SPORTS

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March 11, 2008

Baseball slated to kick off 2008 season in Japan

When the baseball squad arrives in Japan in two weeks, they will play three games that will never count in the standings but that the 28 players will never forget.

Renewing a rivalry that ended 72 years ago, the 2008 Maroons will play their first games against the best college baseball team in Tokyo, Waseda University. Coming off last spring, where Chicago compiled a 17–17 record, the trip to the Far East hopes to inspire success in the coming season.

With the encouragement of Amos Alanzo Stagg at the turn of the centtury, the Maroons and Waseda worked together to bring baseball prominence outside of American borders. By the 1930s, the battles between the two teams had significantly heightened the popularity of baseball in Japan, bringing in as many as 20,000 people for each of the series’ games.

Standing in the way of victory in the return to the Land of the Rising Sun is a collection of Japan’s finest young talents. The opposing roster includes five members that are a part of the Japanese national team that topped the USA Collegiate All-Star squad this summer. However, there’s one player whose pitching has caught the attention of the entire baseball nation: the 19-year-old Waseda pitcher Yuki Saito.

Saito gained overwhelming popularity and press after pitching 42 innings in four days to carry his high school team Waseda Jitsugyo to a national title. His stock rose greatly after his performance in the Tokyo Big6 National Baseball Collegiate Championship. In 57 2/3 innings, Saito gave up only six earned runs. The right-hander posted a 0.78 ERA, including three shut-outs. Yuki is scheduled to appear in all three games.

“Although he has been compared to [Red Sox pitcher] Dice K, it’s not so much intimidation that will hurt us against him, it would be lack of preparation. So we’ve got scouting reports and understand what we’ll be up against in Japan,” first-year pitcher Marshall Oium said.

With the showdown in Tokyo looming and Saito waiting, the Maroons missed a valuable opportunity to prepare in a live game this weekend. Chicago’s doubleheaders were cancelled due to poor weather conditions in the Ohio Valley region. While it’s a blow to the team’s preparation, it’s also a good time for the Maroons to rest up and practice for the upcoming matchup in Japan.

“I know this is the most excited the team has been to start the season in my four years of playing. It was hard to focus on the prospect of having games this weekend because of the anticipation for this trip,” fourth-year third baseman Mike Serio said.

While playing in a different continent is the biggest adjustment for Chicago, it will also have to contend with a much larger stadium than it’s used to. The three stadium capacities are 32,000 50,000 and 36,000 respectively, and with the Japanese frenzy over the young pitcher prodigy, there should be an impressive, unprecedented turnout.

“Everything’s going to be an adjustment. Domes, asphalt, altered field—we even had to get used to the baseballs. I felt the balls; they’re similar to American baseballs, but then again we still have to use wooden bats,” Serio said.

Adjusting to Japanese baseball crowds has been known to be a vastly different experience for visiting American players. Their enthusiasm for baseball has been compared to European soccer fans’, and the South-Siders should expect an enthusiastic and raucous group waiting for them in Tokyo.

Although exhibition games are mostly opportunities to slowly get better and work out any early-season kinks, the Maroons are aware that their Japanese counterparts won’t be holding anything back. Chicago will have to be at the top of its game to match the intensity and enthusiasm of Waseda.

“They are definitely going to be a tough team to beat. They’re known to be very sound and very fundamental,” Serio said.

The Maroons won’t have very much time to revel in the trip, as they have to finish up a Sunday matinee in Tokyo and be in Phoenix for a game on Monday. The quick turnaround will test the conditioning and stamina of the team as it hopes to carry over its enthusiasm in Japan into a strong start to the season.