“JUST softly now. No need to shout it out,” the gentle but firm command is issued by Raiders’ inspirational team captain, Winson Low, as team members stack their hands on top of each other in a show of solidarity.
“Raiders!” The cheer that accompanies the eager pumping of hands is soft but the sense of pride and jubilance is palpable. It’s only as they break apart that the boisterous clapping and back-slapping follows to mark a job well done — yet again.
“Team picture, everyone!” I holler above the celebratory din, smiling indulgently at the players as they excitedly attempt to form a huddle.
Pint-sized powerhouse Sara Subra, the team’s catcher, makes an excited beeline for the centre, followed by the rest of his buoyant teammates.
This is the team, led by Japanese coach David Hirofumi Sakamoto, whose progress I’ve been following for more than a year (and for whom my tai-tai Sundays have been sacrificed) for hours under the blazing hot sun crouching awkwardly on some hardened padang (field) armed with my trusty Nikon, all the while being at the mercy of some loose ball careening towards my face.
Team Raiders, set up sometime in 2012, and comprising former national players, working professionals and students, truly epitomises a Malaysian team, with all races, including a Korean and Japanese, in the melange.
The team has an enviable track record behind them. And today’s convincing victory over Korean team, Dragons, adds another feather to their (baseball) cap.
This modest league, explains Sakamoto, during a moment of respite under the welcoming canopy of some dappled trees, is a continuation of the previous local league and is open to everyone.
In its second year now, the number of teams involved remain small, comprising his own team, Raiders, Selayang Stars helmed by another baseball and softball stalwart, Mohamad Rosli Abu Bakar, and two Korean juggernauts, Team Dragons and 9Innings.
“In the first year, the League was organised by the Koreans, 9Innings, and only three three teams were involved,” begins Sakamoto, wiping the beads of sweat forming on his forehead.
“This time, Selayang Stars came onboard. The players are involved for 12 weeks, the duration of the league, with each team playing six games each, every alternate week. The team with the best results is the champion.”
For the second year, Sakamoto took over the reins as the field that they’re using for the games at SMK Menjalara in Kuala Lumpur is also where this industrious coach trains Form 1 to Form 5 children in the skills of the games. So it’s a contra of sorts.
An audible sigh escapes his mouth when I ask Sakamoto (who has made Malaysia home for many years) just why the number of participating teams is so lean. It’s a challenge he’s been plagued with for years - of raising awareness for the game of baseball in the country and getting everyone together so that the game can flourish.
“I guess we didn’t really do much advertising about the league to begin with,” he replies, a tone of resignation in his voice.
“We did invite Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) but their response was long in coming and we couldn’t wait. Of course, if we had more teams participating, it’d be better.”
It doesn’t help that there aren’t many active baseball teams in the Klang Valley for him to pool from either.
Despite the challenges, the League went ahead because as the coach puts it, the main thing is that continuous opportunity is provided, especially for local players, to play the game, competitively or otherwise.
Brows furrowing, he adds: “No matter how hard we train, if there’s no game, it’ll be harder to sustain players’ interest. Something like this is a useful contribution towards the baseball agenda as a whole.”
Lack of game opportunities for players serious about the game has always been a monumental headache, confides Sakamoto. There’s the tendency to flit over to softball, a variant of baseball but played with a larger ball and on a smaller field. The former is more widely played here compared to baseball and is a staple in some schools around the country.
“Most of the local teams are softball teams and whenever they have softball tournaments, that becomes their priority.”
Players will play baseball when they get the opportunity. But when there’s not enough, they jump to softball.
“Perhaps if there were more games, they’d stick to one game,” says Sakamoto, poking a small stick he’s holding in his hand into the ground frustratedly.
“Hopefully, in the future, we’ll be able to have genuine baseball players in the team and not just makeshift players who’ve jumped over from softball. If we can groom serious players, then we’ll be able to have a better chance at putting together a strong national team so that we can play in more international tournaments.”
He’s keen for the awareness to be raised on the existence of this League so that when — and if — it goes into it’s third year, there’ll be more local teams involved. “It’d be great if we could create league tiers like you get in football, for example. But for that to happen, we need more teams.”
IMPORTANCE OF FOLLOW-THROUGHS
As my gaze travel to the already emptying field and rest on the players who are now busy going through their cooling down drills, a memory of one special night suddenly floats into my mind.
It was sometime late last year and I, together with Raiders’ Low, himself a former national player, was involved in a late night send off at UPM’s Sports Centre, Serdang, of our newly-formed national team, under its new Japanese coach and former Indonesia national team coach, Katsumi Harada.
The youngsters, all of whom hailed from softball backgrounds, were excited but nervous at the prospect of carrying the country’s aspirations for sporting success on their inexperienced shoulders. The Cambodia Baseball International Invitation 2016 was to be their baptism of fire. The results from their outing were not swift in coming, relegated only to the Baseball Federation of Malaysia’s (BFM) Facebook page and pretty much contained within the fraternity. As such, the country remained in the dark about developments in the sport.
There have been baseball and coaching clinics organised since then, activities enthusiastically pursued and promoted by UPM, and our country’s Under 12 baseball team made history by making their first appearance in an international tournament recently. In fact, a new president was also elected early this year to preside over BFM.
But dissemination of info remains tardy, at best contained within the pages of Facebook. Have there been any follow-throughs or developments since then?
Turning to coach Sakamoto, I share my thoughts with him. He frowns before replying: “I’ve been in this game for a long time and I’ve yet to see any real concerted effort and progress. That trip to Cambodia is good but what’s happened since then? Any follow ups?”
Looking forlorn, he adds: “There’s a lack of youth development here. The current players I have in Raiders, some of them have been with me for more than 10 years. And of course, they’re older now. The youth need to be groomed now. Youth development is key to succeeding in the higher level.”
As the last of the drills is completed and his players start to troop over, Sakamoto concludes: “I hope the national body will invest more time and money in developing the youth. The important thing is continuous effort so quality can be improved. How? By organising leagues consistently and by giving opportunities to locals and foreigners to play more. You may not have a good national team next year or the next, but maybe down the line.? If the Indonesians and Thais, and Singaporeans can do it, why not us?”
With Tokyo Olympics 2020 just around the corner and baseball making the list of sports to be contested, perhaps we need to get our skates on.