When 772 pitches isn't enough

Tomohiro Anraku will throw as much as it takes to defend his nation's honor

Originally Published: July 21, 2013
By Chris Jones | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's July 22 Body Issue. Subscribe today!

THESE ARE Tomohiro Anraku's last moments of invisibility. Outside Japan, at least, he has been that ultra-rarity -- the unseen sensation, a real-life Sidd Finch, his story so impossible that he's been spoken about only in whispers or exclamations.

He is out there somewhere on this all-dirt field; he is one of these few dozen possible boys. But on this overcast Saturday morning in June, before the start of the first of two exhibition games in Akashi City, the greatest teenage pitcher in Japan -- the best since Yu Darvish -- and one of the top 16-year-old prospects in the world -- as can't miss as Stephen Strasburg -- continues hiding in plain sight. Saibi High School isn't wearing numbers on its white uniforms today. These boys never wear names. And from a distance, as they practice their drills with alarming precision, looking less like ballplayers and more like a marching band, like toy soldiers, any single one of them disappears into the lockstep crowd. An arm like Anraku's, this inhuman appendage, must look different. It must have scales, or talons, or somehow drag across the earth, leaving fissures in its wake. But for now his arm is just another arm, and Anraku is just another player, his otherworldliness lost in this army of Japanese ordinary.

Masanori Joko, Saibi's 66-year-old manager, stands like a general on a hill overlooking the field. "Is Anraku the one with the shaved head?" someone asks him, and he smiles. "They all have shaved heads," he says through an interpreter, before he offers his only description: "He is the tallest one."

There he is. That must be him. He is the tallest one by several inches, more than six feet tall, with a cap perched high on his head and a red glove on his left hand. His back is so broad, his shirt -- the only one its size on this entire team -- rides up his long arms. He has thick legs and a surprisingly American ass, and when his feet dig into the dirt, he ripples like a sprinter. He runs with another, much smaller boy into rightfield, the pair lost in the same cloud of dust, where they wait for a coach to hit a ball their way. When a pop fly settles into Anraku's glove, his arm is put on display for the first time: He throws a one-hopper to the plate. A murmur rolls through the crowd. This is a good sign.

There has been talk in America that Anraku's arm had been destroyed weeks earlier, in April, stripped of its powers at Koshien -- a high school tournament that happens twice a year in Japan, in spring and in summer. Robert Whiting, author of You Gotta Have Wa and one of the West's principal translators of Japanese culture, has a hard time capturing the meaning of Koshien, first held in 1915. "It's like the Super Bowl and the World Series rolled into one," he says. "It's the closest thing Japan has to a national festival." In the spring, 32 teams from across the country arrive at Koshien, the name of a beautiful stadium near Kobe but also the de facto title of the tournament that's played there. (In the summer, 49 teams participate, one from each of Japan's 47 diverse prefectures, plus an additional team from Tokyo and Hokkaido.) They meet in a frantic series of single-elimination games until a champion emerges. At any one time, 60% of Japan's TV sets will be tuned in to the drama. More than 45,000 fans will be packed into the stadium, and if the games are especially good, many of those fans will be weeping.

"It's not just baseball," says Masato Yoshii, who pitched in two Koshiens long before he joined the New York Mets. "It's something else. It's something more."

This spring, Anraku single-handedly carried Saibi, from his hometown of Matsuyama, representing Ehime prefecture, to the final. He stood on the mound and felt he was exactly where he should be. His parents met at Koshien as young concession workers. His father was a promising pitcher who blew out his arm even before high school; he started his son pitching when he was 3 years old. In some ways, it seems as though Anraku never had much choice about any of this, and he would agree. The Japanese don't use the word "destiny" very much. They call it fate.

He threw virtually every pitch for Saibi at Koshien, including a 13-inning complete game in which he threw 232 pitches. But in the awful final, he fell apart, terrifyingly and completely, eventually losing 17-1, pulled only after he'd thrown his 772nd pitch over five games in nine days. His fastball was not nearly so fast; his curveball no longer broke; his slider stayed flat. Every one of his instruments abandoned him, and yet he had continued to throw until his precious right arm hung limp at his side. Don Nomura, the agent who represents Darvish, told Yahoo's Jeff Passan that Anraku's treatment was nothing less than child abuse, a sentiment shared by several American scouts. Those strong words traveled over the ocean and upset many in Japan, where if anyone saw Tomohiro Anraku as a victim, he was blessed to be one. In fact, he's been given the most coveted and celebrated title of all. He is a kaibutsu.

Anraku is a monster. Anraku is a beast.

Yet even in Japan there has been a rising unease regarding Anraku's fate. Kazuhisa Nakamura, a 65-year-old journalist and former scout for the legendary Yomiuri Giants, sat in a Tokyo restaurant recently, stirring his coffee, shaking his head. "I felt sorry for him," he said, remembering that final game. "It was so obvious. Everybody could see something was wrong." The problem wasn't that Anraku had thrown so many pitches. By Koshien's measures, his performance was something like normal. Daisuke Matsuzaka had thrown 767 pitches in six games in 1998; even Darvish, who allegedly had been protected from the excesses of Japanese baseball culture by his Iranian father, threw 505 pitches in five games in 2003. What separated Anraku was how plainly he had faltered. It was like watching a prize colt find a hole in the track, only no tarps were put up to protect us from his agony. The torturous spectacle of this broken boy and the unkind Western attention that followed were enough for some Japanese to wonder whether Anraku represented everything that's wrong with Koshien rather than everything that's right. "Before, he was the No. 1 prospect in Japan, easily," Nakamura said. "Now," he said, and he stopped and shrugged.

"Now we have to wait and see."

Two months after that fateful Koshien, the waiting is almost over. At last it's time to see. Except when Joko climbs down from his hill and the game between Saibi and Kyoto-Gaidai West begins, Anraku stays in rightfield. One of Japan's potentially great pitchers stands more than 200 feet from the mound, an exile from the center of his former universe. He wades around in the sand, chasing down fly balls that he misplays. He looks lost in every sense. The only glimmer of his former light comes in the universal language of two admiring teenage girls, their hair and makeup immaculate, trying to get his attention through the fence. They know what he used to be and might still become, but the grim-faced object of their affection never looks their way. Entering the ninth inning, Saibi is losing 5-3. The Kyoto-Gaidai West players are shouting joyously in their dugout, and Anraku looks far from the tallest boy on the field.

Then his manager, Joko, makes some vague, almost invisible gesture, and Anraku releases his customary acceptance of command -- a chest-thumping shout that starts deep in his gut -- bowing to his manager before he sprints to the mound.

And while this might sound like mythmaking, like some hinterland baseball legend that's told by scouts to their children to explain why they are never home, this is a true account of what happens next:

The entire field goes silent. Not quiet. Quiet is not a strong enough word to describe this instant temple. It goes dead silent. What had been a consistent, heavy chatter just stops. Anraku's teammates, the opposing players in their dugout, the umpires, the mothers and fathers and tea-brewing booster club up on the hill -- nobody says a word. Nobody claps or chants or boos. An opposing player noiselessly pulls out a radar gun, but nobody else moves. Even the two girls, gripped tight against the rightfield fence, stop their lovesick parade.

Suddenly, there is a monster in their midst. He nods at his catcher, a tiny, brave boy built like a whippet. Anraku's huge hands lift slowly over his head, and he starts his big, leggy delivery, classically Japanese, a full-body unwinding that culminates in a fastball thrown right down the throats of every last person here.

The radar gun is in metric: 148 kilometers an hour. 92.

Anraku throws another pitch, and then another, and then another. He throws nine pitches in total, fastballs, sliders and curves. He hits 94. There is one foul ball. Otherwise there are only untouched strikes, called and swinging.

Nine pitches. Nine strikes. Three up, three down.

And then there is so much noise, a symphony rising up around Tomohiro Anraku once again.


Tomohrio AnrakuKatsuro Okazawa/AFLO/ZUMA PRESSMixing a mid-90s heater with a sharp curve and slider, Anraku is a terrifying sight for hitters.

IN JAPAN THERE are things that should never be forgotten, and a baseball manager's job, at its essence, is to make such things hard to forget. In a country that can seem so modern in so many ways, with its bullet trains and capsule hotels, with its bento boxes that heat up with the pull of a string -- seriously, it's like magic -- there are also 2,000 years of history and nearly as many traditions. One of those traditions is called nagekomi. In America, nagekomi, like throwing 772 pitches in a single tournament, would be considered child abuse. Scientists would debunk it, and surgeons would decry it. But in Japan, nagekomi is important. It's maybe even essential. It is many things all at once, but mostly it is an exercise in remembering, and it is beautiful.

It was born, like so much else that matters in Japan, of Buddhism, of martial arts, of bushido -- of the samurai spirit. At its purest, nagekomi is the repetition of a simple physical task beyond the point of exhaustion. It is the ceaseless completion of an exercise until you collapse. Baseball stuck so well here partly because in its routines, in its timelessness and pseudo-meditation, it might have been Japanese: a game of self-control, of precision, of craft. It also, conveniently, lent itself well to nagekomi. Baseball, as witnessed from a certain vantage point, could seem designed expressly to break you.

Take the infamous 1,000 Fungo Drill. For one day at Japanese spring training, professional players take a deep breath and begin fielding grounders. At first, fielding grounders is largely a mental exercise. You think about the process, about the careful placement of your feet, hands and head. Left. Right. Left. Right. After a few hundred grounders, however, your brain will pack up and leave town for the beach. Your body will start acting automatically, without central systemic guidance, and in turn a mental exercise will become a more purely physical one. Left, right, left, right. But after another few hundred grounders, your body too will stop working the way it normally might. It is no longer yours, and you are no longer you. Now you will have reached that very particular departure lounge where what was once a physical exercise becomes spiritual. Now it's your soul at work. Leftrightleftright. And there is no axon or muscle fiber that remembers anything the way your soul remembers everything. That is the purpose of nagekomi: to open your soul as wide as a prairie, allowing it to swallow those secrets you have learned about yourself and lock them away inside the deepest parts of you, where they will survive long after your body dies. Nagekomi is that moment of clarity that comes in the last hundred yards of a marathon; it is that instant your throat closes and tears begin to run down your face. It is not a pursuit of a temporary, earthly glory. It is not gravity bound. Nagekomi is weightless, and it is forever.

As far as Robert Whiting has been able to ascertain, the modern record for the 1,000 Fungo Drill is, in fact, around 900, attributed to Koichi Tabuchi in 1984. Like so much passed-down greatness here, the Legend of Tabuchi might or might not be true. But if he really did field 900 grounders one transcendent afternoon, he knows things that we will never know. He has visited places on no map. He has ridden Secretariat all those lengths clear at the Belmont; he has run the bases with Kirk Gibson, pumping his fist after that impossible home run.

Tomohiro Anraku didn't quite reach his spiritual end during that last game at Koshien. His soul opened; he just didn't have the strength to lock it back up before disaster struck. But he made it close enough to believe that this sacred moment really does exist and that one day he will know it.

"I left the mound feeling so bad," he says.

"It was also an incredible experience for me. It's given me great confidence. I found my level. Now I know what I need to do to get to the next level."

What he needs to do -- the answer to virtually every question that might be asked of him, the solution to virtually every problem that he represents -- is to throw more pitches. These are the lessons of Koshien, and these are the lessons of nagekomi. In America, we build through rest and recovery. Young arms especially need time to heal, and there is little debate about it. (Dr. James Andrews, one of the country's leading sports surgeons, recommends that a 16-year-old pitcher be limited to 95 pitches an outing, with at least three days' rest between starts.) This is anathema in Japan. Only more throwing will allow Anraku to perfect his mechanics, and only perfect mechanics will prevent injury.

Tsuyoshi Yoda, a former pitcher and Japan's pitching coach at the World Baseball Classic, explains the Japanese obsession with mechanics. For him, the pitcher -- Japanese pitchers in particular, he says, because they are smaller than Americans and can't rely solely on the strength of their arms -- must begin his delivery either with his feet or his hands. Yoda compares good mechanics to a row of dominoes. If everything is lined up properly, the last domino will be released. But if any single domino is out of alignment, the entire construction falls apart.

Yoda believes so strongly in mechanics because pitching destroyed his wrist, elbow, shoulder and knee. He can no longer touch his face with his right hand; he can't comb his hair or bring a drink to his mouth. He is 48 years old. According to Yoda, he was disabled like a factory worker not because he threw too much. "Bad mechanics," he says. "Too much thinking."

But more important than improving mechanics, only throwing will heal the scar tissue that Koshien left on Anraku's soul. He is already a kaibutsu. That gift is his. Now, if he works hard enough, if he continues to push through the ceilings that human biology might otherwise impose on him, he can become that most wicked of Japanese fantasies: the monster who can defeat even other monsters.

He is on his way. After he strikes out Kyoto-Gaidai West in that dramatic ninth-inning appearance, he starts the next game only minutes later, this one against the host high school, Takigawa II. Anraku throws 87 more pitches in seven innings of work -- no runs, no walks, three hits, 12 strikeouts -- leaving the mound only when a light rain begins to fall.

[+] EnlargeDaisuke Matsuzaka
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezDice-K started his major league journey after pitching under a Japanese system focused on mechanics rather than pitch counts.

(By Joko's odd calculus, throwing 772 pitches in sunshine is less risky than throwing one in the rain, and he pulls Anraku, fearing he might slip and get hurt.) Anraku is sent to the shelter of the bullpen. There, he throws yet more pitches, this time to cool down, which looks a lot like warming up.

Saibi has two more away games tomorrow, at a different field, near Osaka, against different high schools. Joko tells Anraku he will start the first game. He barks and bows to his manager, and he boards the bus with his teammates just when the rain really starts to fall. But those same two girls still stand at the end of the road, waiting for Anraku along with the rest of the world. Their hair is slick to their foreheads; their makeup has started to run. They might be crying, but the rain makes it hard to tell.

Anraku does not acknowledge them. He might not even see them. He says he'd like to come to America and pitch in the majors one day, but his professional aspirations remain vague. They have been assigned no dollar value. His ambitions are near-term, and they are specific and concrete. "I am a high school student," he says. "My only job is to win Koshien."

Because he is so big, and because he is so mature, people sometimes forget that he is only 16 years old. Most kaibutsu are seniors; their great Koshien is their last Koshien. Anraku was only a junior, pitching in the spring. Which means that if Saibi can qualify, Anraku and his all-too-human arm have three Koshiens left.


IT'S HARD TO think about Anraku pitching at another Koshien perhaps as soon as this August and not feel some combination of love and fear, as though we'll be watching not a monster but a human Mount Fuji, a beautiful bomb. Brian Cashman, the GM of the Yankees, has said he will be extraordinarily careful in his future pursuit of Japanese pitchers -- a lesson taught him by Kei Igawa, a $46 million cautionary tale, a high price for an arm that wasn't what it was supposed to be. But Igawa is far from the only flawed import, and Cashman is far from the only burned buyer; since the rapture of Hideo Nomo's world-tilting migration in 1995, less happy patterns have emerged. Masato Yoshii's five-year American career ended with shoulder surgery. Cubs reliever Kyuji Fujikawa recently underwent Tommy John surgery after just 12 big league appearances. Even Dice-K, the kaibutsu of kaibutsu, is pitching for Cleveland's Triple-A affiliate after his elbow exploded, and after the Red Sox invested $103 million in him. Yu Darvish seems determined to be the exception, but it would be premature for the Rangers to boast. Dice-K looked like a relative steal for his first two seasons, especially 2008, when he went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA. He hasn't posted an ERA below 4.69 in the four years since.

A growing number of Japanese observers, like Nakamura, the old Yomiuri Giants scout, have begun to feel a kind of creeping dread -- the way our watching football now comes with its own brand of guilt. There are increasing reminders across Japan of the costs rather than the rewards of nagekomi. There are so many wounded soldiers like Yoda, the coach who can no longer bring his hand to his face.

One of the country's most famous former pitchers is a 74-year-old man named Hiroshi Gondo; he is thin and wiry with glasses to match. Strangers have always whispered about him when they see him on the streets, but lately he wonders what they're saying.

In 1961, during his rookie professional season for the Chunichi Dragons, Gondo appeared in 69 games, 44 as a starter. He pitched 429 innings, including 32 complete games, amassing a record of 35–19. "There were no excuses," he says today. His manager was a World War II veteran who carried an unusual standard of what was and what was not acceptable treatment. "You're not going to die out there," he told Gondo. His shoulder was never the same after that first season, and he pitched only three more years, with fewer appearances each season: 61, 45, 26. After three years away from the mound, he came back in 1968 but managed to muscle through only a few innings. "I was done," he says. There was no doubt, and neither did he doubt why.

Gondo stayed in the game as a manager and coach, a member of the Dragons staff as recently as last season. Because of his own experience, he was one of the few Japanese managers who believed in protecting his pitchers, in keeping careful track of their workloads during games and in practice. For this, he was often accused of being soft.

[+] EnlargeSaibi
Katsuro Okazawa/AFLO/ZUMA PRESSAnraky (center) intends to lead Saibi back to Koshien in August.

Change can come slowly in Japan, at least in baseball. Gondo remembers seeing a photograph of Sandy Koufax with ice on his arm and being amazed. He had always been prescribed heat. Today, Anraku ices his shoulder after his appearances, but his manager remains deeply suspicious of this strange, imported practice.

Ice isn't the only American given that's still met with Japanese uncertainty. After 2002, Koshien officials began spreading the quarter-finals over two days rather than whipping through them in one; such an imperceptible nod to arm preservation felt like a revolution. This summer, the quarterfinals will once again take place during a single marathon day -- but for the first time in Koshien's history, there will be an off-day between the quarterfinals and semifinals. That day of rest will feel almost cataclysmic, a 24-hour chasm between the old and the new.

Even Gondo, the enlightened reformer, sometimes finds himself torn -- between the past and the future, between the player and the game, between America and Japan. He says some brave manager needs to sit his star pitcher at Koshien when it counts, to break hearts in order to save arms, and yet Gondo doesn't fault Joko for sending Anraku out to the mound. For Gondo, for Japan, Koshien represents the greatest dilemma: How do you fix a tournament that is at its best when it is at its most brutal?

Gondo casts back to the Summer Koshien final of 2006, when his country was captivated by a display of teenage endurance that was equal parts moving and cruel. The game -- two games, actually -- was between Waseda Jitsugyo and Komadai Tomakomai high schools, but in truth it was a contest between two young pitchers: Yuki Saito, whose name you probably don't know, and Masahiro Tanaka, whose name you soon will.

In their first meeting, Saito started; Tanaka came on in early relief, in the third inning. They were studies in contrast. Saito had a loose, jangly delivery that sometimes made him look as though he were falling through space. Tanaka looked more American-made. He was bigger, and he threw much harder. Somehow they each pitched the rest of that game, all 15 innings of it, with the score tied 1-1. By Koshien's strange reckoning, that meant the game both would be remembered forever and did not happen. Games tied after 15 innings are ruled draws and erased from the ledger, and the teams play again tomorrow, new game.

The next day, Saito somehow returned to the mound; Tanaka again entered in relief, this time during the first inning. Nine innings later, an exhausted Saito nursed a 4-3 lead. In one of those cosmic baseball turns, Tanaka came to the plate, representing the tying run and the last out. After nearly 24 innings over two days, it came down to this -- arguably the greatest at-bat that most Americans have never seen.

Saito nodded to his catcher. He was about to throw his 942nd pitch of the tournament, on his way to a modern record. Tanaka had thrown 742 pitches. If the moment weren't so touching, so inspiring, if it didn't leave the boys watching it from their dugouts in tears, it would have been inhumane. Maybe it still was.

942. Fouled back for a strike.

943. Swinging strike.

944. Chopped foul.

945. High and outside. Ball one.

946. Fouled back again.

947. Fouled down the third base line.

And then, at last: 948. Tanaka struck out, swing and a miss.

Saito lifted what was left of his arms into the air. Because he was small, and because he looked as though he'd been broken, he wasn't deemed a kaibutsu. There is more to the title than endurance, than simple suffering. A true kaibutsu inspires fear as well as awe. A true kaibutsu doesn't get damaged. He does the damage.

After graduating from high school, Yuki Saito played college baseball. Today he is in the Japanese minor leagues, presently out with a shoulder injury. It is unclear when he will pitch again. For now, his only physical reward for having sacrificed his arm to baseball is a plaque at Koshien, written entirely in Japanese, except for the three digits that shine like lights: 948.

Tanaka has gone on to become one of the top pitchers in Japanese professional baseball. At the end of this season, he will likely be posting, like Dice-K, like Darvish, auctioned off to the highest American bidder. A major league team will probably pay tens of millions of dollars for his rights and sign him for tens of millions more. Despite Cashman's misgivings, rumor has it that team might even be the Yankees. If not them, someone, somewhere, will overlook everything we now know about Japanese pitchers and the childhoods they survive, hoping against hope that Tanaka won't be the next Dice-K or Igawa or Yoshii or Fujikawa.

Or the next Yuki Saito. After telling the story of that fabled Koshien, Gondo rises out of his chair and reaches for his phone. He has been doing some math, some private equation, but he's not sure he's found the right answer. He calls Saito, whose voice crackles into the room.

Gondo asks Saito if he has any regrets.

No, Saito says. No regrets. He won Koshien, remember?

Gondo hangs up, and he brings his hand to his mouth. He remembers. He remembers two unstoppable boys throwing themselves into each other, inning after inning, pitch after pitch. He remembers how it was one of the most perfect, terrible, lung-heaving things he's ever seen. He remembers how that baseball game felt like love in his chest, how it still feels that way. His eyes glisten behind his glasses.

"I thought I had my mind made up," he says. "Now I'm not so sure."


ON MONDAY AFTERNOON, the boys of Saibi, now back home in Matsuyama, are informed that today's practice will be eight hours long. The first order of business is to tend to their field, on which heavy weekend rains have left a small lake where third base should be. Joko supervises the digging of a network of trenches that would impress a corps of engineers. Then most of the team sets upon the lake with wooden rakes and buckets and sponges. It takes them close to an hour of quiet, tireless work, but slowly the lake recedes. At last the bag is put into place.

[+] EnlargeKoshien
AP Photos/KYODOThe biannual Koshien tourney is like a national festival in Japan.

All the while, Anraku has been nearby, working on his mound with his own rake, shaping its gentle curves. It is necessary, Joko says, that the boys maintain their own field. They need to learn a place in order to learn their places in it. Joko is not teaching them to be baseball players, he says, because most of them will not be baseball players. But one day all of them will be men. After they finish tending their field, they bow to it, because there is honor even in dust.

Next, they assemble in tight rows on the dirt, the starters sitting in the first row, the backups and the hopefuls sitting in two neat rows behind them. Joko gives them a talk, gentle, reassuring. "I have taught you the only way I know," he says. Then his voice grows stern. Between their weekend games, the boys had tucked into lunches behind one of the dugouts, and one of them had left his empty bento box on the ground. "We were their guests," Joko says. "We must leave these places cleaner than we found them." He turns to Anraku. "This is your responsibility," he says. "This is up to you."

At the end of his speech, Joko asks the boys to stand and turn to face toward home -- not home plate but the place they were born. They turn in every possible direction, north and south, east and west, toward the cities and the mountains and the sea. They take off their caps and hold them to their chests. "I want you to think of where you come from," Joko says. "I want you to think of your mothers and fathers, of the people whose love brought you here. I want you to think of what you mean to them, how precious your gifts are. I want you to think of them and decide what it is you want to do today. Will you do your best? Will you make them proud?" And then he has the boys stand in quiet contemplation for a minute, for two minutes. Their faces crease; paths form in the dust under their eyes.

It's hard to imagine an American coach making the same speech. It's hard to imagine American boys taking off their caps and turning to face Philadelphia and Yonkers, San Antonio and St. Louis, and making up their minds about what it is they want to do today, and how well, and to honor whom. It's hard to imagine our physical pursuits also being spiritual ones. It's hard to imagine an America in which something as rare and special as a fastball is seen as less a possession than a sacrifice, more a communal property than a personal one.

It is just as hard to imagine an American manager asking his 16-year-old star to throw 772 pitches in a single tournament.

The boys begin their practice. It too doesn't look like something we would ask our children to do. It is two hours before any of them touch a baseball. At one point, heavy logs are lifted and swung. Anraku, wearing a leather jacket to prepare his body for summer's heat, watches the sweat drip off the end of his nose. Soon he will leave for a six-mile run on a hilly golf course. He runs every day. He must get stronger. He must reach the next level.

"Let me ask you," Joko says to an astonished guest. "Why do Japanese arms break in America?"

He has heard many theories. He has heard that the Americans don't let the Japanese throw enough and they get weak. He has heard they get too muscle-bound, or too fat on American food, and it alters their formerly perfect mechanics. He has heard that the ball itself is different -- the American ball is bigger -- and so their grip must change, which changes everything else.

He has never heard that it's because Japanese children field too much, or hit too much, or throw too much. Nobody, he says, has blamed Koshien or nagekomi, or if someone has, he's been deaf to such complaints. American pitchers get hurt too, don't they? If anything, Joko says, the Japanese aren't working hard enough anymore. It's not that they risk losing something important to us, to our softer way of thinking. "We've already lost it," he says.

He is not alone in his fears. "If Koshien changes," the former Met Masato Yoshii says, "I think we would lose what is beautiful about baseball."

"What a game that was," Gondo says, remembering Saito's 948 pitches once again.

Joko concludes his chat about American misdeeds by walking onto the field with buckets of balls. The boys surround him in a tight circle. Joko picks one. The boy stands maybe 30 feet in front of him, and Joko starts rifling balls, left and right, left and right. The boy dives, gets up, dives again, again and again and again, the balls mostly just out of reach. A dozen, then two dozen, then three dozen, now four, until at last the spectacle is over. The boy retreats out of the circle, and he is dirt-caked and heaving. Sweat and snot and tears cover his face. Several minutes later, his hands are still on his knees, and he still struggles to catch his breath.

Meanwhile, another boy has been chosen. It's the catcher, the whippet. Now he too begins diving, left and right, left and right, left and right. The boys are screaming encouragement, and he continues, stretched out and back to his feet, again and again. He is covered in earth from head to toe, but Joko continues to throw, and the whippet continues to dive, until suddenly, out of the dust: He smiles. Somehow he is smiling, and Joko is smiling back at him, until finally the whippet catches one last ball, exhausted, facedown in the dirt. The boys roar in unison. They have just witnessed the difference between victory and defeat.

"That's how we communicate," Joko says, the smile still on his face. "We speak without talking."

The afternoon passes into evening, with so much speaking and so little talking, until the sun starts to set beyond rightfield and the brown earth goes golden. Anraku has returned from his run at the golf course. He is still wearing his leather jacket; his giant teenage body continues to cook. Joko has told him to be ready, that if they make Koshien again, he will throw every pitch. "I want to prove this is the right way," Anraku says. "I want to prove the Japanese way is the right way."

He knows that if he gets hurt, then the Japanese way might be finished along with him, his arm the final straw. It is his greatest fear. Unlike Hideo Nomo, he won't be the start of something. Anraku will be the end, the monster that leaves his city in ruins. "It will be my fault," he says. His manager was talking about a discarded bento box, but he wasn't really talking about a bento box: This is up to him.

If he were an American kid, if he really were Stephen Strasburg, he would be that almost mythical brand of prospect whose gifts are appraised by baseball jewelers looking at him through loupes and locked away in a vault. Instead, Anraku was born Japanese, which means he is a different commodity, measured by different values. Anraku is not from this place; he is of this place. He is this place. He is his high school and prefecture and Japan.

He is his mother and father. He is his manager. Most of all he is the rest of these beautiful boys, everything they are and everything they hope they will be remembered for having been.

He knows that his fate will also be theirs. He knows by heart which way is home. And so off Anraku goes unafraid into the night, swinging his arm at his shoulder, as though he's only just begun to warm up.

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Chris Jones is the back-page columnist for ESPN The Magazine. He is also a Writer at Large for Esquire. Follow him on Twitter @MySecondEmpire.

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