Disabled Baseballers Defy the Odds

Sports Education Society

In the summer of 2023 a special-needs school took the field in Tokyo for the first time ever in the preliminary round of the Kōshien high-school baseball tournament. A look at the way these young athletes and their manager have overcome disabilities and other barriers to play the sport they love.

Kōshien at Last

On September 2, 2023, at a baseball field in Tokyo’s Hachiōji, a game was played, part of the first heat of Tokyo’s autumn high-school baseball tournament. In the dugout was a combined team made up of players from Shōin High School, Fukasawa High School, and Seichō special school, none of which had sufficient players to form a team on its own. The team’s one-sided first game against Hachiōji Jissen High School was called off after five innings due to the size of Hachiōji’s lead, with the combined team losing 22 to 0. After the game, coach Kubota Hiroshi conceded sheepishly, “This is always going to happen when you go up against a team that good.”

However, rather than dissatisfaction at losing, Kubota’s expression exuded freshness. It had taken him 30 years to get to the stage where students from his school were competing in high school tournaments.

Kubota began teaching in the spring of 1988. His dream was to coach a high-school team and prepare them for the Kōshien tournament that is the objective of every boy who plays baseball at high school. When Kubota finished university, however, he was hired by a school in Fuchū, Tokyo, for special-needs students with physical and intellectual disabilities. Kubota was anguished, believing that coaching baseball was now off the cards. However, that all changed three years later when he was made coach of his school’s baseball team (albeit in name only, as the students actually played softball). At first, Kubota did not feel like coaching at all, as he gazed absently at the students, who were unable to throw or catch a ball.

But then, a student with Down syndrome came to him and asked, “Can you show me how to throw, Mr. Kubota?”

From early childhood right through until university, Kubota had been obsessed with baseball. As he taught his students the basics of holding the ball, stepping, and batting, he found himself getting into it, and before he knew it an hour had passed. The students were getting the ball farther with each throw, too. Kubota was moved at the sight of his students smiling and dancing for joy at being able to pitch so far, and realized that even these students could play softball if they put their minds to it. From then on, he became passionate about coaching softball. By working closely with these young people who didn’t even know the basics of the game to begin with, he was able to lift their individual performance. In his second year as coach, his team won the Tokyo special schools softball tournament. It would be the first of a string of victories.

This was not enough for Kubota, however. “I wanted them to lift their game even further, so I decided to have them play an able-bodied team,” he says.

Their first such game was against a team from a girls’ high school, who gave them a 21–0 drubbing. While an infield single prevented their opponent from achieving a perfect game, the experience highlighted their opponents’ superiority. They subsequently played several other able-bodied teams, only to lose repeatedly, until 2006, when they scored their first victory, beating a company team 7–6 at a tournament in the city of Tama. It had taken 17 years of coaching to get to this point.

Kubota in his third year of coaching the Seichō baseball team: He credits his success in overcoming obstacles to his passion for coaching. (© Hori Sōshirō)
Kubota in his third year of coaching the Seichō baseball team: He credits his success in overcoming obstacles to his passion for coaching. (© Hori Sōshirō)

Obstacles Off the Field

The experience made him keenly aware of obstacles. He recalls:

“A lot of people involved with the school didn’t like the prospect of our team competing in able-bodied competitions, saying that we had no chance of winning or citing the risk of accidents. In fact, none of those people had even considered that we might play an able-bodied team. For them, special schools were all there was.”

Both schools for the disabled and disabled people themselves are surrounded by barriers. However, these barriers are created not by the society on the outside, but rather those who control the world inside. And yet, for passionate Kubota, who desperately wanted victory, these barriers meant nothing. By taking his students out into the world, he learned another lesson.

“Our opponents didn’t go easy on us—rather, they gave it their all. We were of course taken to the cleaners. That was a good thing, though. Take our pitchers, for example. While in games against other special schools they could keep their opponents at bay by simply pitching straight balls, able-bodied teams would knock them out of the park, and sometimes come back at us with tricky pitches like curveballs. After the games, students would come to me asking how to throw curves,” he says.

Keenly aware of the need for his batters to improve their bunting skills, Kubota formulated a strategy that would enable his team to win. While improvements did not happen overnight, slowly and surely, his players improved their game. Over time, these efforts led them to beat a company team.

“Even disabled players can improve if they set their sights high. This is why I believe coaches need to give them the opportunity to try,” says Kubota.

This convinced Kubota that at the end of the day disabled players are just the same as their able-bodied counterparts and have the same right to compete. He decided to take the next step—the high school baseball championships that had been a dream of his.

Because baseballs are harder than softballs, baseballers face a higher risk of injury. To compete in official games, a high school baseball team needs to be a member of the high school baseball federation in its prefecture, but only one special-needs school—in Kagoshima—had ever competed at an official game at the high school level. Kubota now had an even higher hurdle to overcome.

This gave him the idea of involving like-minded people. He established the “Kōshien Yume Project” to help baseballers with intellectual disabilities go to Kōshien. The group held a press conference in March 2021, with the message, “Let’s play baseball! Let’s go to the Kōshien heats!”

As soon as news of the press conference hit the press, Kubota’s phone started ringing. A lot of young people were interested in baseball but had never got the chance to play. Kubota’s primary goal was to giving them that opportunity. Joint practice sessions were held every month. Simply being able to chase a baseball around a field with fellow disabled athletes was a valuable experience for the players. Some expressed a clear desire to go beyond practice games and participate in official games.

In 2022, one of these eager athletes, Hayashi Ryūnosuke, participated in the Aichi summer championships as part of a combined team. Thanks to support from others on the project, he achieved his dream.

The combined team lined up before the game. (© Hori Sōshirō)
The combined team lined up before the game. (© Hori Sōshirō)

The Road to Kōshien

In April 2021, shortly after the Kōshien Yume Project’s inauguration, Kubota was sent to teach at Seichō Special Needs Education School in Setagaya, Tokyo. In June, he started a baseball team at the school to coach interested students. Their training took place alongside the activities of the project.

In December 2022, Seichō applied to join the Tokyo High School Baseball Federation. Those in their first year at the school when the club was formed would be in their third and final year in 2023, meaning that approval needed to be obtained then if those students were to have a chance at going to Kōshien in the summer of their last year. With no special-needs school having ever joined the federation before, the necessary arrangements took a long time. It was in May 2023, around six months after the initial application was filed, that Seichō received a final response approving its entry into the federation.

However, the team was not out of the woods yet. It only had seven players, all students with mild intellectual disabilities. They would need to form a combined team with players from other schools. With not much time until the tournament, Kubota was at his wits’ end. He turned to a friend and got an introduction to Uno Hidekazu, who coached baseball at Fukasawa High School. While Fukasawa intended to contest the tournament jointly with Shōin High School, the combined team was still below the maximum size of 20. Uno’s response was positive. Having worked at a special school himself, he was sympathetic to the needs of those with disabilities. None of the players from the other two schools were opposed to joining forces with Seichō. At last, Seichō students would be able to take part in official high school competition.

The Seichō students’ first game, against Matsubara High School, was the second of the West Tokyo summer tournament, and a surprisingly exciting one. Despite giving up 10 runs in the bottom of the second inning, the combined team immediately evened the score in the top of the third. After a fierce battle, they ended up narrowly losing, 23–19.

Shutō Rihito, then a junior at Seichō, was number 7 in the starting lineup, playing right field. Fellow junior Shirako Yūki served as a base coach, while senior Yamaguchi Taiga was a pinch hitter.

At just 50 meters square, Seichō’s baseball field makes it impossible to practice outfield maneuvers, but players can practice batting, defense, and running. (© Hibino Kyōzō)
At just 50 meters square, Seichō’s baseball field makes it impossible to practice outfield maneuvers, but players can practice batting, defense, and running. (© Hibino Kyōzō)

The autumn tournament was contested by a combined team from the same three schools, which lost to Hachiōji Jissen High School by 22 runs. While the team still has a lot to work on, the mood was far from tragic. This is because their defeat was like “that other time”: the first time the team played softball against an able-bodied team, when they were given a drubbing by a girls’ squad. That experience started them on the road to their first victory.

For young people with disabilities, Kōshien remains a distant goal—one can’t even imagine how many years it will take before they will be able to compete there. One thing is certain, however. These young people have already started down the long road to that hallowed ground of high school baseball.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: The Seichō Special Needs Education School baseball team along with coach Kubota, at far right, after being beaten 22–0 by Hachiōji Jissen High School at the autumn championship on September 2, 2023. © Hibino Kyōzō.)

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