Universal Baseball in Hokkaido: "ES CON FIELD HOKKAIDO"
Children hit home runs on a real baseball board. "I want you to feel the importance of cheering for others and the joy of being cheered on by others."
In mid-June, baseball was played during the usual class session at an elementary school in Hokkaido. The baseball game was held in the gymnasium.
This game was called "Universal Baseball“. It is characterized by the fact that "anyone can play" regardless of age, gender, or disability. The "realistic baseball board," which was born from an encounter with a boy with cerebral palsy, was developed as a special version in the shape of the new baseball stadium of the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, "ES CON FIELD HOKKAIDO."
Photo / Text: Reihei Shiraishi
A "realistic baseball board"
1/20th the size of an actual baseball field.
Universal Baseball, which is 1/20th the size of an actual baseball field, was conceived and invented by Mr. Tetsuro Nakamura of Horie Sharyo Denso Co. The idea came about in April of 2017 when a boy with cerebral palsy approached him and said "I want to play baseball."
Mr. Nakamura, who was born in Hokkaido and was a former baseball player at the prestigious Hokkai High School, which this year will mark its 40th appearance at the summer Koshien (the National High School Baseball Championships). It took him about two years to create the baseball, hoping to realize the boy’s wish.
Since the trial session held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Kodaira Special Needs School in March 2019, the program has been held on a reduced scale at the Corona Disaster Relief Center, and is now being rolled out at special needs schools, elementary schools, and after-school day services nationwide.
Universal baseball play is illustrated when the string is pulled 1 cm, the stopper is released, and the bat can be swung, hitting a ball placed on a rotating disc on the home base. The ground is marked "HOMERUN," "1BH," "OUT," etc., and the rules are based on the total number of runs scored, judged by where the batted ball stops.
Special edition of the "ES CON FIELD HOKKAIDO" type supervised by the Fighters
For about two weeks in mid-June, Universal Baseball was held in Hokkaido. They visited five locations beginning in Kitahiroshima City, and went on to Sapporo, Kushiro, Hakodate, and Asahikawa. The main message throughout this project was "the importance of supporting others and the joy of being supported by others."
Due to the many restrictions stemming from the CoronaVirus, we had a difficult time freely communicating with everyone. However, as many of these restrictions were lifted, it became easier to freely communicate or message. "I chose this message with the hopes that today’s children will realize the impact of cheering out loud and having others cheer for them through Universal Baseball."
This year is also a special year for baseball in Hokkaido. The Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters’ new baseball stadium, ES CON FIELD HOKKAIDO, opened in March. As a new symbol of Hokkaido, it is attracting many baseball fans across the country.
This time, Universal Baseball has teamed up with the Fighters for a special project.
With the support of the Fighters Sports & Entertainment, which operates "HOKKAIDO BALLPARK F:VILLAGE, a new Universal Baseball board was created and modeled after ES CON FIELD HOKKAIDO stadium.
The Fighters’ relationship with Universaal Baseball goes back to 2019. At a pre-opening event held at the Mainichi Shimbun headquarters in Tokyo, a team employee visited the stadium and was struck by the sight of a boy with cerebral palsy playing baseball.
Mr. Nakamura suggested that a universal baseball game be held in the motif of the new stadium.
The Fighters team wanting to make the new stadium and ballpark opening in 2023, one of the main attractions in *Hokkaido, readily agreed to the idea, and the project had begun.
Held in 5 locations in Hokkaido,
including Kitahiroshima City
Universal Baseball in Hokkaido started on June 12th in Kitahiroshima City, where ES CON FIELD HOKKAIDO is located. All the schools held the event as part of their usual school classes: four of the five schools were elementary schools, mainly for 4th graders, and one special needs school, Asahikawa.
Mr. Nakamura, as well as three to four staff members from various backgrounds including entrepreneurs and students, from the host communities gathered at each location to assist with the setup of the event.
The modeled stadium’s distinctive design, especially in Kitahiroshima City, quickly drew the attention of kids playing on the school grounds. As they gathered around in a circle, you could hear them exclaim in a surprised voice, “Ah, it’s Escon!”. Ten minutes prior to the start of their class, the students, led by their homeroom teachers, headed to the gymnasium. As they all saw the board for the first time, you could once again hear the sound of surprised voices echoing throughout the gymnasium.
The special rules for this event were different from a regular baseball game played on a field: "1BH" to "HOME RUN" were each scored from 1 to 4 points, and the teams were divided into two groups that competed for the total points won. Mr. Nakamura reminded the participants to always encourage each other by shouting:"Nice batting!" or "Shake it off, don’t mind!", regardless of the outcome.
Even kids who aren’t good at sports can hit home runs.
After explaining the rules, the Universal Baseball game was finally underway. As the players went to bat, a lady with a buzzer was heard calling out the names of the batters, and highlighted a unique characteristic, about each player, that was learned in advance.
The voice of the person belonged to Ms. Fukue Akaogi. She is an active announcer for farm games of the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters and Chiba Lotte Marines, as well as other amateur baseball games.
Ms. Akagi has been in charge of the announcement for the events since the pre-opening match in 2019, and once again came from Tokyo to make announcements at four venues where the events were hosted.
Mr. Nakamura believes that the announcement must be made by a Uguisu Lady, which is a Japanese term for a professional female announcer who has an expertise in the baseball games. He further mentioned the reason for this when he said:
"When I was a high school baseball player, there was a moment in the game when I felt like a switch was turned on within me. This moment was when my name was called by the field announcer, and I headed to the batter’s box. It’s an experience you don’t usually get to have, and I think it’s the fun part of playing sports."
The children were already excited when they entered the batter’s box. Many of them looked frustrated as they couldn’t make it to the hit zone on their first attempt. However, when they returned to their teams, they were cheered on by their teammates, as Mr. Nakamura had encouraged them to do.
After the second round, the children who hit home runs appeared one after the other, and cheers spread throughout the gymnasium. Whether they were happy, or sad about the result, when they got a hit, all of them raised their hands in the air and exchanged high-fives with each other.
Echoing the theme of this project, we were able to witness the resounding sense of joy, encouragement, and teamwork continuously among the children. When things got heated up, everyone, regardless of team or opponent, stood up in the middle of the game, jumping up and down, clapping their hands, and cheering loudly for the children who were up to bat.
The appeal of Universal Baseball is that it can be enjoyed by everyone. Even children who had never played baseball before became heroes of the game.
After each game, each child and teacher took the microphone and shared their experience playing the game.
"I thought it was really a great baseball game because even people who aren’t good at sports were able to hit home runs."
Another person stated:
"I don’t usually play sports, but when I got a hit, everyone gave me high fives."
The most impressive part of the experience was that the students left feeling a sense of success in sports, regardless of their athletic prowess or gender.
The teachers also took part in the games remembering how happy the children were. One teacher stated:
"It was so wonderful to see them praising their teammates and even their opponents for their hard work. When I hit a home run, the first to go for a high-five was a girl from the other team. I think this kind of attitude is very important, so let’s apply it to our lives from now on."
Mr. Nakamura’s message to the children
The two-week universal baseball program in Hokkaido was successfully completed.
Mr. Nakamura has been supporting sports for the disabled in addition to his work for about 12 years. During his opening explanation, he introduced the story of a boy with cerebral palsy.
"When the children enter the workforce, I believe they will have even more opportunities to work with people with disabilities. At that time, I hope they will remember their experience playing Universal Baseball and the importance of supporting others.
Mr. Yasushi Horie, president of Horie Sharyo Denso K.K., took the time out of his busy schedule to visit the Kushiro and Asahikawa events. He admired the energetic atmosphere while assembling the stadium together and said, "I encourage you to share your experience here today with your family." He also mentioned, "I’m looking forward to seeing all of you again."
Mr. Nakamura traveled around the province in a van, and as he loaded his compactly folded baseball board at various locations to move on, he was always greeted by children who had played with him, saying "I’ll be waiting for you to come again.”
Universal baseball will be a memorable class that brings smiles to the faces of many children all over the country.
(Reporting supported by: Seibu Elementary School in Kitahiroshima City, Horohoku Elementary School in Sapporo City, Kushiro Compulsory Education School affiliated with Hokkaido University of Education, Horie Sharyo Denso Corporation, Fighters Sports & Entertainment Co.)