Written for the Canadian Baseball Network
Three bases, A bat and a glove, all put together on the sun-soaked field of Nat Bailey Stadium. On any normal summer day, one would expect to find the Vancouver Canadians in short-season MiLB Single-A action, however, this was not one of those days.
The bases were still there, the gloves too and the bats were still being swung. But not by professionals. No, it was the UBC Thunderbirds special day at The Nat as they welcomed the University of Tokyo to East Vancouver’s treasure for the first-ever game in the Collegiate Baseball Classic.
The 2019 tournament organized by the Thunderbirds is an invitational summer series of baseball games. The foreign invitees included two schools from Japan and NCAA Division 1 school Sacramento state. The Japanese schools, both from the Tokyo Big6 Baseball League, were U of Tokyo and Keio University. Both schools are among the best in Japan, and both hosted the Thunderbirds when they ventured to Japan in the summer of 2018.
All but one of the games are scheduled to be played at the new UBC Tourmaline West Stadium. That one game though was Tuesday night at The Nat, giving Vancouver over 3’300 baseball fanatics the chance to watch some Japanese baseball.
History of Japan and baseball in Vancouver
The Japanese baseball scene in Vancouver has a rich and regrettable history, one that is forgotten among many- but has been immortalized in the artwork that dresses The Nat Bailey facade.
The Vancouver Asahi were a baseball team of Japanese immigrants that formed in 1914. They played at Oppenheimer Park, a mere 15-minute drive from the hallowed grounds of Nat Bailey. The Asahi met their demise when the Canadian government interned all the Japanese to camps away from populated areas. Once they were interned, the Asahi would never play another baseball game.
In 2019 the Canadian postal service unveiled a stamp in honour of the Asahi, and the Vancouver Canadians painted a mural of the Asahi on their stadium’s facade. All that’s to say, baseball and Japanese culture have a valued yet tarnished history on Canada’s west coast- one that many had forgotten until the Japanese game finally returned.
Canadian Baseball Network was lucky enough to have an interview with the last remaining member of the original Asahi team, Kaye Kamishishi- who threw the evenings ceremonial first pitch. “We played 27 years, and our motto was always to respect and honour people,” he said; a favour that was not returned by the Canadian community. For many years after the internment, there was a rift between the communities, however, today that is not the case. He continued on by saying “I am so happy we can see this now, Japanese and Canadian communities playing my sport, with the respect for each other that we had as Asahi.”
While tragedy and racism were not the focus of discussion for the 2019 tournament, those topics were on the mind of many.
The tournament and meshing of cultures
UBC’s baseball program is the only program in Canada to compete in the US college leagues, playing in the NAIA against other teams from the pacific northwest. In an effort to distinguish themselves more, they travelled to Japan in 2018 to gain a new view on the game. They enjoyed it so much that they brought it to their own backyard.
The baseball was the most important and focused on feature of the summer tournament, although, the meshing and socializing of cultures was near equal to the value of the sport.
Of course, there are the games, but the players of all teams were shown many different aspects of Canadian culture in an effort to further unionize the already global game. Teams took part in off-field activities such as a massive dinner hosted by UBC president Santa Ono, who himself is of Japanese heritage. They also participated in Canadian pastimes such as hiking and ice hockey- two things which many from Japan may not have experienced. The experiences shared between all the players, whether they are from Vancouver, Japan or the United States brought the baseball community closer and expanded the world views of all of whom were involved.
Coming from a trio of countries, there were also different styles in terms of how baseball is played.
“They have fun, they have such a commitment and joy to the game,” said UBC baseball head coach Chris Pritchett on TSN 1040 when asked about the Japanese teams, pointing out that the Japanese student-athletes enjoy everything about the game, and take their craft ultra-seriously. He further expands on how when watching the Tokyo athletes, all of them are having so much fun even with the simplest of things. While his UBC team may lethargically go through the sport’s fundamentals, the Japanese are having the time of their lives while they make routine plays. It’s this passion and dedication to the little things which Pritchett hopes rubs off on his UBC athletes.
In the game, there are differences as well. Traditionally the American and Canadian teams have relied on heavy-slugging baseball, often opting for power over strategy. The Japanese? Well, they’re the exact opposite. In watching batting practice I could tell the stark differences. I have covered the Vancouver Canadians this season, and watch all of their batting practices. The Thunderbirds followed a very similar routine, smashing the balls like a home-run derby. The Tokyo team, on the other hand, were practising bunts, placing the ball and intense strategy. It was clear before the first pitch that while it is the same sport, the game is much different. Once the game began, the small ball was absent- something I found very interesting as it was not what I would have guessed based on my early impressions.
Other than the baseball, all the teams are using this to build lifelong friendships between cultures. “It’s great and makes me so happy to see all of these students socializing with each other and bringing the world closer,” said UBC president Santa Ono, and he hopes that this year’s tournament is only a hint of what is to come in the future for UBC’s baseball program.
UBC dominated the University of Tokyo in the Nat Bailey game, showcasing their North American power. That, combined with the spotty fielding from Tokyo allowed the T-Birds to never feel threatened at any point during the game. An interesting observation was the velocity of each teams pitches. The Thunderbird’s arms were regularly throwing high 80s to mid-90s in MPH, while the Japanese were topping out at 80MPH. This speed mismatch favoured the hosts, who had the time of their lives facing such slow pitches.
UBC won the Nat Bailey opening game 8-2 but finished the evening with a combined no-hitter. The runs scored by U of Tokyo were all walks and products of fielding errors. The game, although not close in the end was a special for the rambunctious and curious crowd, who were treated to a historic night in Canadian baseball history.
The symbolism, the intertwining of cultures and the recognition of how far both Canada, the USA and Japan have come was supremely evident throughout the tournament. The weeks most important day was the opening game in front of thousands at the grand Nat Bailey. For every team, and everyone involved; this tournament was life-changing, something nobody will ever forget.