By RYOKO NAKAMURA
RAFU JAPANESE STAFF WRITER
Under a beautiful California blue sky, 22 baseball players from Rissho University in Japan stood in Dodger Stadium, on the same well-maintained natural grass where respected Japanese players, such as Hideo Nomo, Kazuhisa Ishii, Takashi Saito, and others, used to play.
“Amazing!” was the word repeatedly came out of the student athletes’ mouths as they kept their sparkling eyes on the stadium. They realized that one of their dreams had just come true — to stand in the birthplace of baseball, America.
Rissho University, which has campuses in Tokyo and Saitama, has sent its third-year baseball players to Los Angeles in each of the past two summers, to play exhibition games with American teams and experience cultural and educational exchanges as a part of the school curriculum.
The curriculum includes learning Japanese American history at the Japanese American National Museum, visiting the Go For Broke monument, touring the campus of the University of Southern California, and attending a biokinesiology lecture by Dr. Jonathan Sum, PT, assistant professor of clinical physical therapy.
These educational activities as well as the exhibition games made possible through the efforts of the Far East Baseball Exchange, which was established last year to build a bridge of understanding between Asia and the United States through the great game of baseball.
FebEx offers programs to allow youth from both the U.S. and Asia to come together on a common baseball field, to share and exchange their cultures, ideas, visions, hopes, and dreams.
Mike Gin and Josh Morey, co-founders of FebEx, grew up playing baseball and have been coordinating Rissho’s exchange since the program’s inception.
Through his own experience of living in Japan as an exchange student, Morey fully understands the importance of exchange programs.
“When you leave your country and see how other people live outside of your world-view, you learn a lot,” he explained. “That’s how we want the educational, cultural, and athletic exchange program to be.”
At Dodger Stadium, the Rissho students personally witnessed the large-scale, well-maintained facilities and were reminded of the powerful performances of all of their Major League Baseball heroes.
Before the game, Dodgers bench coach Trey Hillman, who managed the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters of Japan’s Pacific League from 2003 to 2007, spoke to the young players and encouraged them to work harder.
In his speech, Hillman explained the differences between American and Japanese baseball, and he made a clear point that practice makes the difference, not body size.
Outfielder Ryo Yamanouchi said, “I have a small build for a baseball player, so Hillman’s speech inspired me to keep practicing to become a better player.”
At the game, the Dodgers honored former pitcher Hideo Nomo, who paved the way for subsequent waves of Japanese players entering Major League Baseball. The Rissho students were thrilled to see him throw the ceremonial first pitch live — using his signature move that has been nicknamed “Tornado.”
Catcher Ryohei Suda was excited to feel the enthusiasm generating by the Dodgers fans, an energy that seemed distinctly American to him. He also mentioned the games he played with local American teams.
“When I made it to first, the first baseman complimented me on my batting skills. That rarely happens in Japan. I think we should be friendlier to our opponents, like the American players,” said Suda.
Infielder Kento Itakura, the team leader, said, “During this one-week educational tour, we developed a stronger bond as a team. We were amazed by American players’ physical strength, but certain our technique was better. We can definitely apply everything we learned in Los Angeles to our upcoming league games.”
Rissho’s coach, Keita Koyama, who worked with the Atlanta Braves and the Kansas City Royals as a certified athletic trainer with the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, said that Japanese youth had more introverted natures and needed a little push to get outside of their comfort zone.
“But once they are out in a different environment, they get stimulated. That makes them grow as players and as people,” Koyama said.
In the hopes of fostering relationships of international sportsmanship with various organizations, FebEx pledged ongoing support for Rissho’s program.
Gin remarked that he and Morey could attribute their leadership skills to playing baseball. Gin said, “These young athletes have the same potential. We can initiate, nurture, and create opportunities for the next generation. Baseball has done a lot for me in my life, so this is the way I can give back.”
The MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton is interested in sending American players to Japan every two years. FebEx and MLBUYA are currently coordinating the exchange program with the help of Rissho University.