It would be hard for most Americans to imagine working outside in the heat of a summer day for 15 straight hours without water. As a matter of fact, there are many laws that would deem such mandated working conditions illegal. The same can be said for a child of any age playing out in the summer heat. Water is a necessity. Well, Hiroki Kuroda, a star pitcher for the New York Yankees, remembers his childhood baseball torture. This torture included 15 hour-long days with no breaks from running and no water allowed. Kuroda is a Japanese born and raised baseball player, and at the time of his birth in 1975, baseball practices in Japan were much different from those in the United States. In an interview and as is reported by David Waldstein of the New York Times, Hiroki Kuroda vividly remembers his painful baseball days of his youth in Japan. It is the torture of those days that made him who he is today.
When most think of Little League Baseball, we think of young boys out on the field having the carefree time of their lives. When Kuroda was born in 1975, things weren’t quite that way in Japan. Baseball was serious business, and Kuroda’s time as a child on the field was more of a military type of experience. To put it in perspective, it is highly doubtful that any United States military branch would call for such disciplinary tortures as what Kuroda’s coaches called for. Such acts would be a civil litigator’s dream.
Kuroda began his baseball schooling in the first grade. This was his introduction to the old-school culture of Japanese ball. It was also his introduction to a discipline called ketsu batto. This is what would occur when mistakes or errors were made and would include a whack to the rear end with a baseball bat. Yes, the coach would be the administrator. It wouldn’t take an error for ketsu batto to be administered, simply giving up a hit or two would do the trick. As quoted by the New York Times, here’s what Kuroda said:
Starting in elementary school, it was like the military almost. If you did something wrong in a game, you’ll get a certain number of spanks with a bat. The next day, you couldn’t even sit in a chair in school.
When I gave up a hit, ketsu batto. That was my first experience in baseball with a team. In first grade to fourth grade.
In between his days of the fourth grade and high school, Kuroda caught a bit of a break as his father, Kazuhiro Kuroda, became the coach of his team. It was during these years that he first found the joy in baseball. For once, there was baseball without the imminent threat of severe discipline.
Reflecting upon my baseball life, that was the time that I had the most fun playing baseball. I was able to experience baseball without discipline. It was the pure joy of playing baseball. But when I got back to high school, it was back to the torture.
His high school days were spent at a boarding school type of campus where he lived in a dormitory. The days were filled with baseball, school and baseball. The kids would hit the ball field at six in the morning and wouldn’t get back to the dorm until nine or ten at night. There was no room for slip ups and no room for whining. Quite often, there was no room for food or water. Kuroda remembers sneaking out to dirty rivers, along with his teammates, just to get a taste of water. In an attempt to get the youngsters accustomed to surviving tough conditions, the coaches wouldn’t allow water breaks. Knowing that these were not the cleanest of waters didn’t stop Kuroda and the others from getting their fill. Here’s what Kuroda recalls about the practice days and the rivers:
It was a generation when coaches believed you should not drink water.
Many players would faint in practice. I did go to the river and drink. It was not the cleanest river, either. I would like to believe it was clean, but it was not a beautiful river.
In order to play, you had to survive. We were trained to build an immune system so that we could survive and play.
As a 15 year-old, Hiroki Kuroda remembers a specific incidence where he and another teammate were made to do the unthinkable. After having a bad outing on the mound, he and his teammate were approached by his manager and ordered to run. “Running” for these youngsters didn’t mean what it means for most growing up in the United States. “Running” meant running from foul pole to foul pole “all day” and without water. “All day” meant for the entire 15 hour day. This discipline didn’t simply last one day. This would continue for three more straight days. He obviously couldn’t run the entire time, so when the coaches weren’t looking, he would walk. When his coach left for lunch, Kuroda’s teammates would leave him water and rice balls in the woods. Here’s how Kuroda felt about the water at these times:
That water was the greatest tasting thing I have ever had, better than any five-star restaurant.
If you are wondering how Kuroda’s parents felt about this treatment, it is safe to say that they were aware and approved. After hearing of the above four-day ordeal, Kuroda’s teammate’s parents stepped in the way and stopped the punishment. They took both boys back to their home and fed and bathed them. When his teammate’s parents called Kuroda’s mother and told her what was going on, she ordered him to go back. As to this memory, Kuroda laughed and said, “At that point, I knew I had an enemy in my own house.”
Kuroda’s college days were much the same. He remembers the freshmen on his team being treated as slaves and said that much of the hazing that went on was too foul to speak about. Nonetheless, Kuroda survived his baseball torture and made himself into an outstanding professional pitcher. After never being the best on any of his youth teams, Kuroda now has the best career MLB ERA (3.41) of any Japanese pitcher with more than 12 starts. Entering tonight’s game against the Boston Red Sox, his season ERA with the New York Yankees sits at 3.17. He recognizes that it was this upbringing that made him into the pitcher and man that he is today. With that said, he knows he would have enjoyed baseball more had he not had to suffer through all of the torture. The days of being punished for giving up hits still live inside of him. When light-heartedly asked if he could throw 200 pitches in a game, Kuroda had a serious response. In his words, here’s how he responded to the question, along with some other quotes in regards to his baseball memories:
I am a human being, so of course I get tired. But if someone asks me, I would probably do it because that is how I was taught. Everything happens for a reason, and maybe it helped me to get here now… But if none of it happened, I would have enjoyed baseball a lot more… It was all so ingrained in me that I still have a fear of giving up hits and runs.
The days of “no water” in Japanese baseball culture are over. The judicial and litigious atmosphere won’t allow for such treatment. Nonetheless, this really shows the hard work that MLB players put in to get to where they are. Everything in life that is worth something comes with a price. Kuroda has surely paid his price for the perks of playing in the Majors. This type of experience would have made most of us quit.