This article appeared in the October 10, 2012 Montana Kiamin Newspaper of the University of Montana.
By ERIK C. ANDERSON. For the Montana Kaimin
During the University of Montana’s fall baseball tryouts, one prospect caught the attention of head coach Ryan Sharkey.
Yes, the Force is strong with this one.
Ryota Hoshino, a 19-year-old exchange student from Tokyo, Japan, hurled strikes around 70 and 80 mph. His deliberate delivery, a hinged high-kick-and-snap throw, drew comparisons to Boston Red Sox ace Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Sharkey saw an effective pitcher in tryouts who could play for the Grizzlies club baseball team, but not a “jaw-dropper.”
“I thought, ‘Well, he’s definitely a pitcher,’ but that was before I’d seen him hit,” said Sharkey, who has coached the team for three years and posted a 35-20 record.
In fall tryouts, it’s commonplace for Sharkey to invite professional baseball players to throw batting practice for the team. One of those pros is Brian Fowler, a 6-foot-7 southpaw who clocks his fastball at about 92 mph.
’Yota (like Yoda from Star Wars, as the team nicknamed him due to his small stature) entered the batting cage, and played the role of Yoda to Fowler’s Darth Vader.
Facing the staggering giant, ‘Yota, a mere 5-foot-6 in comparison, had a rush of nerves.
But in such situations, ’Yota turns to a Japanese adage, “Hirakinaoru,” which loosely means to be defiant and to make the best of it, he said.
His first at-bat against the behemoth? A double.
His second at-bat? A triple off the wall in Osprey Stadium.
“We saw him get in the cage, and he drove the ball pretty well,” Sharkey said. “He almost hit a cycle in the scrimmage.”
Hoshino is the first international player to capture a roster spot for the Grizzlies’ baseball team, said Sharkey. In the past, other foreigners had showed their stuff for Sharkey and Co., but never displayed a true understanding of the game.
“’Yota, he was dressed up to the nines when it came to baseball,” Sharkey said. “He was ready to go.”
Since baseball is an ASUM-sanctioned club sport at the University, recruiting is different. Instead of scholarships and recruiting trips, players are contacted online, where Sharkey emails and gauges players’ interests. He said usually 30 to 40 kids have an initial appeal to the program, but players that are serious fill out the proper forms and stay in contact with the team during the summer.
’Yota’s path to the team was different and from a land far, far away – around 7,000 miles.
One day, ASUM office manager Phoebe Miller called Sharkey in hopes of guiding a hopeful international interest to the Griz diamond.
“Hey Ryan, I’ve got a Japanese exchange student who’s interested in playing baseball,” she told Sharkey.
Initially, Sharkey recalled that Japanese leagues produce very fundamentally sound players. He thought, at the very least, the prospect would be entertaining. He did not visualize ‘Yota becoming the thrill he has been. Heck, Sharkey couldn’t even address his new recruit properly.
“Phoebe spelled it out to me and neither one of us could pronounce it,” Sharkey said.
On the other side of the language barrier, Sharkey said ’Yota understands broad concepts but misses key details in team strategy or in-game scenarios. Sharkey sends ’Yota emails, reiterating what he told the team in practice so he can Google translate English to Japanese.
Sharkey also uses an iPhone app to translate sentences on the spot.
“’Yota starts laughing because the words don’t always start lining up,” Sharkey said.
’Yota, who is taking English as a second language course, has had problems communicating during his brief stint in America. But with patient teammates and a helpful coach, he has adjusted to the new language.
“It’s difficult, but coach Sharkey is a kind person for me,” he said. “Sharkey tries to speak slowly for me.”
Learning to communicate in a community that speaks primarily English is just one of the differences ‘Yota faces.
In Japan, it is custom to take your baseball cap off, bow, and then enter the dugout. ’Yota said the American baseball culture — sunflower seeds, chewing tobacco and gum — was different, and at first he found it impolite and thought, “Oh, what a stupid people.”
But ’Yota has overcome the difference and so far this fall season, ’Yota is hitting 5-for-9, although there are no official statistics available. The Toyko product is, quite simply, happy. At the end of the spring semester when he returns to Japan, he said his time in Missoula will “be the greatest memory,” he’s ever had.
But for now, ‘Yota just wants to swing his lightsaber.
“I’m looking to win, that is all,” he said. “That’s the Japanese answer.”
Erik C. Anderson is currently a student in the School of Journalism at the University of Montana, while also serving as the sports editor at the Montana Kaimin.