HomeBasketballVisiting Shohei Ohtani's highschool: Ben Verlander's Japan diary

Visiting Shohei Ohtani’s highschool: Ben Verlander’s Japan diary


By Ben Verlander
FOX Sports activities MLB Analyst

Editor’s observe: Ben Verlander is spending time in Japan exploring Shohei Ohtani’s roots, experiencing the nation’s tradition and assembly followers. That is the fourth in a recurring sequence that started Friday, Aug. 19.

Hi there once more from Japan! I’m penning this from the dugout of the baseball stadium at Shohei Ohtani‘s highschool, Hanamaki Higashi Excessive.

The day began with a 4:30 a.m. wake-up name. I hopped on a bullet practice from Tokyo Station at 6 a.m. to journey to Hanamaki, Iwate, the world of the nation that produced the legendary Ohtani. I wrote yesterday that we have been touring 150 mph — it was extra like 200 mph, as this stunning practice whisked us throughout the Japanese countryside with pace and magnificence. 

Ben Verlander boards a bullet practice for the journey from Tokyo to Hanamaki. (Picture by Nick Rago/FOX Sports activities)

Whereas we have been en route, I used to be provided many choices for breakfast. Most of them concerned tuna in some type. My interpreter and information, Masa — who, I’ll take each alternative to say, has been key to creating this journey attainable — chowed down on a sandwich product of two pancakes with beans within the center. He was fairly pleased with his choice.

Now, a bit about our vacation spot. Iwate is without doubt one of the northernmost prefectures (much like a state) on Japan’s greatest island. It’s scenic, mountainous and apparently an ideal snowboarding vacation spot within the winter. Inside Iwate, Hanamaki is a quiet city that jogs my memory of my hometown in Virginia.

As soon as we arrived on the practice station, we headed straight to yet one more baseball area. This one was very completely different from the brilliant lights of the Tokyo Dome. The Mizusawa Little League area is the place Ohtani discovered to play the sport as a toddler.

Nestled between two highways, a river and what gave the impression to be a mineral area, that is the location of the origin story for the best baseball participant on earth.

I discovered that the river over the right-field fence truly performed an enormous function in that story. As Ohtani began to develop some pop, he made it a behavior to hit balls over the fence and into the river to be misplaced perpetually. Ultimately, Ohtani’s coach got here to him and requested that he cease hitting balls into the river as a result of they might not afford to proceed to buy new ones. So Ohtani discovered to drive baseballs into left area persistently, constructing the inspiration of his potential to hit to all fields within the majors. 

Younger gamers on the Mizusawa Little League area welcome Verlander to their observe. (Picture by Nick Rago/FOX Sports activities)

I’d be remiss if I did not point out the youngsters we met at that area. None spoke English, however we have been all bonded by our love of the participant who used to run the bases at that very area. We took footage, performed catch and debated whether or not Shohei the pitcher may strike out Shohei the hitter (with the assistance of Masa, in fact). I actually didn’t wish to go away. 

As we drove away, the crew swarmed our van to say goodbye. I am unable to put into phrases how a lot that second meant to me. I’ll always remember it.

Subsequent, we made the drive to a different focal point within the Angels star’s life: Hanamaki Higashi Excessive College. In the course of the trip, I made a fast pit cease for what was, certainly, the very best comfort retailer sushi I’ve ever had — not that there was ever a lot competitors for that title.

After we arrived on the campus, my jaw dropped. This was not like several highschool I have been at within the states. It was extra like a wonderful college campus. Athletic amenities and a bell tower rise above the tree line, in contrast to any amenities I would seen at that time in my journey to Hanamaki. We parked and headed straight to the stadium the place Ohtani’s legend first started to take form. 

The day supplied Verlander the possibility to see two fields the place Ohtani developed his baseball expertise as a youth. (Picture by Nick Rago/FOX Sports activities)

This stadium is huge. It has a capability of 12,000 and appears like a minor-league stadium. (I’ve performed in lots.) It contains a huge, digital scoreboard within the outfield and grass so pristine you could possibly mistake it for Augusta Nationwide. Over the right-field fence lies a patch of grass, then one other fence, then a line of bushes. After I requested if any notable tales about Ohtani occurred right here, a former highschool teammate of his informed me he as soon as hit a pitch OVER these bushes. I’ve seen video of this second and might affirm it’s as absurd because it sounds.

Whereas we have been there, Ohtani’s former crew was holding a scrimmage in opposition to one other native crew. After the sport, they took half in a observe that was superior to observe. It was essentially the most upbeat, technically sound highschool observe I’ve ever seen. The communication was nonstop, and the execution of each play was exact. 

For observe, they have been engaged on a “conditions” drill wherein the coach places runners on the bases the place he needs, the protection is about, and the coach hits balls precisely how he needs to. When a ball is hit, a runner from dwelling plate takes off, after which the play performs out. It is a basic baseball drill that I had by no means seen executed so flawlessly.

Verlander surveys the sphere at Hanamaki Higashi Excessive College and contemplates a legendary dwelling run Ohtani hit out of the ballpark. (Picture by Nick Rago/FOX Sports activities)

After they have been completed with the drill, their day was removed from over. After a full scrimmage and drills, the crew headed again to the observe area to take extra BP and run extra particular person drills. A former participant informed me these children are allowed to make use of their smartphones for just one hour per day to name their households. Apart from that, they have been fully centered. 

After I pressed him on this, he responded in English with one thing we are able to each agree on: “Baseball is life!”

We headed again to what I’ve been informed is without doubt one of the nicest resorts in Iwate, the Hanamaki Onsen. To finest clarify this, it’s a conventional Japanese lodge with Tatami rooms. After enjoying baseball my complete life, I’ve most likely stayed in hundreds of lodge rooms, however by no means one like this.

I opened the door and was greeted by a big, empty room with a low desk, two chairs flat on the bottom and never a lot else. I opened the handbook that learn “INSTRUCTIONS” in English, however that turned out to be the only English phrase within the ebook. 

After looking out my room for a stable 5 minutes, a passerby informed me that once I went to dinner, the lodge employees would come make my mattress for me. I requested him extra questions and ended up studying extra in these couple of minutes than I may have ever imagined about Japanese tradition. I used to be informed to placed on the standard robes that had been left in my lodge room and proceed to the eating corridor, the place I skilled a buffet that may put any in Vegas to disgrace. Sushi, sashimi, pasta, crab and dozens of different issues that I nonetheless have not recognized however have been to die for. 

The buffet on the Hanamaki Onsen Lodge was merely unbelievable. (Picture by Nick Rago/FOX Sports activities)

Our first meet-up of the journey was scheduled for this evening. Hanamaki is a small, rural metropolis, so I did not actually know what to anticipate. It was scheduled for 8 p.m., and I confirmed up at 8:05 to a crowd of individuals in entrance. Already, 15 or so individuals have been standing there, ready for my arrival. I received out of the cab, and so they began clapping and cheering as I walked up. It was one other “pinch-me” second. It is vital to notice that this is not about me. That is the “Flippin’ Bats” neighborhood rallying round Shohei Ohtani. These meet-ups are actually only a group celebration of Ohtani. 

One of many first encounters I had was with a person explaining why there’s a lot appreciation for the podcast. “The individuals of Iwate are actually fairly shy. They will not brazenly discuss Shohei Ohtani and the way they really feel he needs to be the MVP of the league once more,” he mentioned. “You might be talking for your complete prefecture of Iwate.”

Followers of the “Flippin’ Bats” podcast meet to share tales of Shohei Ohtani. (Picture by Nick Rago/FOX Sports activities)

One other lady drove greater than 40 minutes to return to the meet-up and share her story. She is terminally in poor health, and he or she vastly appreciates Ohtani due to how a lot enjoyable he has whereas going about life. That appreciation led to her discovering me. She mentioned “Flippin’ Bats” has continued to assist her in life, including to the continued brightness and positivity that she discovered via her love of Ohtani.

The evening got here to an finish after the meet-up however not earlier than items got and a gaggle picture was taken. I left with a wonderful bouquet of flowers, handmade glass, earplugs, a wind chime, handwritten letters and extra reminiscences that can final a lifetime.

Ben Verlander is an MLB Analyst for FOX Sports activities and the host of the “Flippin’ Bats” podcast. Born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, Verlander was an All-American at Previous Dominion College earlier than he joined his brother, Justin, in Detroit as a 14th-round decide of the Tigers in 2013. He spent 5 years within the Tigers group. Observe him on Twitter @BenVerlander.

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