NISHINOMIYA, Japan – All that remained for the hometown Sumoto High School team after the biggest game of their lives was to drop to their hands and knees.
Win or lose in Japan’s annual high-school invitational baseball tournament, the most important thing is to come home with a container of dirt. That’s because Koshien Stadium, the 47,900-seat venue where the nation goes crazy over its high-school players every March and August, is something akin to sacred ground.
Everyone wants to take dirt home from the country’s oldest ballpark; Ichiro even has a container on display in the museum his parents set up in Toyoyama. And so, the defeated Sumoto players, knowing it was likely their final time here after losing to Naruto, knelt in unison along the first-base line, and began scooping feverishly.
“The dirt of Koshien is sacred for Japanese baseball players,” said Yuko Tsujinaka, one of the tournament’s staffers. “High school baseball players think the dirt of Koshien is a precious thing, a treasure.”
And in a country where baseball is revered with a passion and zeal normally associated with religious themes, the sacred stuff can’t be overlooked. Americans like to talk about their passion for the game, but in Japan, they show you first.
Their fans wear themselves out as much as the players do by cheering nonstop from the stands during the most mundane regular-season games. Adult autograph-seekers stake out sidewalk space for hours, not to score money off a signed item, but simply to have something to take home.
And people will stop what they’re doing on a cold, windy Saturday morning and show up to this 88-year-old ballpark, partway between Kobe and Osaka, by the thousands. Or listen on radio or watch on television by the millions, to a game being played by teenagers they don’t know. Not because they once went to the same school, or lived in the same prefecture as the squads on the field, but simply for their love of the game.
The two baseball cultures collide this week as the Mariners play a pair of exhibition games against Japanese clubs and two regular-season contests versus the Oakland Athletics at Tokyo Stadium. Fans here have waited 20 years to see the only Japanese-owned team in the majors play on Japanese soil.
Such passion for the game – in victory or defeat – might help explain why losing players gather the Koshien dirt. Why they seek a bit of something bigger than the outcome of any one particular game.
After Naruto won this game in the 10th inning, rather than celebrate their walkoff victory, they simply formed a line facing the Sumoto players, who had done the same on their side of the field.
There, in near silence, the two sides bowed respectfully to one another. Only then did the cheering recommence, from both sides of the grandstands.
And the fans cheered back, not seeming to care who had won. It was about respect; for the players who had provided the show, the fans who had such an active role and for the game itself.
And then, it was about the dirt.