Elite Underdogs: A Portrait of the University of Tokyo Baseball Team

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The University of Tokyo is Japan’s top school, but that boast doesn’t include their baseball team. The club is regularly beaten by rivals and has consistently ranked bottom in the Tokyo Big6 Baseball League for 48 seasons and counting. However, players are not dismayed by the dismal record and are as determined as ever to win every game they play. We look at what keeps team members busy in baseball.

Why play baseball?

I’ve played amateur baseball for over 20 years and boast a trusted 22-batter varsity teammate in the Tokyo Big6 Baseball League. His greatest claim to fame is having shot the ball into the outfield from the great Egawa Suguru. He is easily the best player on the team and humbly carries his less talented teammates on the back of his pitching. His routine of running and swinging a racquet to practice his form has never wavered, even since he retired from the corporate world. A former player on the Tokyo University baseball team, he lives for the game.

The University of Tokyo is famously the most difficult school in Japan, but its baseball team is notorious for losing – a single win in the Tokyo Big6 Baseball League grabs the headlines. It’s strange to watch players who’ve cracked their ticket by entering Japan’s most prestigious school and are struggling so hard down a doomed path. Why do these elite students devote themselves to baseball when they almost certainly know they’re going to lose? As an outsider, I could never understand that, so I asked some of the current members of the Tokyo University baseball team what motivates them.

The University of Tokyo baseball field on the Faculty of Agriculture campus in Bunkyō, Tokyo.

A chance to play in the Tokyo Big6

Ōto Shūhei, a senior player who previously served as captain, describes the team as an ideal environment to pursue baseball. “When I was in junior high school, I set my sights on the University of Tokyo because I knew I wanted to play baseball at full strength without worrying about my future,” explains Ōto. “I figured if baseball doesn’t work out, I can just focus more on my studies.”

That makes sense. Studying at Tōdai, as the school is colloquially called, almost guarantees graduates a “passport to life”. Ōto says this creates a somewhat unusual situation as players in the Big6 can compete based on their academic ability and not their ability on the pitch. “Anyone can make it into the team”

The league includes six prominent schools in Tokyo: Hōsei University, Keiō University, Meiji University, Rikkyo University, Tokyo University and Waseda University. Players from other schools have to work hard to earn spots based on their ability to hit, throw, and run. Tōdai students, on the other hand, can enter the field in the sacred Jingū Stadium if they pass Tōdai’s demanding entrance exam. I sense a pang of guilt from Ōto at the implication of academic entitlement, but he insists that everything balances out. “It seems unfair, but it really isn’t.”

Finally, Tōdai prioritizes academics, not ballplay skills. Of course, that made it difficult for the school to win. As of the end of the 2021 autumn season, the club has a record of 255 wins, 59 draws and 1,688 losses since its inception. Tōdai has rolled at the bottom of the league for 48 straight seasons, beginning in the fall of 1997 when it finished fifth overall. According to Ōto, such a dark period indicates that a team is playing in an “ideal environment”.

“Even as weak underdogs, players can enjoy taking on the pitcher and other tense aspects of the game,” Ōto points out. “Obviously we play to win so it’s disappointing to come up short. But I just shake it off and focus on the next game. It’s a pleasure to play at such an elite level. I enjoy the process leading to competition regardless of the expected outcome.”

It speaks to the sheer joy of competing against teams whose rosters include players who will later play in the professional leagues. Ōto, who is enrolled in the Department of Earth and Planetary Science, says that for Tōdai, this aspect is the biggest part of the game of baseball.

When asked if he preferred baseball or research, he answered without hesitation: baseball. “I feel a bit constrained by my studies as it directly affects my future,” says Ōto, whose major is ecology. “On the other hand, I can fully enjoy my baseball. In a competitive sports arena like the Big6, it doesn’t matter how much you learn. That’s why I like it.”

Ōto Shūhei, third baseman and former team captain, dreams of going to space in the future.
Ōto Shūhei, third baseman and former team captain, dreams of going to space in the future.

A moving victory

The Big6 consist of spring and fall seasons in which teams play other clubs three times each, with the first team to win two games winning the series. Until Spring League 2021, the last time Tōdai won a game was in Fall 2017.

Inoue Keishū, cleaning up for Tōdai, remembers the game. “It was a moving victory,” he recalls. “It was inspiring to think that a university that requires continuous study to get into and has no sporting tradition could beat a more talented team.”

The win, the first in five years, was a big deal on campus. The next year, the club welcomed a record 31 new members, including Inoue, who had transferred from Hitotsubashi University, which is not a bad school.

“I originally wanted to go to Tōdai,” Inoue explains, “but after failing the entrance exam twice, I ended up in Hitotsubashi.” That’s where he played nankyū Baseball that uses a rubber ball instead of a hard leather ball. However, he never gave up on his dream of qualifying for Tōdai. “When I saw that the school was winning, I decided to try again. I studied an hour a day, concentrating on math, my weakest subject, while continuing with my regular university classes and club activities.”

As the saying goes, the third time is the charm. Inoue pursued his dream of joining the Tōdai baseball team, but he had to learn that losing one member of the team meant losing regularly. After Tōdai’s glorious streak win over Hōsei University in Spring 2017, they embarked on a humiliating four-year winning streak that eventually ended in the Fall 2021 league.

Inoue is determined to continue his playing career after graduation – at an advanced level. Through his connections, he managed to earn a spot with Mitsubishi Motors Okazaki, an amateur baseball powerhouse. “I’ve played ball since I was in elementary school, but I’ve never been on a strong team,” he says. With Mitsubishi, however, his goal is to win the prestigious Inter City Baseball Tournament, one of the finest amateur titles.

The club has won the Inter City title 12 times and produced a number of professional players.

Starting next spring, Inoue will finally get a chance to play baseball on a team where winning is normal. “As soon as I start, I’m going to throw everything I’ve got into the baseball game. And if it doesn’t work? I’ll think about it when the time comes.”

Inoue Keishū, a fourth-year student at the School of Education, heads for first base after making contact with the ball.
Inoue Keishū, a fourth-year student at the School of Education, heads for first base after making contact with the ball.

A unique team

Tōdai students who have overcome a major hurdle in life by simply making it into the prestigious university exude a certain confidence – no matter what happens in life, they will succeed. This is in stark contrast to ‘less fortunate’ university students who are plagued by uncertainty about their future throughout their lives.

Still, I felt a certain connection to the experiences of top player Izawa Shunsuke. He says about 10 students from his high school made it to the University of Tokyo each year, but he felt his grades put him out of reach. He had planned to attend a university in Sapporo near his home and play baseball there, but he changed his mind after his high school coach encouraged him to target Tōdai.

The school has put energy into scouting for some time, including launching practice sessions for promising players with excellent academic records. At these events, coaches and players also give participants tips on how to pass the Tōdai entrance exams. Inoue made it his goal to enter Tōdai after attending one of these sessions.

“I failed my first attempt, but passed the test on my second attempt after studying hard for 12 hours a day,” explains Inoue. “In the beginning I wasn’t sure if I would make it, so after the exam I continued to study at other universities. It was such a relief when I found out I passed.”

It was refreshing to hear how hard he had studied and how happy he was to pass, a reaction that contrasted with that of his more confident older teammates. He assured me that Tōdai’s students come from all walks of life. “There are many interesting and unique people here.”

Izawa Shunsuke, ace pitcher who led the team to victory against Hōsei University and stopped Tōdai's 64-game losing streak.
Izawa Shunsuke, ace pitcher who led the team to victory against Hōsei University and stopped Tōdai’s 64-game losing streak.

I’ve spoken to numerous star players, but the Tōdai Baseball Club has 130 members, many of whom, of course, cannot play. The core members can enjoy the game even if they lose, but I was wondering where the reserves get their motivation from.

Todai Baseball Club

Founded in 1919. The club joined the baseball association of Tokyo’s “Big Five” universities – Waseda, Keiō, Meiji, Hōsei and Rikkyō – to form a six-team baseball league in 1925. The team finished second (their highest ranking ever) with four consecutive wins in the first round. In the fall of 1974, they lost in the first tournament to pitcher Egawa Suguru in a contest with Hōsei University. Then, in the spring of 1981, they caused a stir by beating Waseda and Keiō to claim the championship.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Inoue Keishū, left, and pitcher Izawa Shunsuke celebrate after defeating Rikkyo University in the 2021 Big6 Baseball League Fall Series at Jingū Stadium on September 26, 2021. © Kyōdō. All photos courtesy of the University of Tokyo baseball team unless otherwise noted.)

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