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Shohei Ohtani matched Babe Ruth record in US and won top male athlete award

  • Sendai Ikuei beat Shimonoseki Kokusai 8-1 in Monday’s championship game.
  • Koshien shows the American roots of baseball, from cheerleaders and school bands to team jerseys.
  • Koshien was first held in 1915, and is the All-Japan High School Baseball Championship Tournament.

This summer in the US, Japanese baseball star Shohei Ohtani tied a Babe Ruth record and won an award for being the best male athlete. But back home, everyone has been watching the high school tournament where he got his start.

In Japan, August means blazing heat, sweet shaved ice, and one thing on TV: Koshien. This is the contest that helped launch the careers of greats like Ohtani, who will be the Most Valuable Player of the American League in 2021.

Sendai Ikuei beat Shimonoseki Kokusai 8-1 in Monday’s championship game, which was the last of the annual two-week tournament. Because of the pandemic, the tournament will not happen in 2020, and almost no one went to see it last year.

But now that the people who came to watch are back, the famous Koshien Stadium in western Japan, which gives the event its name, has a party-like vibe.

“You can’t avoid it in the summer,” said Ema Ryan Yamazaki, a filmmaker who directed the 2019 documentary “Koshien: Japan’s Field of Dreams”.

“It’s very dramatic, because every game is a knockout. You only have one try, so unexpected things can happen. There are no guarantees,” she said.

While in Western countries “people love the winners”, at Koshien, “it’s almost like the cameras prefer the losing team,” as they zoom in to broadcast the tears and heartbreak, Yamazaki said.

Koshien shows the American roots of baseball, from cheerleaders and school bands to team jerseys in classic preppy styles.

But there are many things that make this tournament special, like the fact that it takes place in the middle of August, when many people go back to their hometowns to pay respects to their ancestors, and the tradition of losers scraping dirt from the ground, which was not allowed this year because of fears of Covid-19 infection.

Koshien was first held in 1915. Its official name is the All-Japan High School Baseball Championship Tournament. Every spring, a contest like this one is held at the stadium.

In the qualifying rounds, thousands of teams compete, but only 49 make it to the summer tournament. One team from each of Japan’s 47 regions makes it, except for Tokyo and Hokkaido, which both send two teams.

Koshien is where baseball stars like Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, and Ohtani, who is now 28, were born. It is almost as popular as professional baseball.

This year, Ohtani, a two-way star for the Los Angeles Angels, tied Ruth’s record of 10 home runs and 10 wins as a pitcher in the same season. Ruth set that record more than 100 years ago.

Ohtani was also named best male athlete at the made-for-TV ESPY Awards, which honour the best sports performers, last month. He beat out big names like NBA champion Stephen Curry for the award.

Young Koshien players who want to be like Ohtani have to deal with traditions like long hours of practise and games played in very hot weather.

But some old ways are changing, Yamazaki said. For example, more schools are no longer shaving their players’ heads, which used to be a sign of the “extreme discipline” and sacrifice that was needed.

Yamazaki says that Koshien also gives people a chance to show support for students from their area, even if they can’t go home that year.

“Adults also look and appreciate the purer versions of themselves — the youth giving it their all, for one short summer,” she said.

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