Big Leagues in Small Towns
Baseball is huge in Japan. As I write this, the teacher’s room TV is set to the World Baseball Classic where Japan is up against Puerto Rico. Will they win? I have no idea, but there will definitely be plenty of fans watching to find out (turns out they lost the WBC for the first time ever). Unlike in the states where baseball goes for a single season, and is quickly replaced, sports in Japan tend to be played all year-long (that’s not to say professional games will go all year).
Students who chose baseball as their sport will play for the entire year, working hard to perfect one sport rather than rotate through many throughout the year. It’s a big choice to pick a sport in elementary as you’re likely to stick with the same sport through high school. One thing that Japan and American baseball has in common though, are Spring Training Camps, and they have a huge impact on the small towns that host them.
Spring Training on Kumejima
Every year, Kume Island hosts they Rakuten Golden Eagles from Sendai for their spring training. Many professional teams throughout Japan travel down to the warmer Okinawan islands between January and March to practice and learn. The influx of players, coaches, and support staff provide a huge boost to local businesses while the need for stadiums, etc. provide jobs and new athletic facilities for the islanders to use when the pros go home.
Since there’s only so much you can learn without doing, the games and open practices also draw more tourists during the slower colder winter months. Having the chance to see and occasionally interact with professional athletes is a huge positive for local students, who are encouraged by real examples of people who have made a career of doing what they love. Having the spring training here has definitely heightened the interest in baseball among nearly all the schools in Kumejima. Kumejima’s boy’s baseball team routinely ranks in the top four at the all Japan inter-small-island competition near Tokyo. And took home first two years ago.
Impact on Local Business
It is easy to tell when Spring Training season is coming. Though there are flags, and other memorabilia at various places throughout the island, including a huge display at the local airport, at the end of January plenty more begin to show up. There are large Japanese banners along many roads, JAL airline staff wear jerseys, signs and displays pop up along roads, and there is plenty of swag for sale.
Every restaurant, bar, and club makes sure they have some kind of Rakuten Eagle swag displayed because it welcomes both players and fans. Many establishments display plaques with the signatures of the players who have eaten there. It’s both a kind of advertisement (the cynical view) and pride in the community, for while they’re on Kume, they become part of the culture of the island.
Have you seen something similar where you live? Share your experience in the comments!