspects of the game. While American players pride themselves on overpowering arms, Japanese players preferred focusing on quick glove-to-throwing hand transfers. Amherst players constantly swing for the fences (and often strike out), but Doshisha ballplayers prefer to swing for contact and to simply get on base with a single. Due to the many dissimilarities in our game styles, we took the opportunity to learn from the Doshisha players, with the hopes of improving our overall game. Even though Mike Odenwaelder ’16 can drive the ball 420 feet over the center field fence, Doshisha had the last laugh and used their Moneyball tactics to defeat us, 14-6.

Contrary to initial beliefs, the language barrier did not prove to be a major issue. Luckily, the Doshisha team had two players who spoke excellent English and were able to translate coaches’ speeches or specific parts of drills. Hand gestures and bonding over Japanese MLB players helped to break the awkward silence too.

Off the field, we were fortunate to have the company of Professors Samuel Morse and Trent Maxey of the Asian Languages and Civilizations Department. They worked tirelessly to show us the most interesting and exciting aspects of Japanese culture over our 12 day stay. Most of our sightseeing time was spent exploring magnificent shrines and temples — the most impressive being The Great Temple of the East, the largest wooden structure in the world. The architecture was truly awe-inspiring, and the interior was home to a 50-foot Buddha statue. While I will never forget this cornerstone of the Buddhist religion, I think I speak for all my teammates when I say the most unique and entertaining aspect proved to be the peculiar activity outside. Directly outside the temple, hundreds of deer freely roamed an area much like the Boston Gardens or Central Park.

Visitors were allowed to pet and feed these animals at will. We all posed for pictures with the deer and gathered all the change in our pockets to pay for some deer food at a nearby stand. While these animals were technically wild creatures, they possessed a certain domesticated flair. After approaching a deer, we would bow our heads, and the deer would return the bow, expecting a treat in return much like a household dog. Needless to say, all of us were in utter shock, and it took a while for Coach Hamm to convince us that it was time to leave.

At the end of the trip, we tossed on our suits and ties and traveled to the Foreign Ministry. We had the amazing opportunity to sit through a private meeting with Parliamentary Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hirotaka Ishihara. Following the meeting, we were welcomed to a reception dinner, hosted by Amherst grads who now work for the ministry. It was inspiring to see close to ten former Amherst students now working for the Japanese parliament.

While touring the city of Tokyo with teammates, riding the bullet train and enjoying the fabulous dining were very memorable parts of the cultural exchange, I personally liked running a baseball camp for the students of Tagajo Middle School the most.

Most of the Tagajo players were displaced by the 2011 tsunami, and some still lived in temporary housing. These children have already gone through so much at such a young age, but their spirits are not broken. Smiles were painted across all these young athletes faces, and the baseball field seemed to be their safe haven. The parents and students looked at us like we were heroes, and they appeared so grateful for our small display of giving back to their community.

I truly will never forget the look on one of the student’s face when I gave him my Amherst hat at the end of the camp. He acted as though Babe Ruth had just handed him an autographed bat. That is what I will remember most about our cultural exchange. It wasn’t the five-star hotels or the Major League Baseball game. It was the look of absolute elation on the face of a 12-year-old boy. As athletes, we are lucky because our games are more than a home run or a game-tying goal. We have the opportunity to experience events that others do not and feel things others may not have the chance to. The Amherst baseball team’s trip to Japan was far more than a vacation. It was a life-changing experience. Whoever said sports have the ability to transcend outside the field could not have been more spot on. In the end, the face of that young Tagajo player summed up my feelings for our Japanese cultural exchange: utter amazement.