Sunday, September 24, 2017

Bases loaded: A game, a team, and a tour

The Baseball Team of Royal College, Colombo toured Japan as part of an exchange program by the Asia Pacific University (APU) from September 22 to 31. Here are some reflections on the prologue and afterword of that tour.

Reflections on the game

Baseball enthrals me. Not because I play it, but because I happened to watch a great many movies which featured American children (my age, back then) batting and pitching. For some reason, these kids reflected their bitterest sorrows and profoundest joys in their act of running from first base to second and third base and then back to the home plate. That was natural: baseball was born in America, and became rooted in its people’s sorrows and joys, though its interest has become widespread, global.

Introduced here in 1985 by the US Embassy and two local Ministers, Vincent Perera (Sports) and Festus Perera (Fisheries), it spread to 25 affiliated clubs and 25 schools. That we got it at a time when cricket was awarded test status speaks volumes about the trajectories of these two sports, the bottom line being that we haven’t yet crossed over from a nation of baseball players to one of professional players.

There are reasons. The first is the facilities, or lack thereof. And I’m not talking about digital scoreboards, well articulated commentaries, or a firm institutional base. I’m talking instead about one simple fact: that, of the stadiums we have, only one, at the Mahinda Rajapaksa Ground in Diyagama, is fit for the game. It’s roughly the same situation in hockey (we still have only two turf grounds, in Colombo and Matale).

That’s just one problem. There’s another: the lack of any impetus through which our players can learn, nurture, and improve on their tactics. Since we don’t have enough facilities, the best if not only way our players can sustain their prowess is by learning from another country. That is why it matters very much that Japan has been, since the establishment of baseball here, trying to uplift us, especially through a series of exchange programs involving our Universities, Clubs, and schools.

Reflections on the team

In February 2015, 16 members from the Asia Pacific University (APU) Baseball Team came over to Sri Lanka for a seven-day tour. The idea was to teach and to get to know our players, to build a bond of sorts between their homelands. Not surprisingly, given the enthusiasm of our players, it didn’t take long for that bond to grow.

Two years later (THIS year) in April, the APU team came over again, this time for a friendly match with the National Team. That encounter, powered up jointly by the Sri Lanka Baseball Association and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), was a preparatory exercise for the upcoming West Asia Baseball Cup Tournament in Pakistan. Given Japan’s role in the promotion of the sport here (two of their coaches currently serve in our team) and the dedication put into the encounter by the 76 volunteers of the JICA, their favour needed to be returned.

The return, so to speak, came four months later, at the end of August, when one of our teams left for Japan to reinforce that bond. Not a University, not a Club, but a school. This article is about that school team.

In 1985, C. T. M. Fernando instituted the first school baseball team in Royal College, Colombo, where he was Principal. Since then, its imprint has been unmistakeable, not least because of the tournaments it’s waded through. Before delving into their tour, therefore, a quick perusal of their history is in order.

Royal became the Runners Up at the first National Baseball Championship, the John H. Reed Challenge Trophy, held the same year the Team was begun. In 1993, it won the first Under 13 Little League Tournament organised by the Baseball Association. Two years later, the Sri Lankan squad which took part in the first Asian Baseball Championship, held in the Philippines, was headed by Deepal Amarathunga, an Old Boy. Fast forward to 2016 (when the Team became Runners Up at the Under 17 and winners at the Under 19 National Championship) and 2017 (when it won the Under 18 Championship) and you get a decent idea of how they’ve improved over the decades.

All in all, these records, hard to win as they were, couldn’t have been won in the first place without a clear and consistent philosophy that stands out, on its own. The fact is that the Royal Team has built up a set of tactics and strategies, along with an identity they can claim as theirs. To ascertain what these are, I sat down with the Captain, the Vice-Captain, and the Centre Fielder on a Friday evening two weeks ago.

The Captain, Kaveesha Abeysinghe, was quite firm and clear: “We take in anyone who professes interest in the sport, mould him, and turn him loose.” This process, which lasts up to a year, has the advantage of pairing beginners and their betters while focusing on the former. In other words, practices (on Mondays, Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays) are a series of fitness and game-play sessions which inculcate a basic level of competence in the individual player. To a considerable extent, that is rooted in the thinking of their Coaches, Sisira Kumbukage and Tharindu Ayeshmantha, both of whom, Kaveesha informs me, are “adamant on getting the best out of the weak by pitting them against, and with, the best there are.”

Of the players in the squad, about four are left-handed, a natural advantage given that left-handed batters are hard to come by and find it easier than their right-handed counterparts to drop the bat and, well, run. For me, then, what defines these boys best is how they’ve managed to balance individual endowments like this with outside realities. They focus on every role, from the pitcher, who is trained to identify the qualities of the batter: whether he resorts to a particular type of release and action, for instance. That boils down to a rather important point about the game: who you are playing against is as important as, and can determine, how you will play against him.

Not that it’s all easy-peasy of course. Kaveesha interjects here: “Even as a senior player, I’ve had my share of difficulties. Last year, for instance, while in the semis at the Under 19 Championship, my bat started to slip from my hands. Mind you, this started with the first match. I got several warnings, each progressively more serious, before politely being told to get out.” He grins here as he reflects on his early days: “Sisira sir is strict. He gets what he wants out of you. There’s no telling what he’ll tell you if you let the team down. Because those first days were instructive owing to him, they come back to me whenever I slip up. Even now.” Kaveesha, incidentally, was recognised as the Best Batter in the Under 18 Championship last April.

Rushing through the names in the squad, I was struck by where they come from. Kaveesha himself is from Embilipitiya, while every other member, including Sahan, hail from outside Colombo. While it’s true that a sport should not be determined by the locales of its followers, it’s also true that a diversity of background indicates that the sport has developed enough to be followed by players from every region, as far flung as Kadawatha, Ratnapura, and Balangoda. Probably that’s one quality it shares with cricket: its ability to inspire passion in everyone regardless of their hometown.

So much for the team. What of their outing in Japan?

Reflections on the tour

Originally slated for three matches, the Team had to reckon with two, with the second being cancelled due to bad weather. The first match, played at the Daihatsu Stadium against a sports college having a top rank in the Japanese League, had been tough, with a score of 8-2. The second match, earlier scheduled as the third, had been played at the Taketa Stadium against the APU, and had been easier, with a score of 3-2.

The squad had been lodged at Seminor House, in Kaveesha’s and Sahan’s words “something between a hostel and a hotel.” The entire exercise had been organised in part by Old Boys domiciled in Japan, who had once been avid followers of the game. Spatial considerations prevent me from delving into the other activities the Team indulged in: visits to hot springs, shopping malls, bathing centres, and temples, social dinner gatherings, even cooking sessions for sushi and curries. I believe the photographs I’ve got, which adorn these pages, are enough to convey something of the freshness of the encounters these boys had, as important as the matches.

And to be honest, the matches to me seem peripheral compared with the ramifications of the visit, not least because it has turned these young players into goodwill ambassadors, reinforcing the bonds between their country and their hosts which have been nourished all these years. I believe Kaveesha summed it up best: “We learnt what we have and what we do not have. Doesn’t mean we should get upset of course.”

So as you can see, this year’s tour was good. Exceptional. Discernibly. Like I said earlier, baseball enthrals me. It enthrals me even more when considering the many strides our players are making. Including and especially these boys, I can add.

Written for: The Island YOUth, September 24 2017