Friendship Series continues to build momentum
By Spencer Fordin /12/27/12 8:32 PM ET
One day, they may meet again. Two groups of young men that play their baseball an ocean away from each other met this week in a Friendship Series at the Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., and the hope is that the American and Japanese kids will take a lifelong memory from the experience.
The event -- in its fourth year of existence -- featured All-Star teams of high school players from the United States and Japan and began on Thursday. Darrell Miller, the vice president of youth and facility development for Major League Baseball, said he was thrilled at the way it's grown.
"What's great is these guys really learn to love and respect each other's ability. And they also really remember each other," said Miller. "They build some friendships and bonds that go beyond this series here. They exchange stuff. My son played in this game the last two or three years, and he wears all the Japanese paraphernalia that he's exchanged with these other guys. I think these guys stay in touch and they really understand how to play in international competition, which is most important."
Indeed, while you won't be seeing any of these players in the World Baseball Classic just yet, they may get a chance to represent their nations in tournaments of some type down the road. Many of the players on the American side will be drafted or playing for top-level colleges at this time next year.
"These guys can play," said Miller. "We've had a lot of guys drafted off the team we put out there to play Japan. Last year, we had nine guys drafted off this club alone. I know we're going to have at least that this year. The scouts are out here for a reason. I know that this team from Chiba will be real competitive. Being right next to Tokyo, they always put together a great club. We're looking forward to having a wonderful competition and extending grace to each other on this Christmas holiday."
And in some cases, there's a case of divided loyalties. Former big-leaguer Shigetoshi Hasegawa, who was born and began his professional career in Japan, served as a coach for the American side on Wednesday. Hasegawa, who threw out the first pitch, could also claim another purpose.
The right-hander was on hand mostly to root for his son, Kohto Hasegawa, a right-handed pitcher for the U.S. roster. The elder Hasegawa said he first became involved in the tournament two years ago, and then kept coming back for a chance to soak it in from his unique perspective.
"We're just going to keep doing this," he said of hopes for the series expanding in the future. "It's only 30 minutes from my house -- no traffic. This is a great place. Of course, I have my office and a batting cage. But this is a more real field, so I want to come here a lot, and I can help the American kids."
Hasegawa said he never had the chance to travel internationally until he enrolled in college, and he said that the two teams would learn a lot from each other in the way they approach the game.
"They learn a lot," he said. "The American team is going to learn a lot defensively from the Japanese team. And probably the Japanese is going to learn something from the American team too, [maybe] hitting or aggressiveness in running or stealing. This is a good opportunity to get to know each other."
Dominic Smith, one of the most prominent American players in the mix, said he was looking forward to the experience for a variety of reasons. Smith, a power-hitting outfielder and a strong-armed southpaw pitcher, said he looked forward to testing his talents against players from across the world.
"To be selected against Japan is a great honor, and I'm just going to enjoy myself, play hard and try to beat these guys," he said. "We get to see what we're up against across the world. And Japan is pretty good. We can't take them lightly. We're going to do everything we can to win."
Smith will not be part of the UYA team that visits Japan in 2013, but he knows that this type of series can prepare him for his future against top-shelf Division I talent or professional players. And for Miller, that's the point, raising the next generation of talent and teaching it along the way.
"We're really pleased to be able to host a team from a prefecture in Japan for four years now," he said. "The High School Federation in Japan has been a wonderful partner to be able to provide a competitive team. And we're lucky we've been able to provide a competitive environment and a competitive team. It's been a great relationship, and we're looking forward to going to Japan."