baseball

From the Land of the Rising Heat

Roki Sasaki.

The next monster of one hundred years.

A spindly 16-year old who was born to hurl a baseball. To throw at blinding speeds. All of his long-limbed body folding and unfolding in proper timing and efficiency, to unleash a sonic boom with the snap of his right wrist. Eliciting oohs-and-ahhs with every blaze of glory. Poor high school hitters, trying to make sense of phenomenal warp speeds—fanning blindly at the gust of baseball wind rushing past them. Failing with the futility of trying to drink soup with a single chopstick. No chance in this world or any other.

It is the stuff of anime or manga lore. A Chosen Boy, rising to national prominence. The Japanese Dream. Gracing the nation’s newspapers. Dominating long segments of airtime on nightly primetime. Triggering the tweets of celebrities. A whole country in rapt attention of Sasaki’s mound exploits. If you’ve been following Japanese baseball for any amount of time, you know the cadence and intensity the country’s mainstream fervor burns with. You’ve experienced the hallowed tones used to speak of these myths who emerge from the depths of Japan. Splashing to the surface fully realized, heaven sent from the mountain top, into the spotlight of Japanese media hysteria. First there was Dice-K, then Darvish, then Ma-kun. All moving along the celestial baseball timeline. Now, here stands Roki Sasaki. Number one in your program. Number one trending topic.

There is an obvious innocence when you see Roki standing on the mound. He’s just doing what he’s done every day of his life. It’s impossible for him to know that the very axis of baseball power now spins around him like a tightly wound slider.

It’s impossible for him to know that a single speeding fastball from his fingertips, topping 100 mph cracks the earth to its very core. That it sends a tremor over land and cyber space. A single Sasaki pitch, in less than a second, travels the world. The smack of the catcher’s glove, mass broadcasting a clear message. Announcing a presence. A baseball Spector. A new man-child has awakened in Japan.

Ready your scouts.

Prepare your fanbases.

Notify your coaches. Ping the redditors. The hype is resonating. Empty your pockets and prepare your best offers. Work on your Japanese etiquette. For soon, baseball innocence will be ready for market. This innate ability is available to be bought and sold. This lively arm is ready to join the arms race immemorial between Yankees and would-be-Yankee-killers. Always just one mystical pitching arm away from tipping the balance of power in the baseball universe.

Roki knows not which chalk line he is drawing nearer every day. His moment of crossing is coming. The final inning change. Until then, the redditors are worm-holing deep into a wikipedia frenzy. The American sportswriters are firing up their mobile word processors. We’ve got a live one here boys. Hear that? That’s the sound of a thousand bloggers cueing up lofty think pieces lauding the modernity of American baseball’s reliance on science, and bashing the archaic ways of Japanese ball that would put young pitcher’s arm in danger through stoic, traditional overwork. For in Japan, pitchers throw everyday without mercy. Without rest. (And in the darkest parts of Japanese baseball, without water.) For here, pitch limits don’t exist and taking a starter out of a game is viewed as a sign of weakness.

Young Roki is sparkling culture shock in the sporting world. The presumptuous and stubborn East versus West debate. Old school versus new school. Wrong versus right. Crystalized through the lens of sport. One of the most rooted in tradition sports. Which has yielded vastly different mentalities and ballplayers on two sides of the world.

Young Roki? He’s just trying to climb to the top of Japanese baseball Mt. Everest. He stands now on a Mt. Fuji peak, ruling Japan, and looking to claim legitimate baseball immortality by powering his team all the way to the Koshien title. To win the national high school baseball tournament. For in Japan, this conquest carries a perpetual cultural royalty. It’s a deep sporting honor on par with rising to national fame during March Madness. Even millionaire Japanese MLB stars, like Dice-K and Darvish still speak in reverent tones about their time at Koshien. Considering it the crowning jewel of their careers. For better or worse, it’s all down hill from the cultural highs of Koshien.

Hence the intense burn. Hence the meteoric pitch counts. Hence the literal embrace of giving everything for the good of your team. It’s an iconic sacrifice that echoes the Japanese love of the collective. The country rallies around, imbuing itself with a self-confirmation of their national identity, holding a mirror up top who they really are, all by living vicariously through young sports stars in the national spotlight. Young icons who leave fleeting but indelible impressions on the psyche of a nation.

And so now, in this moment, the world turns to Roki Sasaki. It turns for Roki. For now he unwittingly shoulders the weight and soul of this island nation. Shoulders that are still developing, that are already capable of unusual feats of diamond magic and of turning the world’s head with the snap of a lethal, embarassment-wreaking breaking ball.

Enter Roki Sasaki.

Is This Heaven? No, It's Rural Japan...

Many moons ago, Nike was thinking about producing baseball gear and they brought me in to test their prototypes. I came into campus, took some BP, threw some long toss and gave detailed feedback about how I felt. A couple of weeks later, they’d make some tweaks and we’d do it again. It was a dream gig for a high schooler. After that, I continued pushing my baseball career until I eventually had a major league tryout as a pitcher. A few weeks ago I found myself on a pristine baseball field in rural Japan, shooting an amazing 15-year old female baseball pitcher for a Nike commercial. It was one of those Field of Dreams type moments of nostalgia where you think about the journey and are grateful for all the talented teammates you’ve been lucky to have along the way. Thank you to @atlasfoto for your eye and soul capturing this personal moment of reflection in the middle of our intense work grind.  ️

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