By Joel Alderman
If anyone in Connecticut can be considered an expert on Japanese baseball, it would be Bobby Valentine. Before becoming the athletic Director at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, the native of Stamford had a long career as a baseball player, manager and TV sports analyst.
In 1995 and from 2004 through 2009, Bobby V. managed the Chiba Lotte Marines, a team in the Pacific League of Nippon Professional Baseball. As a result, he has firsthand knowledge of the importance baseball has in Japanese culture and the passion of that country’s fans.
Both pitchers hurled a complete 50-inning game
A few days ago, the World of Baseball was taken aghast by reports of a 50-inning game that extended over four days. It was played in a high school tournament in the city of Akashi.
Even more impressive than lasting 50 innings is the fact that the two opposing pitchers went the distance.
It’s “not the norm” was the reaction of Bobby Valentine
Bobby said, in an obvious understatement, that a 50-inning, two pitcher game certainly “is not the norm.” And he pointed out that this marathon contest was “big news in Japan.”
The last statement was confirmed in the respected Japanese daily newspaper, The Asahi Shimbun, which wrote that the game “captivated a nation.”
Perhaps not wishing to offend, Valentine pointed out that “this was with a rubber ball and it is not the same as throwing a hard ball that we use.”
As Bobby said, the ball used in that game was not the same kind as we have come to know. It has a rubber core rather than one made of cork. This makes it slightly easier to throw, but there can be no dispute that hurling any kind of a ball for 50 innings is either stupendous, crazy, or a combination of both.
A “rubber” baseball is not what you would think
Because of its sudden notoriety, I decided to find out more about nanshiki yakyu (rubber baseball), which I must admit I had never heard of and I doubt if many of our readers have.
Apparently it is a major sport in Japan. In fact, this particular 50-inning game took place in the semifinals of the 59th National High School Nanshiki Yakyu Championships.
Although that tournament has been going on for 59 years, I doubt if more than one percent of American baseball fans ever heard of nanshiki yakyu (rubber baseball).
So what is a rubber baseball? It’s not what you might think. It is not like the old Spaldeen, a small rubber ball that was used in the streets of New York in a game called stick ball, and which Willie Mays is said to have taken part in after playing a game with the Giants in the Polo Grounds.
A good description of the ball and the game was posted by Thon Taddeo on the website of japantoday.com. Taddeo says he is a long-time player of nanshiki yakyu (rubber ball baseball) and points out that, contrary to what some believe, it is not related to softball. It is still baseball.
He further claims “the ball was invented in 1919 by a rubber-making corporation specifically for use in amateur baseball. It weighs the same as a cork-rubber-and-horsehide ball, and is the same size, but is much cheaper to make and can be washed, making it ideal for baseball on a budget.”
The effect of the ball is close to the same as a standard ball
Originally, despite the added rubber in the ball’s composition, it wasn’t as “lively” as a conventional baseball, since the rubber flattens out more than the string and horsehide do. “So the ball has been tweaked over the years,” wrote Taddeo, and now “it better approximates a real ball.”
“In a rubber-ball tournament,” according to The Washington Post, “a slightly different baseball, and one that doesn’t travel as far off the bat as a regular baseball, is used.”
All this being said, let’s briefly describe what these two pitchers just did.
The game that startled the baseball world
Jukiya Ishioka was on the mound for the Sotoku High School team of Hiroshima, and Taiga Matsui was pitching for Chukyo High School in the Prefecture (district) of Gifu. The game started on August 28th and was suspended after 15 scoreless innings.
The next day they played another 15 frames, still without a run by either team. On August 30th they went at it again, starting with the 31st inning.Chukyo threatened in the 31st and 34th. It still was 0-0 when play was halted after 45 innings. This tied the record set in 1983 for the longest game in terms of innings in Nanshiki baseball history.
Going into play on August 31st, starting with inning number 46, the teams were reminded that under tournament rules if the score was tied after 54 innings (the equivalent of six games), the winner would have been determined by a drawing. That, however, would have been unfair after the teams put in so much effort. Fortunately it turned out to be unnecessary.
Matsui had received therapy between games for back pain and told his teammates that if they won, not to lift him up in celebration, because it would be too painful. His mound opponent, Ishioka, said “It’s really hard, but I’m having fun.”
How it finally ended
In the top of the 50th inning, Chukyo loaded the bases with no outs on an infield single and two walks. A double finally drove in the first two runs in the game and a third scored on a ground ball. Matsui held on in the bottom of the 50th inning, and his team won, 3-0.
What the pitchers did
Matsui threw 709 pitches and Sotoku 689. Matsui was quoted in the English language version of the noted Japanese daily The Asahi Shimbun that this game was “physically hardest ever for me. . . As my teammates scored three runs (in the 50th inning), I was able to throw in a relaxed manner in the bottom of the inning.”
Losing pitcher Ishioka said “Though I was beat in the end, it was a good experience for me to pitch until the last. I had fatigue not only today but yesterday and the day before yesterday. But I asked our coach to use me . . . today.”
But the day was not over for the Chukyo team. It still had to play another game against Glakuen High Schoo for the tournament title. Guess who came in as a relief pitcher in the fourth inning of another scoreless tie? The same Taiga Matsui, who had just completed his 50 inning stint in four days.
Chukyo won the game 2-0 with single runs in the sixth and seventh inning, saving Matsui from another possible nightmare of going into extra innings again. Chukyo thus became Japan’s 59th National High School Nanshiki Yakyu (Rubber Baseball) champion. They certainly did it the hard way.