FanPost

FanPost Friday - Hanshin Koshien Stadium

photo via wikipedia

Here is a fantastic FanPost by poster KaminaAyato on their experience witnessing the famous Natsu Koshien Japanese High School Baseball tournament in 2006.

This is a no-brainer for me. While my passion for Japanese HS Baseball has waned in recent years due to the dominance of a handful of schools, watching kids play in front of not just massive crowds, the nation, and even the world now with the internet is amazing.

But it was back in 2006 when I travelled to Japan specifically to watch the Natsu (Summer) Koshien tournament for the first time. I had watched the games on the internet, but this time around I would get to watch each game of all 15 (well, scheduled for anyways) live.

Admittedly though, if you're not a powerhouse most times the stadium was empty for the early rounds. The cheering sections (ouen-dan) on the other hand, would be full of each team's supporters with their band, their cheers filling the stadium each time their team was at bat.

I was fortunate enough that in the year was one of the most exciting tournaments from start to finish.

Opening day, Yokohama vs Osaka Touin, two powerhouses of the game. This was before Osaka Touin would start their unprecedented run that still continues today with a 50% championship rate when they appear at Koshien. Here I would see Nakata Shou for the first time, and at one point I thought he would be coming to the states. But his numbers have declined in recent years, he opted to stay with the Nippon Ham Fighters, and he'll probably stay in Japan for his career.

Day 3, Kanzei vs Bunsei Geidai Fuzoku, Kanzei from Okayama (neighbor of Hiroshima) suffered back luck the past couple of times at Koshien. The prior summer they blew a 10-4 lead to Kyoto Gaidai Nishi to lose 12-10. Then earlier in the spring, they had a 7-7 draw versus Tokyo squad Waseda Jitsugyou (alma mater of Sadaharu Oh). In the replay, Kanzei would lead 3-2 in the top of the 9th, 2 out. But a ball hit to right goes under the RF's glove leading to 2 runs and a 4-3 loss. I was rooting for them to at least get past the first round this time around.

Ace Dass Romash would enter the game for Kanzei, keeping the game tied at 4-4. His team would stake him 5 runs in the Lucky 7th and you thought they would be through. But instead the pressure would get to him as he would give up 7 runs in the final 2 innings as his team would lose another heartbreaker 11-10.

Day 4, I get to see Ichiro's alma mater, Aikoudai Meiden play at Koshien, but lose to Kyoto's representative Fukuchiyama Seibi 6-4.

Day 5, Minami (South) Hokkaido's representative Komadai Tomakomai defeats Nanyou Kougyou of Yamaguchi 5-3 behind a 14K effort of some guy by the name of Tanaka Masahiro. Komadai Tomakomai had won the last 2 Natsu Koshien tournaments and were seeking an unprecedented 3rd in a row. Not only was winning 2 in a row impressive, but coming from a team from Hokkaido was unheard of. No team from Hokkaido had won a title until that point.

Day 7, The aforementioned Waseda Jitsugyou blows out Osaka Touin 11-2 marking 2 consecutive games of 10+ runs scored.

Day 10, After Tanaka is benched to give him rest, and the bullpen puts them behind 6-1 against Aomori Yamada, he buys his team time to score 8 runs after the 5th inning break, including the final 2 in the bottom the 9th to win 10-9. One had to wonder after reaching the Round of 16 in this manner if perhaps the 3-peat was going to happen.

Day 11, The draw for the quarterfinals happens after the first game of the day where Waseda Jitsugyou again is unchallenged. For now, the two colliding powerhouses avoid each other in the quarterfinals. Right afterwards, Nichidai Yamagata blows a 7-4 lead against Imabari Nishi, rallies to tie the game, and then somehow rallies again in the 13th scoring 3 to win 11-10.

Day 12, Quarterfinal #1 sees the run seemingly end for Komadai Tomakomai as Touyoudai Himeji scores 4 early runs against Tanaka. Once again though the cardiac kids dig down, scoring 4 in the 6th and one more in the 7th as they come back to win 5-4 to reach the semifinals.

The semifinal draw happens right after that, and the crowd gasps in anticipation as one again Komadai Tomakomai and Waseda Jitsugyou would not oppose each other again, meaning that if they would face off it would be in the finals.

Quarterfinal #2 was a game I will never forget. Or rather a 9th inning I'll never forget. Teikyou trailing Chiben Wakayama 8-4 top 9, runners on 1st and 2nd, 2 out. Teikyou rattles of 5 consecutive hits turning a 8-4 deficit into a 9-8 lead. Up comes Numata, who had PH earlier in the inning. He caps it off with a 3-run HR, giving Teikyou a 12-8 lead heading into the bottom of the 9th. All they need is 3 outs and they're in the semifinals.

In comes CF Katsumi to pitch, and I figure that's ok because teams have pitchers come in from other positions all the time. No problem.

Walk. Not even close.

Walk. Not even close.

Something's not right here...

Home Run. 12-11.

Oh no...

Walk.

SS Sugitani comes in to pitch.

I look through the program to find Teikyou's prefectural results.

Walk.

#16 Okano comes off the bench to pitch, and that's when I see it. Teikyou had pinch hit for the last pitcher they used during prefectural qualifying...

I exclaimed in English startling everyone around me, "Teikyou has no pitchers left!!"

Sure enough, Okano would record just one out as they walked in the winning run, giving Chiben Wakayama the 13-12 win. Teikyou was never the same after that, and never was able to build a pitching staff that could support their offensive tendencies.

Day 15, Championship. Komadai Tomakomai and Waseda Jitsugyou would indeed meet in the finals. Tanaka Masahiro versus the darling of girls and moms everywhere - Saitou Yuuki. (He got that attention because whenever he got into trouble on the mound, he would take a handkerchief that his mom gave him, wipe his brow, and then get out of the jam. Needless to say girls swooned over his cuteness and moms adored the gesture. Also, the handkerchiefs were sold out at all stores.)

Tanaka wouldn't start, but he would finish. as the teams scrapped for any type of offense. Each team would score a run in the 8th, but they would head to extra innings (enchousen). Soon, 10 innings became 11 and became 12, and it felt inevitable that they would draw after 15 (my video there). Sure enough, the title wasn't going to be decided in one day as the teams would have to return the very next day (Monday) to settle the score.

Despite it being a Monday, lines had formed overnight to get in. I was fortunate to have met a person travelling down from Hokkaido who was going to get the day off and come again. How I found him in line I'll never know, but I got in and got a good seat. Tanaka wouldn't start again, and this time Waseda would get to him scoring a quick run. Knowing the stakes, Tanaka would immediately come in and the battle commenced.

Yet it was Saitou who was getting the better of the matchup eventually extending the lead to 4-1 heading into the 9th. It looked like it was going to go out with a whimper instead of a bang.

I went to record the final inning because I figured this game having gone to replay was historic enough.

But when after a leadoff single Nakazawa hits a 2-run HR to center, it's seemingly game on.

Two outs later, and wouldn't you know it, with the game on the line, it's Saitou Yuuki vs Tanaka Masahiro. Ace on ace for could be the last at bat.

And despite the band playing, and the crowd cheering them on, Tanaka would strike out to end the game as Waseda Jitsugyou would claim the title.

All this happened (and more!) at the one Koshien tournament I went to see. I would continue following Japanese HS baseball to this day, though I am now more cynical about it now.

It was also a landmark event for the two aces. Having won the tournament, and pitched in all but 2 outs for his team, Saitou Yuuki was slated to be the top pick in the draft. However, he would heed his mother's wishes and attend Waseda University instead. TV stations starting picking up the Tokyo Big 6 League live on TV as fans rushed to watch him play.

As a result Tanaka was the beneficiary, becoming the de facto top pick. 4 teams would select him in the opening round, and the winner of the lottery was the newly formed Tohoku Rakuen Golden Eagles. He would go on to deliver a Japan Series for the team during his perfect season before leaving for the states.

Saitou would excel at Waseda, and was slated again to be an opening round pick. It would be his counterpart Ooishi Tatsuya though that would get the most interest with 6 teams selecting him while Saitou got 4. The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters would win the lottery. Perfect timing it seemed as they were facing the loss of Yu Darvish to the states.

But something seemed to have affected him, whether it was all the attention he continue to garner or the fact that he wasn't the big catch out of the draft. Either way, he has struggled to this day to meet the expectations that were foisted upon him. Nowadays, the joke goes that he isn't the Handkerchief Prince (ハンカチ王子), but half a prince instead (半価値王子). Both phrases are phonetically the same way.

So Hanshin Koushien holds a place for me, mostly because twice a year teams come here to try and stake their claim in baseball history. Yes, more often than not it's for the powerhouses, but sometimes magic does happen, and it's great when it does.