Young Japanese Baseball Players Take Home Special Prize: Dirt
High school baseball players in Japan, some in their final year, missed their 2020 play season because of COVID-19 cancellations.
But the players have not been forgotten, at least not by Japanese professional baseball. The famed Hanshin Tigers team is honoring about 50,000 young baseball players with a gift to remember their lost season: a small amount of dirt.
But, that dirt comes from Koshien Stadium, a beloved playing field in a country that is filled with fans of the nation's most popular sport.
Koshien is in Nishinomiya, Hyogo state. Every year, more than 3,000 teams battle through local and state competitions in an effort that ends at Koshien, the championship of high school baseball. Many famous Japanese professionals have played on the field there, including Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Matsui.
Losing at Koshien hurts, of course. But, there is a great tradition that helps ease the pain. Every time a team loses, each member gathers a handful of dirt from the field to take back home and keep forever.
On a recent day, however, it was a few Hanshin Tigers players digging up dirt at Koshien, which is also home to that professional team.
The Tigers are putting the dirt into clear balls to be attached to key chains. Then, the team will send them to the thousands of high school baseball players.
Across the ball, are the words: "2020 102nd Koshien" and images of a ball, bats and the sports center. The key chains are set to ship in August, when the championship usually begins.
Hibiki Kawamato is a player for Iwamichisuikan High School in the western state of Shimane. He told the Associated Press he was excited about getting the gift, as The Tigers are his favorite team.
The game means so much to him. "When I get a hit when the team really needs it, I get praised by everyone," he said. "I'm going to play baseball till I die."
Akihiko Tanimoto is a social studies teacher who works with the team. He said the players were still working out hard, and the cancellation served as a lesson to not quit in the face of difficulties.
"Koshien was our goal, but it was not the purpose of why we play high school baseball, which is about not giving up until it's over," he said in a telephone interview.
The school has made it to the Koshien summer tournament 10 times.
The history of the dirt-gathering tradition is not fully known. But it dates back many years.
The winning team also gathers dirt, but later, after the final award ceremony.
Many Tigers players have come through the Koshien championship series. They understood the pain when the dream of play there was stolen.
"We all pondered what we could do for them, and I think it holds special meaning that we did this for them together as a team," said outfielder Kosuke Fukudome. He took part in the Koshien tournament while at PL Gakuen high school.
"I want them all to stay optimistic," said Fukudome, formerly of the Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox.
I'm Pete Musto.