University of Tokyo, a Baseball Lightweight, Inspires Fans –

University of Tokyo, a Baseball Lightweight, Inspires Fans –

TOKYO — Itaru Kobayashi remembers what his baseball coach at the University of Tokyo used to tell the team before games, and he remembers what the coach said after the team inevitably lost.

“It was, ‘Hey, this is the day we are going to win,’ ” said Kobayashi, the team’s ace a quarter-century ago and now the general manager of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. “But after the game, it was, ‘Hey, there is always tomorrow.’ ”

Tomorrow, it seems, never arrived. Todai, as it is known colloquially, is the country’s premier university, producing many of its top politicians, doctors, lawyers and even baseball team owners. Students who pass its famed entrance exam are guaranteed a status unmatched by any other college.

Yet the university is a lightweight when it comes to the nation’s most popular sport, baseball. A national institution, Todai does not scout high school players, offer scholarships or consider sports in the admissions process. Students must get in by their wits, not their bat or glove.

As a result, losing has been a way of life since 1925, when five prominent private universities in Tokyo invited Todai to help form the Tokyo Big6 Baseball League, the rough equivalent of Japan’s Ivy League. From the start, Todai was a doormat against powerful foes like Keio and Waseda, which draw some of the nation’s best high school players.

Since World War II, the team has never finished in the top half of the six-team league, and it has placed last the past 16 seasons. Over 89 years, Todai has won just 13 percent of its games (244 wins, 1,550 losses and 55 ties), and in the late 1980s and early ’90s, when Kobayashi played, it lost a record 70 in a row.

That shabby record stood until last month, when Todai ran its latest losing streak to 76. The team staggered through the recent 10-game spring tournament, scoring just seven runs and giving up 98.

Todai’s last win was in October 2010. Since then, Japan has had three prime ministers and Toyota has sold nearly four million Priuses.

Yet in a twist, the losing has turned Todai into a favorite with those who love the ultimate underdog. That is why Nobuyuki Miyazaki and hundreds of other fans turned out on a sunny afternoon May 24 to watch Todai lose, 6-0, to Hosei University.

Miyazaki, who teaches at another university in Tokyo, had watched Todai’s games on the Internet because his son was a high school teammate of Todai’s center fielder, Naoto Hatsuma. But when Miyazaki saw that Todai had broken its own consecutive-loss record, he felt he had to support the team in person.

“It was a kind of telepathy,” he said. “When I saw they had set the record by losing 70 games in a row, it was like a moment of enlightenment with God saying I should go root for them.”

Like other fans, Miyazaki accepted the losing, but he held out hope that Todai might one day win a game. This expectation drove the cheering section, which included students, alumni and outsiders like Miyazaki, to dizzying heights during the game.

For hours, they sang, clapped and yelled in unison, egged on by dozens of female cheerleaders with pompoms and male students wearing black tunics who led military-style chants. They were accompanied by a ragtag brass band.

Fans at college basketball games in the United States are certainly enthusiastic and loud. But the endless cacophony of the Japanese cheering sections, known as oendan, was unique because the singing never stopped and had little relation to the events on the field.

“We definitely know if it is 13-0 or 15-0, but we still cheer like they are winning,” said Miyazaki, who compared rooting for Todai to a Kabuki play in which the line between reality and fiction is porous and blurred.

Todai is not the first brainy national university to sink to embarrassing depths on the field. Kyoto University has also been a bottom feeder in baseball. In the United States, the California Institute of Technology’s baseball team broke a 228-game losing streak in 2013, and its men’s basketball team ended a 26-year, 310-game conference losing streak in 2011.

Unlike Caltech, which plays in the Division III Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, Todai competes against some of the best college teams in Japan, and its losses are amplified in Tokyo, the country’s largest news media market.

Todai’s losing has taken on a familiar pattern. In one game last month, Todai started fast as Yasuhito Nakasugi, the second batter, blooped a single into center field. But he was promptly picked off. Katsushi Yamamoto, the team’s best hitter, then flied out, ending the threat.

Then the bottom fell out. Hosei’s leadoff hitter slapped a single to left field. The second batter squared to bunt but pulled the bat back and hit a ball down the third-base line for a double. The next batter walked, loading the bases.

The cleanup hitter then rapped a single past the first baseman to drive in two runs. After the next batter struck out, the sixth batter hit a sacrifice fly to put Hosei ahead, 3-0.

Yet Todai’s cheering section screamed as if its team had just scored. The fans pounded drums, blew horns and screamed at the top of their lungs, encouraging hundreds of others to join them in their nonstop merriment.

Takahiro Ezaki, the chief of the student cheerleaders, stood on a platform along the third-base line in a white kimono, a blue pleated skirt and wooden clogs. He glared at the field like an admiral surveying his fleet.

His scowl, which never changed during the day, added a martial touch. During the game, six members of Ezaki’s crew took another cheerleader below the stands and yelled at him for not showing enough passion. The cheerleaders pinned him against the wall until he yelled back with enough vigor that they let him go.

The antics had nothing to do with baseball and everything to do with devotion to a group. The songs were simple and upbeat with none of the nastiness found in, say, chants at some soccer games. One cheer simply went, “T-O, K-Y-O, let’s go!”

“As a team, it’s impossible to stop the losing streak, but it’s important to have people cheering us on,” Hatsuma, the team’s center fielder, said.

Members of Todai’s oendan said their goal was to inspire the players to victory, and after the team lost, they said it was because they had not inspired them enough.

“Of course, our goal is to help the team win until the end,” Ezaki said after the game, his voice hoarse. “When we lose, we feel we have let the players down.”

A Different Approach

As passionate as the cheerleaders were, the truth was simple: Todai was outmatched in every way on the field. None of its players had played in the prestigious high school tournament at Koshien. Most players on other teams had about 5,000 hours of playing experience, while Todai’s members had half as many.

Kobayashi was one of just five Todai graduates to play professional baseball, and he lasted only three years as a junkball pitcher. He said players at Todai were determined and practiced long hours but, in the end, did not have the skills of their rivals.

“Practice makes you better, but it’s not going to make a mediocre player into Miguel Cabrera,” Kobayashi said. “We played every game hard, and each game you have to accept the results and destiny. A lot of people say you can learn more by losing than winning, but I don’t think so. We lost every game while I was there, and it was painful.”

While Todai is unlikely to bend its admission standards, it has tried to improve the team. The training building was upgraded to include toilets, and a new coach, Kazushi Hamada, was hired. A former team captain, Hamada said in a university publication that he wanted “to create a sense of anticipation, where students know that the baseball team is strong and doing well and want to come to Jingu Stadium to see a game.”

Last year, the university also hired Masumi Kuwata, who had a successful career with the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants before pitching in 19 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2007.

A maverick in Japanese baseball circles for opposing the seemingly endless workouts and bullying common in high school, Kuwata recommended that the team practice less and make more of its opportunities. Training was reduced to three hours a day and was canceled during exams. Players also spent time in class discussing strategy, which had not been done.

“Although they practice really hard, once the actual game starts, they don’t give their best performance because of fear and nervousness,” Kuwata said in an email. “This comes from the lack of experience, and more importantly the experience of victory, which they know little about. I want them to maintain their focus throughout the game and demonstrate what they learned in practice.”

For now, the new approach has not stopped the losing, or solved an intractable problem. When Todai joined the league, it promised never to leave. It is unclear who demanded this condition, but it is doubtful that anyone at Todai expected the losing to continue so long.

In fact, Todai had a rich baseball heritage. The university was the birthplace of baseball in Japan thanks to Horace Wilson, an English professor who introduced the game in 1872.

But now that universities like Waseda and Keio recruit and pamper players, some critics contend that Todai’s participation in the league has become a farce. If Todai is the country’s premier university, they say, then students should spend more time on academics and less on sports.

“High school and college players shouldn’t devote their entire lives to baseball,” said Masayuki Tamaki, a well-known baseball writer in Japan. “College should be about academics.”

There is no indication that sports will go away. Still, given the long odds that Todai will improve, Hamada, the coach, is hoping his new techniques will at least boost morale, if not produce a winning team.

“In the past, there seemed to be a chronic sense about whether the team could win or not, but that has now been dealt with and is no longer a concern,” he said. “I think that we are now at the stage where we are coming out of the darkness and starting to see the light.”