Monday, May 25, 2015

They're coming to Tokyo -- Todai!

Combing the wires tonight, I saw that the NCAA baseball tournament is about to get underway. Even in years with no local interest -- like this one -- the tournament gets good coverage back in Nebraska as the College World Series has become a fixture on Omaha's calendar.

I hope people enjoy the CWS. I haven't for some years and probably won't again, due in large part to Mike Fahey earning life-long enmity for reasons detailed here and others elsewhere. Instead, I'd like to highlight another college baseball story -- one that should give a little inspiration to underdogs everywhere.

The University of Tokyo is, by almost all measures, one of the most prestigious and successful universities in Japan, if not all of Asia. It counts 15 Japanese prime ministers and several Nobel laureates among its alumni. It is part of the National Seven Universities group -- along the lines of Japan's Ivy League -- and the Tokyo Big6 Baseball League.

This latter affiliation is much less of a point of pride, though. While Todai (as the university is known, short for Tokyo daigaku) is a heavyweight in academics, it is decidedly out of its league on the baseball diamond. There it is more akin to Caltech, a school of great academic standing that is intimately familiar with sporting futility. The New York Times explains why Todai comes up so short on the field:
Todai, as it is known colloquially, is the country’s premier university, producing many of its top politicians, doctors, lawyers and even baseball team owners. Students who pass its famed entrance exam are guaranteed a status unmatched by any other college.
Yet the university is a lightweight when it comes to the nation’s most popular sport, baseball. A national institution, Todai does not scout high school players, offer scholarships or consider sports in the admissions process. Students must get in by their wits, not their bat or glove.
As a result, losing has been a way of life since 1925, when five prominent private universities in Tokyo invited Todai to help form the Tokyo Big6 Baseball League, the rough equivalent of Japan’s Ivy League. From the start, Todai was a doormat against powerful foes like Keio and Waseda, which draw some of the nation’s best high school players.
Since World War II, the team has never finished in the top half of the six-team league, and it has placed last the past 16 seasons. Over 89 years, Todai has won just 13 percent of its games (244 wins, 1,550 losses and 55 ties).
How bad is this futility? It recently went four years without a win, meaning one graduating class enrolled, played and graduated without ever experiencing the thrill of victory. They set a record with 94 consecutive losses. Their most recent win was in October 2010 -- or, at least, that was the case until Saturday.

Every so often, the patience and perseverance required to cheer for an underdog through good times and bad (mostly bad) gets rewarded.
On Saturday, Todai’s baseball team did the unimaginable: It beat Hosei University, 6-4, scoring two runs in the top of the 10th inning to secure the win. The 8,000 fans at Meiji Jingu Stadium in central Tokyo witnessed history.
Hosei, which has won a record 44 titles in the league’s 90-year history, had been in the hunt for the spring tournament title.
Still, the end of Todai’s long drought brought cheers of joy and relief across baseball-loving Japan. Headlines in sports newspapers noted that the players no longer had to worry about their losing streak reaching 100 games.
“I’m very happy,” Kazushi Hamada, the team’s manager, told reporters. “We finally came out of the tunnel.”
Seemingly overcome by the feat, he added: “Once I start to appreciate it, I will be able to talk for more than 24 hours.”
Having been part of a team that went a whole season without a win and having sat through years of sometimes execrable baseball (Cubs fan here), I hope Todai fans new and old soaked up as much joy as possible on Saturday. Sports are supposed to be an escape, a pastime, so to stick with a team that fails to bring such joy into your life for any considerable length of time requires a particularly dedicated (or demented) mind.

If this was the movies, at this point the scene would fade to black and the credits would roll. But it isn't. Two days after their exultation, Todai lost 6-0 to Hosei and received a swift reminder that, even in Japan, it always ends with a loss. That's why the movies are the movies; if they reflected real life, they'd be so boring and soul-crushing that no one would go.

So good on you, Todai. Things could be worse -- you may not be winners, but you are loved, and your graduates have EZ Pass access to the halls of power. That's consolation of a sort.

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