Compton plays host to Japanese All-Star team

By Ben Platt
Updated: December 28, 2010

COMPTON, Calif. — It seems like only yesterday that the Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy in Compton first opened its doors and pristine fields to the large number of young men, women and kids who came to learn about life — and who they were and might become through baseball. The Academy has also continued to play host to a high school baseball tournament, pitting the Academy team against its baseball brethren from Japan, the Koshien High School All-Star squad, in a two-day, three-game series.

“This is our fifth year of doing the Japanese tournaments and entertaining the kids. We will go to Japan in June, and they will host our players,” said Darrell Miller, former director of the Compton Urban Youth Academy, who now oversees all the Urban Youth Academies that are either under construction or up and running around the country.

“Our kids need to have their horizons expanded, and we have also been able to bring a lot of other kids from the Southern California area to understand that Compton is another place where they can play as well.”

“It’s been a proving ground for our kids and a proving ground for other kids as well, and it allows them to be exposed to the best international competition that’s available.”

Heavy rains over the holiday weekend canceled games scheduled for this past Sunday. With the Academy’s main field muddied up, Miller was pleasantly surprised that baseball was the only language that needed to be spoken, as all the visiting kids from Japan worked side by side with their American counterparts to get the field game-ready for Monday’s action.

“Both teams went out and knew what to do to get the field ready to play,” said a very proud Miller. “The Japanese and American players actually came out and helped drain the field so we could play.”

“That’s that international baseball language — everyone kinetically knew what to do, without communicating. They all did their job so we can play today, and that’s truly amazing that the game is truly universal now.”

In the past, Japanese players such as Takashi Saito, who signed to play the 2011 season with the Brewers on Monday, have come to the tournament to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. This year, former Angels and Mariners reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa was on hand to support the series and participate in the festivities.

“They should come all the time,” said Hasegawa, who now lives in Southern California and privately tutors young players. “When I was in college, I experienced something like this, and that was a good experience.”

“We need to do more things like this for the players to learn more about the different cultures. Japanese baseball is a little more defense, and the American baseball is more focused on hitting, so it’s good for each team to know how they play. It’s going to be a good thing.”

Once the field was in playing condition, the Academy and Japanese players met across the diamond, as the home players presented their guests with a gift and well wishes.

The friendly combatants then battled through a see-saw first game, with the Academy coming through with two ninth-inning runs on a fly ball that got lost in the sun to capture an 8-7 victory.

Playing first base for the Academy team was Trevor Gretzky, whose dad — hockey legend Wayne — was sitting in the stands with his wife, Janet, and their family.

“I’m just one of the parents,” said “The Great One,” who gave the Academy players a pep talk before the game. “I sit here like everyone else. I get excited when our sons do well and get nervous when they have a tough time. But they’re kids.”

“They are learning and growing, and this is a great experience here to play three games, and it’s a Japanese team, and those things only make you better as an athlete and you grow as a person.”

Next year, the Academy players will visit Japan. But with new Academies set to open in the United States, the 2012 tournament will not just be another visit to Southern California.

“When the tournament comes back here in 2012, we will entertain them [not just] in Compton, but also Houston and Philadelphia,” said Miller. “Our goal is to have a three-city tour with all of our Urban Youth Academies.”