For baseball players, no chance for a Far East title
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Standing on the mound at Yokota High School’s softball diamond, adjacent to Bonk Field, Shawn Novak stopped a session of soft-tossing, walked to the edge of the field and watched.
Scant yards away, the Pacific’s top high school soccer teams battled in playoff action in the Class AA Far East Boys Soccer Tournament.
Novak didn’t want to don the soccer team’s blue-and-gold striped jerseys, shorts and shin guards. Rather, he wished the Panthers baseball team could also end its season in a Far East tournament.
Baseball is one of three spring sports without a Far East tournament at season’s end, along with track and field and softball.
“That’s something I’d like to see,” said the junior right-hander, who’s been Yokota’s ace the last three seasons, going 17-6 with 210 strikeouts in 139 1/3 innings.
The Panthers won the Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools title two years ago in Novak’s freshman year, then upset Zama American and St. Mary’s International a year ago to capture a second straight Kanto Plain tournament crown after a so-so regular season.
But minus a Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Pacific Far East championship, Novak doesn’t have a major stage to showcase his abilities.
“We play each other in Kanto about four times. These teams that I’ve seen over and over again, you get to know how each player plays,” Novak said. “It would be exciting to see how they do and it would be a bigger challenge for us” to face the rest of the best in the Pacific.
Novak watched this season as Seoul American traveled to Okinawa for games against Kadena and Kubasaki the first weekend of April.
“I was jealous about that,” Novak said. “I’d like to play them. That would be neat.”
Yokota first-year coach Brian Kitts believes a Far East for baseball would also be a motivator and incentive for players.
“A kid playing in any sport wants to have a Far East,” said Kitts, also an assistant on Yokota’s five-time Japan Football League champion team, for which Novak played quarterback. “All I can hope is that it changes in the future.”
Money and scheduling conflicts stand in the way, said Don Hobbs, DODDS-Pacific’s Far East Activities Council chair.
“It would be nice to accommodate all activities,” said Hobbs. “I’m a proponent for all activities. What it boils down to is money. We don’t have any money to add any activities for the time being. I don’t see it in the immediate future, either.”
While DODDS funds baseball teams at high schools in Japan and South Korea, Kadena and Kubasaki on Okinawa are not sponsored. Both permit their teams to wear school colors and bear the school names and mascots, but the community picks up most of the tab to field the teams.
“We are not going to address this baseball issue until it becomes a full-fledged DODDS-sponsored sport in all three districts,” Hobbs said. “Even when it does, I can’t promise anything. If we don’t have the money, we don’t have the event.”
Without a Far East tournament, the Kanto Plain Invitational, May 14-15 at Camp Zama, is the biggest baseball event on the Pacific calendar. But Korea league champion Seoul American and Kadena, Okinawa’s top team, run into the issue of missed class time if they try to attend.
“The three superintendents are in agreement that no school will be missed to attend non-FEAC events,” Hobbs said. “With the dates of the 14th and 15th, I don’t see that happening.”
Zama American coach Tom Allensworth, who’s organized the Kanto Plain Invitational almost every year since his arrival in Japan in 1993, wonders about the feasibility of a Far East baseball battle.
“When are you going to have it? Where is it going to be?” he asked. “The format is difficult. You couldn’t have a large-school and small-school tournament. You’d have to consolidate. If you have more than eight teams, you’re stretching it out — you have advanced-placement exams, you have prom to consider.”
Novak has to be content playing for Yokota and a Japanese club off base with players who have appeared in Japan’s national high school and college championship tournaments.
“Some of them are really good and not make professional, it’s amazing,” Novak said. “That motivates me to work harder. It tells me how much I need to work.”
Novak is 6-2 with a 2.94 ERA, 72 strikeouts and five walks in 49 innings this season. At the plate, he’s hitting .591 with 18 RBIs and 18 stolen bases.
“He’s one of the better ones we’ve seen in quite a while,” said John Seevers, who’s guided the American School In Japan for more than 20 years. “His presence and ability to throw strikes, to get ahead of hitters and field his position well. I don’t like to face him, but it’s good for our kids to see a good pitcher. He adds a lot to the league.”
But without a Far East outlet, baseball players such as Novak will continue to be denied the same opportunity as athletes in other sports, Kitts said.
“When he sees friends succeed at their sport with a Far East championship, and he sees teams that he wants to compete against and can’t, he sees that personal quest in high school baseball unfulfilled,” Kitts said.