Sunday Baseball 2012

August 21, 2012 at 6:27 pm

Young Ijusha Teams Dominating JC Sunday Ball

by Mel Tsuji

TORONTO – Big surprises could be in store as the Japanese Canadian Sunday Baseball League starts its playoffs here in early August.

League standings at the end of July point to big upsets and possibly a new champion, primarily because of the influence and rise of shin ijusha (new immigrant) teams. The former cellar-dwellers, the Whales, have become the season leaders, going undefeated due to the leadership of their manager/owner, Taro Akiyama. The Tigers, champions the last two years, are in 2nd place, but only because it has the league’s best pitcher and MVP, Tsukasa Murakoso, former star pitcher with Meiji University in Japan. The Giants, league champs just three years ago, now linger near the cellar. And the Warriors, who used to be the perennial champions up until four years ago, now struggle in 4th place.

Whales players set up the newly-acquired batting cage just off the playing field at Greenwood Park in Toronto.

Akiyama talks with one of his players prior to a game in the Japanese Canadian Sunday Baseball League in Toronto

The reason for this topsy-turvy season can be attributed directly to the ijusha players.  They play a game that is strongly reminiscent of the pre-war Asahi — strong on pitching, defense, hustle and opportunistic hitting and base-running. Akiyama in particular has been a prime mover in the transformation of the league. He’s an older immigrant from Japan who shows new arrivals what he had to go through as a high school player in Shikoku.  He insists his players arrive an hour or two before games on Sundays – and puts them through a vigorous workout of sprints, exercises then fielding and batting practice. He bought his team the only batting net used in the league, and uses it to teach younger players who might not have played top flight, high school baseball in Japan like he did.

Akiyama also owns and operates a very successful fish store in Toronto (Taro’s Fish).  His website reflects his inventory, but a key link on the site is his baseball team.  It’s filled with pictures and stories about the team.

The other ijusha teams, the Tigers and Warriors,  have the same enthusiasm and pipelines to the many young Japanese men, who come to Toronto on Working-Holiday visas, which enable them to work here for up to three years.  Many are former ball players, but Akiyama pushes luck in his favor by recruiting players from his former home in Shikoku. Koji Yamane, the star player for the Warriors, says he sees many young Japanese in his job marketing and recruiting for an English conversation school in Toronto.

“They want to leave Japan,” he said.  “They want a change and they want to stay here.”

A key reason why so many Japanese are coming here on the working-holiday visa is the chance it gives them to start a new life. Jobs are still hard to come by in Japan because of the effects of the recession.  Yamane says it becomes even more difficult to go back to Japan, after a working-holiday experience, because of the jobs scarcity.

“This is why Working-Holiday people want to stay here,” says Yamane, “If they can extend their one year visa to three and maybe longer, it’s worth it for them to stay here.”

As for the other teams in the Sunday league, they’re struggling to keep up with ijusha-spirited teams. They’re the Giants, Asahi and Tenino, made up mostly of Canadian-born players, but they’re getting too old.

“We’re an aging team.  We all got kids now,” says Chris Morton, the Japanese Canadian manager of the Asahi team.

Morton says his players range in age from 26 to 50 with the average 40 years of age.  Compounding the problem for his team, he says is “we don’t practice anymore.  We used to.”

Tanino Lee, Manager of the Giants, concurs with that assessment: “Age has caught up to the Warriors, Asahi and us.  The other teams have an influx of youth and it’s starting to show.  All games have been close, but the younger teams have closed the gap significantly and have probably overtaken the old guard.”