Amateur baseball in England

This featured appeared in the April 20, 2004, issue of The Rafu Shimpo, Los Angeles’ English-Japanese newspaper.

YE OLDE AMERICAN PASTIME

The Sidewinders are enjoying the increasing popularity of baseball — in Great Britain.

By Ed M. Odeven
Rafu Correspondent

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Professional baseball players don’t really have off-seasons anymore. Well, at least that’s the case with most players nowadays; year-round conditioning has become the norm.

Travel across the Atlantic Ocean and there’s a slightly different identity: baseball, a minor sport.

A drawn-out spring training is not realistic for all ballplayers in the British Baseball Federation, as it is made up of amateurs, many of whom also hold full-time jobs.

“Yes, it is always an issue with us,” said Yuzo Saito, a player/head coach for the London Sidewinders. “We are an amateur club and we have to rely on people’s commitments. However, we have to make sure that players have their priorities right and make sure that their careers do not go off the line

“I am excited and cannot wait for the new season to start, but at the same time I am extremely worried for some of the players as they will not be as fit as the rest, as they are not able to train week in and week out.”

Saito, a pitcher/catcher, and the Sidewinders began the 2004 season last Sunday against the Richmond Knights. The Sidewinders, who play in the Premier Division’s Southern Conference (the Rawlings National League, one tier higher, is the British equivalent of Major League Baseball), are coming off a successful 2003 season in which they finished second in the league and advanced to the playoffs.

Naturally, the team is hoping to replicate last season’s success and that it has created a buzz entering this season.

“It appears that more people are willing to have a go at baseball than before,” Saito said.

Perhaps the league’s increased stability will help, too. Like a blackjack dealer at an Atlantic City casino shuffling a deck of cards on a frequent basis, it appeared that that was what league officials were doing with the divisions, i.e., they never stayed the same year after year.

Now, that could be changing. And, Saito said, that’s a good thing.

“The game has improved and the standard has risen as a result of this stability in the game,” he continued. “Though the northern league went through another overhaul to match what we have down in the south, it will be interesting to see how well they cope to the adjustments.”

As any baseball manager will tell you, pitching is the key ingredient to consistent winning. Adding new pitchers to the mix always adds and element of intrigue for any skipper.

The Sidewinders’ new pitchers are Mamoru Kageyama and Takeshi Tomita.

In other words, it remains to be seen how the 2004 Sidewinders’ pitching staff will perform, but Saito said he expects good things from his new hurlers.

“We were fortunate to find two new pitchers this season,” said Saito, who has made ends meet in the U.K. by working in the advertising department of the Asahi Shimbun and coaching at an American baseball school.

“It will be difficult to say how good they will be compared to the pitchers we had last year, but they played at a very high standard in the past and it will be interesting to see how they will do this year.”

MEET THE SIDEWINDERS

Like last year’s squad, the 2004 Sidewinders feature a strong blend of British and international talent, including nine Japanese players.

Here’s a brief rundown on each of them, with insight provided by Skipper Saito, who also serves as catcher and pitcher.

*Pitchers: Mamoru Kageyama, Takeshi Tomita and Hiroyuki Hoshino.

Kageyama, a veteran ballplayer, is expected to pitch a few innings each week. He played for Keio University and is a journalist by trade. In fact, he covered Ichiro Suzuki day in and day out during his magnificent 2001 rookie season with the Seattle Mariners. He should also see time in the outfield.

Tomita is a submarine-style pitcher who should get playing time at the middle infield positions.

Hoshino, a third-year Sidewinder, is not expected to play a lot this year due to family commitments. He is a valuable team leader and a strong outfielder.

*Infielders: Masa Saito, Toshio Watanabe, Kazuwa Doi and Takeshi Torimoto.

Saito, another third-year player, is a first baseman with a clutch bat.

Watanabe, meanwhile, appears ready for a breakthrough season after emerging as the “revelation of the year” in 2003.

The versatile Doi likely will begin the season sidelined with an injury.

Torimoto was one of the team’s top starting pitchers last year. But he broke his right arm while pitching in Germany. This year he is making a comeback as a left-handed throwing infielder.

*Outfielder: Tomoyoshi Wakamatsu.

The steady Wakamatsu has a knack for the big hit. “(He was) invaluable to our success last year,” Saito concluded.

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