Baseball game highlights Kyoto school’s exchange visit to Modesto

Atsuki Takamoto waves to the crowd at John Thurman Field in Modesto on Saturday as his name is announced before the start of the Baseball Friendly Game. Kyoto Gakuen High School played the Modesto Metro Conference team.
Atsuki Takamoto waves to the crowd at John Thurman Field in Modesto on Saturday as his name is announced before the start of the Baseball Friendly Game. Kyoto Gakuen High School played the Modesto Metro Conference team. jlee@modbee.com

A patchwork squad of baseball players from local high schools won a thrilling walk-off victory Saturday against a tough Japanese team from a city with friendly ties to Modesto.

The Kyoto Gakuen High School unit never trailed in the goodwill exhibition game arranged as a cultural exchange – until the last pitch in the bottom of the ninth inning. That’s when Jordan Walls, a Beyer High junior, lined a ball to the outfield, scoring two runners to boost Modesto’s composite team to a sudden 3-2 triumph.

The exciting finish capped a day filled with smiles, handshakes, gifts and dignified bows at the Modesto Nuts’ stadium as both sides reveled in the historic event.

Spectators cheered enthusiastically for both sides. Many families are hosting Japanese players this weekend, and were just as proud for their temporary sons as for the local boys.

Some were disgusted when the umpire called out Kyoto’s sliding Ryota Yoshimoto in a close play at home plate in the top of the first inning. The call might have altered the game’s outcome, but Yoshimoto, who had slugged a triple to open the game moments earlier, only smiled as he hustled back to his dugout.

“You never argue with the umpire,” Kyoto manager Hiroshi Do (pronounced “doe”) said later through an interpreter. “The umpire is like the law.”

Asked if he thought Yoshimoto should have been called safe, Do chuckled good-naturedly and made a lip-zipping motion.

His team plays year-round, practicing three or four hours a day, five days a week. Their Modesto opponents – an all-star team of sorts, picked by coaches from area high schools – were impressed.

“A whole lot of discipline and work goes into their game. They’re very sharp,” said Chris Butterfield of Enochs High, who co-managed the composite team with Gregori High’s Rob Steves.

The 26 Japanese players are among 300 scattered this weekend throughout Modesto, Turlock and other communities. Modesto City Schools and Kyoto have sent students to each other for a few days almost every year for 25 years, but their itinerary never has included baseball. This was the first time they’ve gone head-to-head in a game that both countries have embraced for several generations.

So special was Saturday’s game that it was sanctioned by the Baseball Association in Japan and allowed by the California Interscholastic Federation.

Eight decades earlier, Kyoto produced Eiji Sawamura, a legendary pitcher equated to Major League Baseball’s Cy Young. Awards named after the two men are given annually to the best pitchers in their respective nations.

Sawamura is known for striking out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Charlie Gehringer in succession when American stars toured Japan in 1934. Sawamura also pitched two games in 1935 and 1936 at Modesto’s Roosevelt Park, later transformed into John Thurman Field – home of the Modesto Nuts and site of Saturday’s game.

“Baseball is a shared pastime between our two countries and one that helps bind us together,” Kyoto Gakuen principal Kohei Sasai said in a pregame ceremony.

He shared first-pitch honors with longtime local educator Chris Flesuras Jr., accompanied by his 6-year-old grandson, Costas, who also was given a ball to toss. Sasai’s throw made it all the way to the catcher; Costas’ lob bounced only once, faring better than his grandfather’s.

Flesuras had helped establish the exchange in 1990, and his son, Chris III, now teaches English and computers at Kyoto Gakuen.

Modesto City Schools Superintendent Pam Able and board member Rubén Villalobos also spoke, not long before both countries’ flags appeared, borne by Boy Scout Troop 49 of Modesto and by Kyoto Gakuen cheerleaders.

“I can honestly say that I feel as if I will always have a home in Kyoto,” said Villalobos, who has represented Modesto twice in Japan on student exchange visits, in 2011 and 2012. He privately mused that he is a product of exchange programs, his father having visited the United States from his native Panama; his mother also had studied abroad, in Norway.

Kyoto pitcher Syota Tanaka had nothing but praise for his host family, including Enochs senior Josh Cevallos – who pitched two innings for the local squad, giving up one hit and no runs. Cevallos said he quickly bonded with Tanaka and another Japanese student; since arriving Wednesday, they’ve played catch at a sandlot, attended a powder puff event and Enochs’ football game, and enjoyed video games.

“It’s friendship, not competition, at home,” Tanaka said through an interpreter.

Coaches on both sides noticed style differences. Do mentioned the Americans’ affinity for power hitting. Steves was intrigued with Japanese aggression and “small ball” skills such as bunting and stealing.

Also, in keeping with the exchange tradition, Kyoto brought only high school juniors. The Modesto team counted nine seniors, but they came from eight schools and had practiced together four times. And local rules barred athletes currently competing in other sports, such as football and water polo, effectively diluting the Modesto team’s talent.

The local squad was composed of players from Gregori (seven), Enochs (six), Beyer (three), Modesto and Downey (two each) and one each from Johansen, Ceres and Central Valley. They combined for seven hits and one error, to Kyoto’s 10 hits and no errors.

“This is good baseball and a good environment,” Steves said. “It’s good that (area boys) get to play together. They’ve always played against each other.”

The Japanese players grabbed the lead with a run in the second inning, Modesto responded with one in the bottom half and Kyoto went up again in the third. The score didn’t change until the wild ending, when Enochs senior Trevor Atnip scored from first base, behind Gregori junior Hector Guerrero, on Walls’ double to left-center field.

“The Japanese players are very competitive; they want to win, so I think we shocked them a little,” Butterfield said. “We tell the kids all the time, ‘If we can leave ’em standing out there, we’ve done something special.’

“I think all of us today learned something. The Japanese are very disciplined, very good players. We saw another country play the game right.”