By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
NORTH VANCOUVER, BC _ The most famous ball team from the West Coast is neither the Vancouver Mounties nor the Vancouver Canadians.
Nor is the either the Langley Blaze or the North Shore Twins of the BC Premier League. They can’t hold that distinction.
And the same goes for the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds as talented as the program is.
Nope, the most famous ball club from BC is Vancouver Asahi. Formed in 1914, the team of Japanese Canadians won the Terminal League in 1926 and continued its winnings ways with the legendary Junji Ito, Roy Yamamura and Tom Matoba. Then Asahi dominated the Pacific Northwest League until 1941. And in 2003, Asahi the team was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys.
Many teams have been nominated for the Canadian Hall. Only four teams have made it: Canada’s gold medal winning entry at the 1991 World Juniors, Canada’s 2011 Pan Am gold-medal winners and Canada’s 2015 Pan Am gold medal winners and Vancouver Asahi.
And now, the Asahi tradition continues.
RHP Kyle Gee (Burnaby) went to Japan in 2015 with the Asahi team of 16U players. LHP Joseph Sinclair (Vancouver) also made the trip and heads to Japan again this season. They were two of the 25 pitchers at the Inside Performance winter showcase. There were 28 hitters as well as the crowd of 53 high schoolers drew 24 evaluators and recruiters from 19 pro and college teams.
If the Asahi name is familiar it should be. The original Asahi team was immortalized in The National Film Board of Canada documentary ... Sleeping Tigers: The Asahi Baseball Story the same year it was inducted into St. Marys.
LHP Taisei Yahiro, who grew up in Oskaka, Japan and now pitches for the Abbotsford Cardinals was also showing his stuff and impressing. Yahiro saw the Vancouver Asahi movie in Japan.
Starting in 1937, the Asahi won the Pacific Northwest title five years in a row. Observers branded their style of play as “brain ball” as they stole bases at will and dropped bunts as if they had rolled them into no man’s land ... too difficult a position on the infield grass to make a play.
John Kada-Wong, the respected Hastings Little League coach, runs the team on trips to Japan every other year,
Gee’s mom, Kiyo, is from Japan and is a homemaker, while his father Trevor works for international education program at New West Secondary School in New Westminster. Gee pitches for coach Jamie Bodaly and Doug Mathieson’s Langley Blaze and is eligible for the 2018 draft.
Gee’s best day in baseball ever was hitting his first ever home run in his second year at New Westminster Little League over the centre field fence.
“I can still remember how I didn’t know how to react and I speechlessly jogged around the bases,” Gee said. “Although pitching is my primary position now, there is no better feeling then hitting your first home run.”
The most influential person in his baseball career, besides his parents, would be his first-year Little League coach Ed Zacharuk.
“He was the first to truly discover me as a pitcher and always give me the opportunity to pitch at the “next level” considering Little League was the first big jump I made since Teeball/Tadpole/Mosquito,” said Gee. “Ed was probably one of my favorite coaches of all time and he never gave up on me.”
In Japan, the Canadians were guests on a TV talk-show, talking some Japanese, some in English with a translator.
Sinclair, of the North West Twins and eligible for the 2019 draft, heads to Japan this season and has met Kei Kaminishi, the sole surviving member of the former Vancouver Asahi team.
“He has been at all the fund-raising events (for the trip) and has thrown out the first ceremonial first pitch before one of our exhibition games here,” Sinclair said. “Before we went to Japan, he told us how they ‘play a different type of baseball and not to give them any space.’ They will bunt and steal at any time.”
The previous Asahi team that went to Japan didn’t win any games in Japan, recalls Sinclair as “some were close, some were blowouts.”
He recalls an early morning three-team round robin series in a stadium which drew 5,000 fans, how he pitched and “was not nervous at all.”
Sinclair has twice thrown bullpens for Twins coach John Haar, Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer and said both times the legend has helped his mechanics. Sinclair was a part of the South Vancouver team which won at Nationals in Quebec and went on to represent Canada in Williamsport, Penn. at the Little League World Series.
Meanwhile LHP Taisei Yahiro came from Oskaka to live, attend school and play for Abbottsford. He arrived in March after finishing grade 10 in Japan and enrolled in grade 10 in BC in last April as an international student.
Yahiro’s father, Takayuki Yahiro, is a player agent in Japan representing golfers, football players and ball players, the best of which was infielder Kaz Matsui, who played seven years in the majors.
The first infielder from Japan to come to North America, Matsui signed a three-year $20,9 million US deal with the New York Mets in 2004 and later a three-year, $16.5-million deal with the Houston Astros. In between those two deals he spent one year with the Colorado Rockies.
When Yahiro arrived he worked out with the North Delta Blue Jays, Coquitlam Reds, North Shore and Abbotsford during fall ball.
He made the decision where to play. He liked the high school (Yale Secondary School), the Yale SS Sport Academy, the Sandlot Baseball BC/Abbotsford Cardinals indoor facility, the Cardinals and playing for coach Corey Eckstein.
Mika Hampton, of Space Canada International Studies Ltd. helps Yahiro with housing with a host family, setting up tryouts and anything else, estimates it costs $12,000 for a student from Japan to attend school in Canada. Hampton helps out if Yahiro is stuck on a word or has trouble an old mumbling reporter.
Yahiro says he hopes to attend college whether it be in the United States or in Japan and is also eligible for thhe 2019 draft. He says practices here are much easier than in Japan, While here it might be four hours every day in Canada, in Japan a workout will run from 9 AM to 6 PM, beginning with a two-hour warm up conducted by a strength coach.
Yahiro’s favorite player?
“Clayton Kershaw,” he says. “He is the best player in the major leaguers.”
Who is he pulling for in World Baseball Classic? “Japan,” he says with smile, then adding “ ... and Canada too.” The first major league game he attended was a game between the Seattle Mariners and the New York Yankees.
Yahiro’s team didn’t play the team of Canadian Ashai youngsters as headed to the Tokyo area. Taisei thinks the reason that Asahi team did well was because Japanese players played differently from other Canadian teams.
The teen ager is wise beyond his years when he points out how “it was impressive to win with a totally different style such as a bunting and stealing bases so different than the major league.” He said if it is reported to Canada that the team called Asahi had that kind of image in Japan it would be a very good thing.
The Asahi team was a source of pride throughout the Fraser Valley. The world changed Dec. 7, 1941. Just 12 weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Canadian government interned people of Japanese descent. As a country it was a long way from our finest hour.
Officials confiscated property of all Japanese Canadians. More than 20,000 were taken to detention centres.
Forced to disband players formed teams, built diamonds and played with fellow prisoners and guards. Teams were formed at camps outside of Lillooet, Lemon Creek and the Slocan Valley.
The internment ended after the WWII with players moving across Canada and giving birth to the Montreal Nisei (1949 city champs), Vancouver Nisei (1953 city champs) and Honest Ed’s Nisei in Toronto.
Gee, Sinclair and Yahiro will keep the Ashai memory alive.