By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor
PACIFIC PALISADES.–Saturday’s gathering at the Riviera Country Club was organized to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the World Children’s Baseball Fair, but it soon became evident that this may be one of the last public joint appearances of the world’s two greatest home run hitters.
Hank Aaron, who broke Babe Ruth’s record in 1974 and finished his career with 755 homers, will be 78 next month and is hobbled by an ailing knee. Japanese legend Sadaharu Oh, whose mark of 868 long balls may never be reached, is now 71. Given the time and energy necessary to get the two aging legends together, any meeting with both is an occasion to be treasured.
It was at one of their first meetings, some 30 years ago in Tokyo, that the sluggers hatched an idea that would become the not-for-profit WCBF, which since its first meeting in 1990 has hosted more than 4,700 boys and girls from 85 countries and six continents.
“We were making a commercial for coffee in Japan,” Oh remembered. “While we were shooting, we had time to chat and got to talking about what kinds of things we could do after we both retired. We both had ideas about giving back, mostly to children, through the sport of baseball. We wanted to help spread the greatness of the sport of baseball, and here we are, after more than 20 years.”
Aaron and Oh soon presented their concept to Dr. Akiko Agishi, and the trio laid out plans to organize a camp for 10- to 11-year-old youngsters to gather and learn about baseball – and each other.
“When we initially started this, it wasn’t just to help some kid wanting to learn to play baseball,” Aaron explained. “It was planned to help international kids learn what kids in Japan were like as well as kids in other countries.”
The inaugural WCBF camp was held at UCLA’s Jackie Robinson Stadium in 1990. Since then, the annual event, which was created to foster teamwork, good health, discipline and friendship, has taken place in cities across Japan, in San Diego, Canada, and last year, in Kaosiung, Taiwan.
Aaron and Oh were honored with three awards at the sold-out luncheon, from the North American arm of the WCBF, Major League Baseball and the International Baseball Federation.
Also on hand were Hall of Fame player Frank Robinson, former Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley and MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, who praised the organization for growing the relationship between kids and baseball.
“It’s one of the few things in life that binds generations together,” he said. “I think all of us can remember the first time our parents or grandparents took us to a Major League Baseball game. That’s the beauty therein.”
Selig also announced that MLB was donating $10,000 do help fund the WCBF programs.
KABC television sports anchor Rob Fukuzaki, who moderated a pre-luncheon press conference and emceed the awards ceremony, asked about how the WCBF has built bridges between youngsters of different countries and cultures.
Hall of Fame base-stealer Lou Brock, who has attended more than 15 of the camps, said he was mightily impressed when he first heard of the WCBF and its focus on global understanding.
“It is a testament to this program that kids will come out to the first day of the program and learn something about baseball,” Brock said. “Then they go back to the dormitories and the incredible thing you hear is the language of baseball, coming from every kid from every country. Every time a baseball was thrown they yelled, ‘Strike!’ having maybe just learned the word.”
Richard Yamaguchi, Jr., who was a young participant in 1991 and later an adult chaperone in 2002, commented, “Kids who speak different languages seem to get along and get to know each other much better than adults who speak the same language.”
While the conversation of the day centered around the WCBF and its work with children, one reporter asked Aaron about his home run record and his thoughts on players – with an unnamed reference to Barry Bonds – whose achievements may be tainted by the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Aaron, who seems to face such questioning wherever he goes, was visibly irked by the question and initially deferred to Selig, who had just joined the meeting. He later addressed it, however, using it as a teachable moment.
“The most important thing to tell a kid is that there is no shortcut in life,” he explained. “We are sure to tell them that they may not ever play MLB, but the most important thing is to have fun while they’re there. And whether they become doctors, lawyers or whatever, there are absolutely no shortcuts in life. If you can instill that in them and have them understand that, I think you’ve got a successful kid.”
Former baseball greats who have participated in WCBF camps include Willie Mays, Joe Dimaggio, Harmon Killebrew and Ernie Banks. Brock commented that despite their fame in baseball, they are not immune from mistakes, and it is important to reach kids in a way that helps to motivate them, to light a spark and help them strive to be their best.
“A 4-year-old boy told me once that he was quitting baseball, and when I asked why, he said, ‘When my mom pitches to me, she won’t hit my bat.’ I thought that was unique,” Brock recalled. “I told that kid, ‘I knew a pitcher named Sandy Koufax and he wouldn’t hit my bat, either.’”
This year’s World Children’s Baseball Fair gathering is being planned to take place in August in Mie Prefecture, in central Japan. Agishi said the legions of volunteers around the world are what make the organization as successful as it has been for more than two decades.
Oh said he plans to be there and will remind the participants, players and coaches alike, to make the most of the abilities they have.
“I want to tell kids to try; each child has a different take on the sport and you can’t expect to always have the absolute answer,” Oh said. “I want kids to try their best and what they get out out of baseball is up to them. It’s the trying that is most important.”
For more information about the World Children’s Baseball Fair, contact Dr. Akiko Agishi at (323) 969-9410, or visit the website, www.wcbf.org.