As the sun began to set on a warm Saturday evening in late spring, a tall, lean lefty strode to the mound to face the home team in the bottom of the first inning. A crowd gathered for a night of family-friendly professional baseball, but this wasn’t Yankee Stadium or Citi Field, or even Richmond County Bank Ballpark on Staten Island. It was Skylands Stadium in Augusta, New Jersey, home of the Sussex County Miners, an independent team that’s part of the Can-Am League. And the opponent wasn’t one of the other five Can-Am teams; it was a team of all-stars from the other side of the world.
The lefty was Itsuki Shoda, the Pacific League Rookie of the Year in 2002, when he pitched for the Nippon Ham Fighters of Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan. After playing for two more NPB teams, a Japanese semi-pro team, and in the Chinese Professional Baseball Legaue, Shoda, now 34 years old, toes the rubber for the Ehime Mandarin Pirates, one of four teams in the independent Shikoku Island League.
“I want to play as long as I can,” Shoda said during an interview before his start against the Sussex County Miners on June 11. “My goal is to be a baseball player. I’d like to play again in NPB, but I just want to be a baseball player.”
Thankful for having a long career without any surgeries or significant injuries, Shoda has worked in the highest level of baseball in Japan, played for two teams in Taiwan, and even signed a minor league deal with the Boston Red Sox in 2011, only to be released at the end of spring training. To him, baseball is baseball.
“Baseball itself is not very different,” says Shoda. “I have to perform my best wherever I go. However, the environment, facilities, and equipment are not good as in NPB.”
Although the Shikoku Island League lacks the big money found in NPB, it was Shoda’s desire to continue playing that led him to join Hiroto Kato, his former pitching coach with the Yakult Swallows, in Ehime. Sponsored by JR Shikoku and the Shikoku Coca Cola Bottling Company, the Shikoku Island League is one of four leagues in the Japan Independent Baseball League Organization. Each team has 22 players and plays 80 games a season. For experienced players such as Shoda and former New York Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu before him, the league offers a way to extend their careers, but it’s also a launching pad for younger players who weren’t drafted out of high school. In its eleven-year history, the Shikoku Island League boasts 54 players who later signed with NPB teams.
The Shikoku Island League plus All-Stars is a group of 33 players and coaches that spent the entire month of June in North America, playing the Can-Am League teams in New Jersey, New York state, and parts of Canada. After defeating the Amsterdam Mohawks 13-0 in an exhibition game on June 6, the Shikoku Island plus All-Stars tallied an 8-11 record against the Can-Am League teams. Most of the games were tight, one-run affairs, with six going into extra innings. Operating under the slogan “Kabuki Spirits,” the team played each game with exuberance.
Unfortunately, Shoda didn’t have his A game in his start against the Miners on June 11, lasting only 4+ innings in a wildly entertaining contest that Sussex County won 5-4 with a dramatic walk-off in the bottom of the 12th. Despite loading the bases in three different innings, Shoda worked out of jams and gave up only two runs (one earned) in a game with some great defense, some bad defense, a near brawl after a questionable call, a cat trotting on the warning track, and several missed opportunities for both teams. The teams’ competitive drive and refusal to give up were so impressive that one forgot the game was in a small stadium with a crowd of fewer than 3,000 fans, most of whom stayed until the end. After more than four hours of hard-fought baseball, the members of the Shikoku Island team – including the manager, the coaches, and the trainer – watched a dazzling fireworks show then cheerfully signed autographs and greeted each fan with genuine warmth.
“The good thing about playing in the independent league is that at the end of the game the players line up and greet the fans, so we can be really close to them,” says Shoda.
Being one of the older players on the All-Stars’ roster, Shoda is comfortable in the role of mentor to his teammates, some of whom are still teenagers.
“When the young players ask me questions, I definitely answer and provide guidance because the younger players have a hunger to succeed,” says Shoda. “I’m inspired by their enthusiasm.”
One of those younger players is 19-year-old infielder Hayato Hirama. Although he and Shoda play on different teams in Shikoku, he has taken the opportunity to learn more about Shoda’s NPB career during their time together on the North American tour.
“We play different positions, but Shoda has more experience and knows top hitters from NPB. That’s an inspiration to me,” says Hirama, whose ultimate goal is to play in NPB. His favorite team is the Hanshin Tigers, an organization of which Shoda was a part in 2006 and 2007.
Hirama and Shoda also shared the same host family in New Jersey at the beginning of their trip. The teenager says the lefty is “very friendly and down-to-earth. But he was my senpai [respected elder], so I had to do all of the laundry.”
Laundry aside, being a member of the All-Stars is a privilege Hirama doesn’t take lightly.
“I’m looking for a good experience playing against an American team and being there with my teammates,” Hirama said in an interview prior to the game at Skylands Stadium. “I’m excited, and I know I’ll learn so much from it.”
If the stat sheet is any indication, Hirama did have a good experience during the Can-Am League series. He played in all but one of the games, batting .322 with two doubles, 14 RBI, and six runs scored.
A native of Tokushima on the island of Shikoku, Hirama was accepted to college but chose to stay closer to home by joining the Tokushima Indigo Socks of the Shikoku Island League. He says he enjoys playing in the independent league, where he’s in his second year, because being close to family and the local fans are most important to him. It’s also a chance for him to get noticed and signed by an NPB team.
“There are two kinds of players [in Japan]. One goes to the university, and the other tries out for independent leagues,” says Hirama.
In addition to independent leagues, Japan has an Industrial League, run by the Japanese Amateur Baseball Association, which consists of corporate and club teams. Japanese companies own these teams, and players are company employees who participate in tournaments across the country with the hopes of making it to the NPB or even the MLB. Red Sox reliever Junichi Tazawa opted to play for Nippon Oil rather than be drafted by an NPB team to accelerate his chances of joining an MLB team.
Japanese independent leagues also afford playing time to a handful of non-Japanese players, including two Americans on the All-Star team, infielder Zak Colby and left-handed pitcher Barrett Phillips. Colby, a California native who’s mother is Japanese, had a great series against the Can-Am League teams, posting a .303 average, eight extra-base hits, 16 RBI and ten runs. In 2012 he played for the Amsterdam Mowhawks, 180 miles north of New York City, and was instrumental in scheduling the June 6 exhibition game against them.
Phillips, who is originally from South Carolina and played in the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league system, got married two days before moving to Shikoku in March. “That’s been the hardest part of being in Japan,” says Phillips, whose wife, Kelley, stayed behind in the States. “She’s got a job, and the independent league doesn’t pay enough to move your family over.” Otherwise he says he’s adjusted to the culture and hopes to sign with an NPB team. He even likes the food, although he’s “not much of a sushi guy,” but he promises to try udon, a regional specialty.
For their last game, the All-Stars will face the Cuban National Team, which also played in North America last month, on July 2 in Stade Stereo+ in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, before returning to their respective teams in Shikoku.
After the season ends in September, there is no guarantee where the players will go next. But you can rest assured that they’ll be playing baseball somewhere.
2016 Schedule and Results:
- vs Amsterdam Mohawks at Shuttleworth Park in Amsterdam, New York
Monday, June 6 – Shikoku Island won 13-0
- vs Sussex County Miners at Skylands Stadium in Augusta, New Jersey
Thursday, June 9 – Shikoku Island won 7-1
Friday, June 10 – Shikoku Island won 4-1
Saturday, June 11 – Shikoku Island lost 5-4 (12 innings)
Sunday, June 12 – Shikoku Island lost 4-3 (walk-off)
- vs New Jersey Jackals at Yogi Berra Stadium in Little Falls, New Jersey
Tuesday, June 14 – Shikoku Island won 6-4 (11 innings)
Wednesday, June 15 – Shikoku Island lost 6-5 (10 innings)
Thursday, June 16 – Shikoku Island lost 5-3
- vs Rockland Boulders at Palisades Credit Union Park in Pomona, New York
Friday, June 17 – Shikoku Island lost 7-2
Saturday, June 18 – Shikoku Island won 9-8
Sunday, June 19 – Shikoku Island won 5-4 (10 innings)
- vs Quebec Capitales at Le Stade Municipal in Quebec City
Tuesday, June 21 – Shikoku Island won 2-1
Wednesday, June 22 – Shikoku Island lost 11-3
Thursday, June 23 – Shikoku Island lost 8-2
- vs Trois-Rivières Aigles at Stade Stereo+ in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec
Friday, June 24 – Shikoku Island lost 8-7
Saturday, June 25 – Shikoku Island lost 5-4
Sunday, June 26 – Shikoku Island lost 6-5
- vs Ottawa Champions at Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park in Ottawa
Tuesday, June 28 – Shikoku Island lost 4-3 (12 innings)
Wednesday, June 29 – Shikoku Island won 4-3 (11 innings)
Thursday, June 30 – Shikoku Island won 6-5
- Saturday, July 2 vs the Cuba team in an exhibition game in Trois-Rivières, Quebec
To see more pictures of Shikoku Island’s game against the Sussex County Miners, please visit JapanCulture•NYC’s Flickr album.
Special thanks to Yumi Tanaka for arranging the interviews and serving as translator! Follow Yumi on Twitter @YuminTanaka.