※The article has been published in Toyota Global Newsroom on January 16, 2019.
Baseball infielder No.9, Takeshi Kabasawa, 29, works in Toyota Motor Corporation’s Miyoshi Plant/Myochi Plant Administration Division, and shares his thoughts about sports and life.
Toyota started its corporate baseball club team more than 70 years ago, in 1947. The team first joined the Intercity Baseball Tournament in the 34th tournament in 1963. In April 2018, Toyota’s corporate baseball team was in the midst of its run-up to the qualifying competitions in the National Intercity Nonpro Baseball Championship Series.
It was while the team was preparing for the tournament that on April 27, we ventured to the practice grounds (Toyota Sports Center) of our corporate baseball team. As we watched, one athlete, No. 9, stood out – the one who pounded away ball after ball during batting practice. It was infielder Takeshi Kabasawa.
Kabasawa’s initial personal encounter with baseball came in his first year of elementary school. He tagged along with his brother, who was two years older and who had signed up for boys youth baseball. Kabasawa recalls that he would just play with other kids his age off to the side of the baseball field, saying: “There’s no way you’ll ever get me to play baseball.”
“I was shy and small, and I wasn’t capable of much. But I still went with my brother every day. Then, when I got to being a third-grader, I was able to play catch, which started to make baseball so interesting and fun for me. And then I gradually became fixated with playing ball.”
Kabasawa then joined a boys youth baseball team. The team was almost unstoppable, meaning that he ended up on the winning side most of the time. He seemed to be having the time of his life. All that changed, however, when he went on to playing baseball in junior high school.
Winless streak in school baseball days
“When it was our turn to lead the team in my third year of junior high, we couldn’t win at all. We couldn’t win on the county level, which meant we never made it to the prefectural level. There’s no doubt we were strong, but, unable to play the way we wanted to, we couldn’t bring out our strengths to win. We didn’t know what to do. It was frustrating and tough. My junior high days were full of regret.”
In his third year of high school, Kabasawa gave the players’ oath of fair play at the Summer Koshien (High School Baseball Championship of Japan) and captained his team there to the top 16. Even though his team earned a commendable top-16 finish at the Koshien tournament in the summer as a high school senior, for Kabasawa, that wasn’t enough.
He went on to play university ball, but he met with new frustrations and challenges.
“I wasn’t able to win anywhere else,” said Kabasawa, who spent his four university years in the second division of the Tohto University Baseball League on the team of the Tokyo University of Agriculture.
“I still can’t get over the anguish of my school baseball days.”
However, he continued to play, eventually joining Toyota’s corporate baseball club in 2012.
Joining Toyota, going from no hits to clean-up hitter, 4th in batting line-up
Watching Kabasawa bang away one ball after the other during practice makes it hard to imagine that he had a hard time hitting at all when he first joined Toyota and that there were long stretches during which he never even got to play.
“I guess I was just desperately trying too hard. I would tell myself ‘I’ve got to hit it. I just got to hit it.’ But no matter how many times I would swing the bat, the ball would just not fly forward. I was too anxious, which got my body all tightened up. It felt like every time I stepped into the batter’s box, the bench would just laugh,” Kabasawa said with a wry smile.
So just how did such a Kabasawa come to bat cleanup? Coach Takashi Norita, a former teammate, would watch Kabasawa in his early and painful non-hitting days from the side of the field. Norita explained it like this:
“Kabasawa is the type of player who can take on one thing at a time straight on. Being a good fielder from the start, I think he put a lot of time into batting practice. Because I saw how he did that, and because he was a skilled player to start off with, I was looking forward to him finally bringing out his full potential.”
Everyone involved with the team was united in their praise of Kabasawa’s devotion to practice and the way he could build on one achievement after the next. Talking to Kabasawa, one senses that he has undergone a change in the way he thinks.
“Looking back, I can now say that I was so bad that I thought I just might quit at any time, and, therefore, I took on a ‘so what’ attitude, thinking I would just give it a shot, and if it didn’t work out, oh well... And I guess that worked.”
Kabasawa says he feels the same when he watches young players.
“Toyota really has a lot of great players. While the regular players out there are relaxed and in full control, the rookies and younger players have a sense of crisis about whether they can hit or not, and surpassing the regulars is not something they can easily do. Things work better if you just bat while taking it easy and trying to find your own swing or when you to try to bring out your uniqueness. Of course it is only now that I am able to think this way.”
Kabasawa was able to hit again once he learned to relax his shoulders again. In his fourth and fifth years, he secured the batting lineup position as cleanup hitter. Amid all the guidance he received from his seniors, there was one piece of advice that he especially holds dear even to this day.
“At the time, Coach Hata was a teammate. He challenged me, asking, ‘Do you really have your eye on the ball? Can you read the ball even while watching TV? Of course not!’ Until that time, I had not really been aware of such to that degree. That’s because, if you play long enough, you somehow learn how to hit. But if we’re talking about whether I was really hitting the ball at its center, the probability of me doing so was very low. I think that was what he was saying to me. I cherish that advice even now.”
While Norita praises Kabasawa saying: “Kabasawa is strong when it’s time to get tough, and he gives us a run batted in when we need it. Including his fielding, he is the team’s most-trusted player,” No. 9 Kabasawa just shakes his head and humbly says he still has a long way to go.
“Getting a hit is really hard. In a game, I’m helpless even if I go all out. So, I just work hard during practice, aiming to get to the point where my body just takes over when a game starts,” said Kabasawa.
Strict on himself, and constantly aiming to be the best are likely among the top reasons why Kabasawa continues to bat cleanup.
Leaving behind a legacy for the team
After spending some time with Kabasawa, he began to reveal his calm character. Hiroto Sano, of Toyota’s Kamigo Plant/Shimoyama Plant Administration Division, and who coached Kabasawa in his younger days, echoed the calm character sentiment. “He’s kind and quiet—the type that doesn’t let his feelings show,“ said Sano.
However, when he was in high school, Kabasawa once let his emotions explode. “I suffered a lot of injuries in high school, making me a starter who practiced the least. Although I wanted to practice, I couldn’t. I strongly felt sorry for being allowed to play, even though I couldn’t practice. Then, during team practice one day, I saw some teammates fooling around. I got totally angry and yelled at them, screaming: ‘Cut it out!’ I really lost control.”
Because of that, Kawabasa says he decided to change how he acted in front of those around him.
“Even though things weren’t awkward with the teammates I got angry at, something negative lingered inside of me. On top of that, I hadn’t always been able to convey my feelings. At the time, I didn’t know how to explain things. I guess I didn’t know how to say things the right way. I thought that if I couldn’t relay what I wanted to say, I should just as well keep my mouth shut. From that time on, I stopped saying things to people, and I stopped worrying about what they thought of me. To say it in a negative way, I guess it was like I was just thinking about myself.”
Even after he became an adult, Kabasawa says that he volunteered few comments and kept his opinions to himself. However, as the number of younger players began to increase as he advanced, he experienced a sort-of self-awakening that it was his duty to pull the team forward – and that changed him.
“As captain at the time, I thought that if I could get my act together, we could become a better team. All I had to do was persevere and try to get my thoughts across. So, this year, my goals are to cheer our pitchers on so that they can do their best and to make it through the season committing zero errors. That’s where my biggest challenges lie.”
Kabasawa also expressed his appreciation to those who continue to support him.
“When I got hurt in high school, my parents supported me both physically and mentally. Every day they took me to and from school, and they took time off from work so that I could go to the hospital. When I couldn’t play when I joined the company, I vented my frustration on my girlfriend (now wife), causing her much grief. But she understood and kept supporting me. The reason I have been able to continue playing baseball up until now is because of the support provided by those around me. I, too, want to provide support by helping the team. I want to become a player who leaves behind a legacy for the team.”
Head Coach Daisuke Kuwahara has expressed his enormous trust in Kabasawa. “As each year goes by, he gets better and better. As long as I have been head coach, I have had him batting at cleanup. Despite the tremendous pressure, he holds his own and performs as expected. I’m completely dependent on him.”
*This article was originally published in Japanese on June 15, 2018.
Date of birth: September 12, 1989
Place of birth: Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture
Alma maters: Gunma Kenritsu Maebashishogyo High School, Tokyo University of Agriculture
Nickname: Kaba, Kaba-san (Fans call him “Kaba-chan”.)
Family: Wife, son (1 year old)
Position: Infield (currently, mainly third base)
Competition track record:
Student days: Team made the top 16 in the 2007 Summer Koshien
As an adult: Team won the Japan amateur baseball championships in 2014 and 2017 (MVP in 2017)
Team won the 2016 National Intercity Nonpro Baseball Championship
Inspired by: Former Softbank player Hiroki Kokubo; chose Kokubo’s No. 9 as own number
Custom before every game: Warming his body with a hot bath in the morning
Personality in brief: “My pace”
Current dream for the future: Winning both the National Intercity Nonpro Baseball Championship Series and the Japan amateur baseball championships
Hobbies/Free time: Playing with his son; while still single, enjoying morning breakfast sets at coffee shops and playing golf
Favorite time of day: When playing with his son (actually, down time after lulling his son to sleep)