What I didn't know baseball could be
I am standing on the side of a packed-dirt baseball field with my old Rawlings baseball glove hanging from my left hand, the warm Northern Japanese sun shining down around me.
I've decided to get to know my high school students on an interest-based level at a softball team practice. Mr. Otomo, the team's slight and timid young faculty adviser, stands next to me and laughs when I call him "coach." We are having a dynamic conversation about the high price of fruit in Japan as we watch a few girls carry a water jug from the opposite side of the school grounds across the large field.
Everyone is wearing school-issued sweat suits; polyester light-blue jackets or team T-shirts with black polyester sweat pants. Towels are wrapped like scarves around necks to absorb perspiration.
The girls spread out in two lines facing each other to throw and catch. The team captain, Yokie, pairs with me. She sports a black visor and a well-broken-in Mizuno baseball glove over an even more tattered batting glove. Typical of the confusing English commonly found on Japanese clothing, the yellow writing on her royal-blue T-shirt declares: "We are swimmer, we can win!"
Back in my days on the diamond, my high school team was mediocre. We came to practice to gossip and drink juice, as much as to play ball.
I had come to today's practice assuming that my petite students would probably not execute this variant of the good old American game with much expertise.
As I look around, though, I notice that every one of these high-voiced ladies is throwing like a seasoned athlete. Yokie casually mentions that her team was undefeated last year, and I realize that any one of these young women would have been the best on my high school team.
I'm thinking so intently about how immodest and ethnocentric my outlook had been that I don't immediately notice the buzz on the field.
No, I must be hearing it wrong. I listen more closely.
After every single throw, the girl catching says, "Nice tro!"
After every single catch, the girl throwing says, "Nice catchu!"
Behind me, too, I hear echoes from the tennis courts of "Nice one!" The tennis team has the same enthusiasm; it's a phenomenon.
These exclamations are taking place in Japanese-accented English, and somehow this makes the concept even more incomprehensible to me.
The most dynamic verbal exchange during softball warm-ups in my school contained the occasional "Nice throw." But much more prevalent was "Ugh," as a ball got past a player and she had to run behind some bushes to retrieve it.
Here on this softball field, I see two lines of girls who are not only throwing and catching for 15 minutes straight, but who are also screaming, "Nice tro!" "Nice catchu!" every time. It seems second nature: a spirited barrage of compliment-laced throwing and catching. At two throws every 20 seconds, and one yelp per throw, per player, every girl is yelping three times per minute, for 15 minutes. That's 45 yelps just during warm-up.
I don't think I said "Nice throw!" or "Nice catch!" 45 times all season, counting championship play, back in the glowing days of my youth.
After a break, the girls take to the field of their own volition, no prodding from the coach, who is observing the town's auburn-roofed skyline. Otomo finally turns around and, seeing a pitching machine in the middle of the field and 12 girls spread around it, remembers where he is. He joins me in the outfield to recover balls.
A 16-year-old named Chie, who wears red sweatbands on her wrists and her pants rolled up to her knees, is the first at bat. She stands at the plate and shouts, "dozo yoroshiku!" and bows to the players in the field. Everyone bows and yells "dozo yoroshiku!" back to her, and now everyone has declaimed the Japanese version of "Pleased to see you."
Chie assumes the stance of a Willie Mays and smacks some hard line drives. The fielders get mud-stains; they don't let many balls pass. Otomo and I play with the grass.
Every play features a smattering of "Nice tro!" and "Nice catchu!" Chie smacks one more hard to third base and, when the play is made, she bows again and screams, "Arigato gozaimashita!" (Thank you very much!) Every fielder bows back and says the same in response.
I have never seen the likes of this on any playing field anywhere and, finally, I am aghast. "Thank you very much?" Suddenly, I feel so far from my home where we fervently say "You stink" much more often than the gratuities I've heard here.
The pattern continues through 12 batters with the same bows and the same verbal exchanges. Through the entire 3-1/2 hours of practice, the girls transition smoothly and politely from drill to drill.
Practice is over after slow team stretches and unanimously participatory equipment clean-up.
Slight hostility and laziness were accepted as simply part of the game back in my youth on a Western field of dreams. These girls have mastered the idea of friendly competition self-sufficiently and, it appears, willingly.
Maybe self-discipline and saying "pleased to see you" on the ball field are part of the reason this team is undefeated and better than my old team ever was.
Maybe friendly competition doesn't stink.