Blames self for bean ball in Japan’s most competitive high school sports tournament.

Idealists say that nothing is more important than good sportsmanship in youth sports, but quite often that noble attitude gets watered down, and sometimes washed away, as the stakes go beyond a low-key local contest. The bigger the stage, the bigger the pressure to just win, especially if you’re playing a team sport and have not just your personal hunger for victory, but your teammates’ too, riding on your actions.

So you have to figure that the competitive juices were flowing strong within Kenshin Sugawara, catcher for Kazo City, Saitama Prefecture’s Hanasaki Tokuharu High School, on August 11 as his team took on Hyogo Prefecture’s Akashi Commercial High School in the opening round of the annual Koshien Japanese summer high school baseball tournament. Even though Japan has a professional baseball, and a competitive college league too, summer Koshien is the biggest sports event of the year in Japan, with fans across the nation spending their summer vacations watching the games between prefectural champions that take place at hallowed Koshien Stadium, near Osaka.

In the top of the seventh inning, Hanasaki was trailing Akashi by a score of 3-2, with one out and no runners on base, as Sugawara stepped into the batter’s box. Time was running out for Hanasaki to mount a comeback, and a loss would mean elimination from the tournament, which would be Sugawara’s last summer Koshien, since he’ll be graduating in the spring.

With the Hanasaki brass band blaring the theme song from anime Evangelion, Sugawara gripped his bat and stood his ground as the Akashi pitcher threw an outside ball. But when the second pitch comes flying forward…

…it plunks Sugawara in his forward-facing left shoulder. That is great for Hanasaki, right? A batter being hit by a pitch is a free trip to first base, and with Hanasaki down by one, Sugawara would represent the tying run. But as shown in the video, Sugawara immediately starts talking to the umpire.

He isn’t asking for the pitcher to be ejected, though. Instead, he’s apologizing for getting hit by the pitch, saying it was his own fault for leaning in towards the ball. Sugawara later explained “I think I was in the wrong, since I slouched to avoid it, I told the umpire I was sorry, and also apologized to the pitcher.”

With Sugawara declining the free trip to first base, the pitch was ruled a ball, and the umpire can be seen smiling as Sugawara bows in apology to the referee, then does the same to both the Akashi catcher and pitcher. So Sugawara steps back into the box, the pitcher winds up, and suddenly the sound of the anime fight song is drowned out by…

the sonorous striking PING of Sugawara’s metal bat meeting the pitch, and then the roar of the crowd as the ball sails over the left field wall for a home run!

As expected, Sugawara indulges in no showboating whatsoever as he rounds the bases, and respectfully tips his helmet to the Akashi catcher as he crosses home plate, then high-fives a few teammates on his trot directly back to the dugout, casually shunning individual attention for tying the score and putting his team back in the game.

The video of Sugawara’s sportsmanship and athletic ability has now racked up over four million views, and what feels like nearly as many admiring comments, such as:

“What a humble, wonderful sportsman.”
“I love how the umpire’s expression is saying, ‘Man, these are some great kids.’”
“This moment will live on in high school baseball legend for decades.”
“’Man, I wish he’d just taken the free base,’ the pitcher and catcher are probably thinking.”
“’Hey, no prob. I was planning to hit a home run on the next pitch anyway.’”
“Pay attention, pro scouts. Sugawara isn’t just a good catcher, he’s also a great person.”

When asked about his instantly legendary at-bat, Sugawara said “Many people were watching. Koshien is sacred ground, and we’re here as representatives of Saitama. I wanted to play the game in a way that people would be glad that Hanasaki is here. High school students have to play fair and show good sportsmanship.”

So, inspired by Sugawara’s skills and heart, did Hanasaki rally for a come-from-behind win? No. The team was unable to add any more runs in the inning, and in the bottom of the seventh, Akashi quickly regained the lead by scoring a run to make it 4-3, which ended up being the final score. But judging from Sugawara’s statement above, which he gave after the game was over, he’s got no regrets about how he conducted himself, and while Hanasaki is now out of the tournament, the people of Kazo City can be very, very proud of their team.

Sources: YouTube/やまチャンネル 野球youtube, Sponichi Annex via Yahoo! Japan News via Yahoo! Lifestyle via USA Today via Yuruku Yaru via Jin, Nihon Keizai Shimbun
Images: YouTube/やまチャンネル 野球
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Follow Casey on Twitter, where he’s hoping for a good year for San Dimas High School football.