CRYSTAL LAKE – It is the people who keep Team Japan and manager Sadao Nakashiro coming back to McHenry County each summer.
When Nakashiro first made the summer pilgrimage from the Tokyo area to Crystal Lake 18 years ago, he only did so because the Japanese governing body of the country’s Little League equivalent instructed him to coach 15-year-old boys in the McHenry County Youth Sports Association’s Summer International Championships. Now, it’s about more than just having the team appear in the tournament or being chosen to manage some of Japan’s most promising young players.
Nakashiro quickly formed bonds with the host families, the coaches and tournament volunteers and the fans who support Team Japan, regardless of whether they have ties to the kids on its roster.
For two weeks each summer, McHenry County has become home, so this summer is bittersweet. Nakashiro said there’s a chance this is his last trip – and chance to capture a third tournament title.
“The most beautiful memories are of the families here,” Nakashiro said through his interpreter, Masa Iida. “We have made so many friends each year. Each of the players [stay in touch] through Facebook and we hear from the (American) players throughout the year. This tournament is really good for the kids.”
Team Japan has been a draw for local players, too. Japan is not only talented – it mustered two comeback wins Sunday against the All-Stars from Puerto Rico and the Gurnee Lakeside Legends to go up 3-0 in pool play – but it is intriguing. Players covet Team Japan’s pins because they are rare; the team brings only a handful with it each summer. Kids sit next to Japan’s dugout during games in the hope of getting one.
Japan’s players also are courteous and polite. They tip their batting helmets to the umpires each time they step to the plate, and they line up to bow to their fans after every game. At the end of the week, before they return to Japan, the players gather at the Crystal Lake Holiday Inn to sing a farewell song to their host families in an emotional show of appreciation.
“What they bring every year is just a different level of respect for the game,” said Jack Sebesta, executive tournament director. “They respect the players, the umpires and one another. It’s part of the culture and how they play baseball. They’re certainly one of the main draws.”
Conversely, the tournament is a draw to Team Japan’s players. It’s fast-paced – similar youth tournaments in Japan can take more than 2 months to play because teams will play as few as one game each week. Summer is cooler in McHenry County, too. But most important, the tournament gives players a completely different look at American culture.
“We don't think of this as just (about) baseball," said Nakashiro, whose team is assembled in time to practice for half a day each year before coming to the tournament. “That’s one part, but the kids have to learn the culture, and they get a chance to do that.
“Wearing the Japan uniform is [an honor]. Not many people can do that. We just want the kids to come here and have a great time."