The two teenage boys, dapper in coats and ties, grinned nervously as they surveyed the scene around them.
Doesn’t look much like Kyoto, they must have thought.
“I want to have a good relationship with the American people through baseball,” said 17-year-old Tatsuki Yoshida, whose statement would have passed inspection with any head of state. But Yoshida, a second baseman, is here in part for baseball, not necessarily diplomacy, and he gave himself away when he was asked to name his favorite ballplayer.
“Ichiro!” he said, referring to Japanese-born Ichiro Suzuki, an outfielder for the New York Yankees.
The boys are members of the Kyoto Gakuen High School team, which goes against a collection of local players in the Kyoto-Modesto Baseball Game. It will be contested Saturday at 11 a.m. at Thurman Field, and the visiting team can’t wait.
“Our team is good on defense,” third baseman Kazumasa Svenaga offered. The boy then described his team in a way that left the interpreter scrambling for the right word. She eventually found it.
The game is part of an annual exchange program that sends about 300 Japanese students to the Modesto area each October. They’ve come here nearly every year since 1990, but their usually busy itinerary never has included baseball.
There is a fascinating local historical context, stretching back nearly 80 years, for this event.
Kyoto Gakuen’s most famous alumnus is Eiji Sawamura, one of the best pitchers in the history of baseball in Japan. Today, the Sawamura Award, Japan’s equivalent to Major League Baseball’s Cy Young Award, is given each year to the best pitcher in the Japanese Baseball League.
More important to the Japanese team, however, is the bronze statue of Sawamura on its school campus.
On Nov. 24, 1934, Sawamura shocked U.S. fans when he struck out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Charlie Gehringer in succession during the Americans’ barnstorming visit to Japan. His ability to throw a fastball, prefaced by a classic high leg kick, was legendary.
“I only throw hard, straight pitches,” Sawamura once insisted. “If I get hit, I would have to practice the same pitch harder.”
Here’s the local connection: Only five months after his incredible strikeout run, Sawamura – still a teenager – came to Modesto’s Roosevelt Park and threw a five-hit shutout in a 2-0 victory over Spud Chandler and the Oakland Oaks. A year later, he returned to Modesto with the Yomiuri Giants and pitched in an 8-3 loss to Oakland. Roosevelt Park was the forerunner of Del Webb Field, which is now called Thurman Field, the site for Saturday’s special game.
“This is important for us,” said Kohei Sasai, the Kyoto Gakuen principal, “to come here for baseball.”
The upcoming game has received major attention in Japan. The Yomiuri Giants proclaimed the exhibition on their ballpark Jumbotron, resulting in warm applause by the fans on hand.
Better still, Sawamura’s 70-year-old daughter sent the school a letter expressing her gratitude for playing the game in her father’s honor.
One of the people most pivotal in making the game a reality is 1997 Johansen High graduate Chris Flesuras III, an English and computer teacher at Kyoto Gakuen. A few years ago, a soccer scrimmage between the Kyoto students and Oakdale proved successful. Baseball seemed to be the next logical step, Flesuras thought, and the complicated logistics were settled.
“I think the stars have finally aligned to make this game possible,” Flesuras said.
The nine-inning game has been sanctioned by the Baseball Association in Japan, and the California Interscholastic Federation allows for such an exhibition. The local team, coached by Rob Steves of Gregori and Chris Butterfield of Enochs, has been working out the past two weeks at Gregori.
“I want to see if they play the game differently from us. I imagine (they do),” Beyer star Jordan Walls said. “I anticipate the game to be competitive and fun at the same time. We have some of the best kids in the county.”
Kyoto, best known for exports such as Nintendo and Kyocera mobile fans and solar panels, now will impact Modesto with young men swinging bats and running the bases. Their trip will take them to Monterey and Gilroy, but, before they leave, there’s a memorable game to be played Saturday.
As Svenaga said, “I want to learn about American culture.”
What part of American culture?