The summer of 1986. Carrying the number “1” on his back.
I returned to practice in the spring of my sophomore year after recovering from an internal illness. As I recall, I pitched in and won a game against Kaisei, who had returned from participating in the Senbatsu that spring. That’s when my reputation rose.
Then, in our second year, we finished second in the fall tournament. At that time, only the winning school could advance to the Kyushu Tournament. Kaibei, which had beaten us in the finals, went on to win the Kyushu tournament as well, and qualified for the Senbatsu tournament the following spring. Even now, I sometimes wonder if we would have had a chance to play in the Koshien Tournament if even the runner-up school in Nagasaki Prefecture had been able to participate in the Kyushu Tournament, as is the case today.
Then came my third year of high school, the summer of 1986. I was given the number “1” on my back.
In our generation, there was a right-handed pitcher who had come in on a baseball recommendation, a so-called special scholarship. Since there were only seven players in our generation, this special pitcher had been pitching as our ace since his sophomore year.
The starting ace was given a new ball from the time of practice. The second and subsequent pitchers were given the ace’s used balls.
I couldn’t stand it.
“I couldn’t stand it.
My rebellious spirit was ignited. This may have been the director’s way of winning over the hearts and minds of the people who saw through my personality. If he had given me a worn-out piece of paper to incite my rebellious spirit, I would have to say that his plan was right, though it was frustrating.
The special scholarship is a tuition waiver. This is a general entrance exam with full tuition paid. I don’t think the special ace was even paying attention to me at first. Because I had already established myself as an ace.
Even so, I didn’t want to be passed around a dirty ball, so I struggled and endured and gritted my teeth, and by the last summer, I was in the position of being the ace of both the left and right sides, and I was given a new ball. And then…
“Number one, Shimoyanagi.”
“Yes, thank you!”
Before the last summer tournament, when I was called that, I couldn’t help but feel an inaudible “Keeeee! I thought to myself, “Suck on that ace. But he was also the number four hitter, so he was still the core player of the team.
Then came the Nagasaki prefectural qualifiers for the last summer.
The candidates for the championship were Kaibei and Qiongura. Both teams made it to the quarterfinals, but Kaisei was defeated.
“We’re in Koshien. What are we going to do?”
But they lost in the next semifinal. We lost to Shimabara Chuo, 5-7, in the fourth inning when the lefty and center fielder had a face-off. We were ahead by one run, but they scored six runs in the inning and turned the game around. Whenever we get together, people still say to me.
They still say to me when we get together, “We lost because of you, but you’re the only one who went pro” (laughs).
In the end, Shimabara Chuo, which had beaten us, became the representative of Nagasaki Prefecture that year. We became the wreckage of the summer. Rather than crying in frustration, I felt more like, “It’s finally over.
“Do you want to go to the beach tomorrow?
I was talking to my friends, “Do you want to go to the beach tomorrow? I would say to my friends, “Do you want to go to the beach tomorrow?” I thought, “Oh, now I’m free from all the hard work. During the summer tournaments, we would have training camps at the clubhouse, and I would think, “Well, now I can finally go home.
Even now, when I see high school ball players at Koshien, I have unconditional respect for them. They win the toughest regional tournaments to participate in the tournament.
We were playing against the coach.
Why didn’t we go to Koshien? Now, the reason is obvious. It was because we weren’t playing against them.
Then, who were we playing against?
For three years, all I could think about was how to avoid getting angry. I didn’t want to beat the opponent, but rather to not get angry with the coach. The first thing I wanted to do was not to get angry. All of my actions were based on this thought. If he had really wanted to win, the results might have been a little different.
Shohei Ohtani of the Angels created a goal-achievement sheet when he was in high school, and he specifically identified what he needed to do in order to achieve his goals and implemented them. I, on the other hand, had never thought about such things in high school. All I could think about was “how to slack off without getting angry.
I ran back and forth between the school building and the playground day in and day out. If you run in the same place that much, you get wise. Usually, we would run on the regular roads, but there was a shortcut, the Kemono Road. The microbus that the coach drove with our luggage was old and had a loud engine, so we could hear it from a distance. If we cheated and heard the engine while going down the path, we could hide in the grass.
However, there is one problem here. The “idiots” that swarm in the grass will get on your practice clothes. In Nagasaki, we call them “baka,” which means “fools” in Japanese, and we have to get rid of them. I had to get rid of them, but they would inevitably end up on my upper back or in places I couldn’t see. When I got to the ground, I told the coach.
“Have you guys been running properly?
I would answer, “Yes! I reply, “Yes,” but it’s obvious that there are idiots following us, which would not be there if we had run properly.
“Are you guys really stupid?
I was furious. The next thing I knew, I was being knocked like a demon.
Once, there was a day when I was told that the coach would not come. We were all in a cheerful mood that day, and we were walking down the hill where we usually ran, with some coins, buying juice and drinking it.
Then, the director showed up in a private car instead of a microbus (laughs). (laughs) We all went pale, and the scary practice began. What happened after that was too “hellish” for me to talk about (laughs).
On days when it rained and we couldn’t use the field, we used to dash up the adjacent hill. We would make a series of dashes from the bottom of the mountain to the top, a distance of 120 to 130 meters. The coach would check from the top of the mountain, but because it was a mountain, there would be fog. He couldn’t see all the way down to the bottom, so sometimes we would only run the last 30 meters seriously.
We were just kids, I thought to myself. There was no way I could fool the adult coach. But at that time, all I could think about was how to steal the coach’s attention and skip the race.
I’ll never forget the “three balls of udon.
Why was I so afraid of the coach? I think it was partly because at that time, Qiongoura was full of naughty students. Moreover, the athletic teams were very strong. In addition to the basketball, handball, and track and field teams, the karate and boxing clubs were also nationally recognized. It must have been very difficult to control the students of a school where they were so naughty and where club activities were so popular.
There were many fights in the school. But there was no one who would pick a fight with the baseball team. We were well trained by the coach, so even if we were to get into a fight, we would be no match for a high school kid. The baseball team was the most feared in the school.
Because of this, the school was completely focused on the club activities and not the classes. We ate two lunches every day, one after second period and another after fourth period. After class, I would go to the field and practice would be over at 9 or 10 pm. Then I would go to the field after class and practice would end at 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. I would get ready and head home.
The captain, who was my closest friend, and I often went home together because we shared the same road to the bus stop. There was an udon noodle shop along the way, and we would often stop by at 10:00 p.m., just before it closed.
Even though we had two lunch boxes, we were still hungry after practice and wanted to eat something. But we didn’t have any money, so we could only order plain udon. Then, the old man at the store put in three bowls of udon. He was carrying a bag with “Qiongpu” written on it, so he knew we were hungry and offered us some food.
Maybe because it was just closing time, he put all the leftover toppings on top. They also served us inari sushi. They let us eat all the food for the price of a bowl of udon, and even gave us some kelp tsukudani as a souvenir. I’ll never forget those three bowls of udon after practice.
After filling my stomach at the udon shop, it was time to go home when the date changed. After getting off the bus, I had to walk up the hill to my house, and I was exhausted. I used the last of my strength to open the front door, put my bag down, and collapsed into a heap at ……. The next morning, I found myself waking up at the door. I often woke up at the front door.
At that time, my parents were running a fish fry shop, so they were at the factory except on weekends. So when I came home, my parents were not there. In other words, even if I slept at the door, there was no one to wake me up. I used to get angry with my brother and say, “Why don’t you wake me up? I used to get angry at my little brother, but he was already asleep by the time I came home, so it was a terrible inconvenience for him.
The first thing I did when I woke up in the morning after collapsing in the doorway was to wash the practice uniforms from the day before. There was no time to dry them, so I packed the washed ones in my luggage and dried them during class at school. …… I was really on the edge every day.
(Continue to Part 3)
Interview and text by： Ryo Ito