Summer tournament is big in Japan
Boys have become legends based on Koshien performances
TOKYO -- Most of the Boys of Summer thrilling crowds at Koshien Stadium are just that. Boys.
And many of them may never wear the stripes of Koshien's Hanshin Tigers, although the very best among players at the National High School Baseball Championship earn a legendary status that carries them to the pros, whether it is inside the lines or inside the press box.
More important than the spring invitational tournament at Koshien, the summer Koshien tournament is where 49 teams from Japan's 47 prefectures play single-elimination for 15 days in the Hyogo Prefecture heat. Summer Koshien truly is the best of the best, a collection of teams that have won the equivalent of a state championship for the right to go to Japan's most hallowed field.
And make no mistake, the whole tournament is a spectacle.
Grown men talk about it in bars, sports dailies give star high-schoolers front-page treatment normally enjoyed by the likes of Hideki Matsui (himself a former Koshien hero) and other big names, and taxi drivers demand absolute quiet as the game plays on mini TV sets built into their dashboards. The crowd's not just moms and dads, needless to say.
That's not to mention what it means to the players, who endure massive competition to land a spot on a team that requires a year-round commitment and lengthy days that can make some salarymen look lazy.
Players often don't have time for life outside baseball, so their investment in time alone is huge. And so is the disappointment for the 48 teams that fall short of Koshien glory.
One of the most famous perennial scenes is players from the losing team kneeling, with tears streaming down their faces, to scoop up some dirt from Koshien's infield to take home as a souvenir. If they can't take home first place, at least they get something out of it.
But for the winners, the prize is much greater.
Back in 1998, a Koshien star was born, and after leading Japan to the World Baseball Classic championship, he is coming to a Major League stadium near you.
Daisuke Matsuzaka, all but guaranteed to be posted to the Majors after this season, was famous through Japan long before he ever put on a Seibu Lions uniform.
Matsuzaka led Yokohama to a Koshien double in 1998, as the school won the spring and summer tournaments, Matsuzaka turning in a 250-pitch complete game in Yokohama's win over tradition-rich PL Gakuen and throwing a no-hitter in the championship game in the August classic.
Matsuzaka's rubber arm and nasty fastball have made him the scourge of Pacific League hitters ever since, as the "Monster of the Heisei Era" has won ERA titles, pitched in Japan Series (winning a title in 2002) and dominated in the Classic.
Everyone remembers Matsuzaka, and some people even remember the guy who took the loss the day of the 17-inning marathon, Satoshi Kamishige.
While Matsuzaka skipped college, Kamishige -- who threw the final nine innings against Yokohama -- played college ball before he blew out his elbow. Now he covers baseball for Nippon TV, where he works with Matsuzaka's wife.
A week into the 86th Summer Koshien, a nation waits for the next Matsuzaka. Although rules have been changed to prevent a 17-inning game ever to be played again in the tournament, the hype has not diminished.
The hot team coming into tournament, which began Aug. 6, is Komadai Tomakomai, which is looking to complete the first three-peat since Chukyo Shogyo did it from 1931-33.
Right now, all eyes are on pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, who many expect to be the top pick in this year's draft. Tanaka struck out 14 in a complete-game effort as Komadai broke into the third round, beating Nanyo Kogyo after a first-round bye.
Yokohama entered the tournament with high hopes after winning Spring Koshien -- the team's first championship since the days of Matsuzaka -- and beating Komadai in an exhibition game earlier in the summer. But after drawing Osaka Toin, another powerhouse, in the first round, Yokohama was eliminated, losing 11-6.
Seiho, which fell 21-0 in the spring final, bounced back with a 22-3 win over Konan to advance. Without a chance for vengeance against Yokohama, Seiho will look within for motivation.
Finding the will to win, however, is not much of a problem at Koshien, especially for Waseda Jitsugyo, playing for its most-distinguished alumnus, Japan home-run king Sadaharu Oh, who has battled stomach cancer this summer.
Oh had his stomach removed and was discharged from the hospital, but returned on Aug. 6 after choking on food.
With Oh back in the hospital, Waseda responded with a 13-1 victory in its opener.
With half a tournament to go, Summer Koshien's best stories likely are ahead. When the dust settles, one team will be hoisting a trophy and all the rest will have nothing but dirt to show for it.
But that's Koshien for you.
Stephen Ellsesser is a reporter for The Japan Times and a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.