(This started as an intro to my Jingu Taikai post, but got really long so I'm splitting it out.)
People ask me sometimes why I tend to hate the big powerhouse popular superteams like the Yankees or the Kyojin or even Waseda University, but I'll still go cheer for powerhouse high school teams here in Japan like Teikyo or Nichidai Sanko or Urawa Gakuin.
The main difference really is that on the pro level, so much of what goes on is motivated by money. Less so in Japan than in the US, but let's face it, the Yomiuri Giants can actually afford to sign a host of expensive foreign players, a host of expensive Japanese players, keep a ni-gun and san-gun team effectively... which many other teams simply can't afford to do. Plus they frequently STILL have players who enter the draft refusing to play for any team but Yomiuri. And Yomiuri can also flex their media connections to put Giants propaganda all over the place, so that generations of Japanese have grown up being able to watch nothing but Giants games on TV. People here are really easily influenced by perceptions of what is popular, which is usually influenced by the media. (And which is pretty ridiculous given how many people seem conscious of the fact that 90% of the media is complete crap. This goes back to money, I suppose, where a lot of newspapers go to crazy extremes to sell more copies.)
I'm guessing that having been a Big 6 fan in the Saitoh generation may have been a little different than in other times, but again, if you say here that you like Big 6 ball, you immediately get asked about Waseda and Saitoh, because your average person -- or even baseball fan -- in Japan knows nothing else about the league, and there's this annoying mentality in Japan of "Well, why waste your time liking anything that isn't the most popular thing?" The teachers at my school can't fathom why I wasn't overflowing with delight when the Fighters drafted Saitoh. I had to explain to them that I spent 4 years with the Hosei and Keio ouendan yelling "Defeat Waseda! Knock out Saitoh!"
The thing about high school baseball is how ephemeral it is here anyway, given that high school is only 3 years, and they have the system where kids retire from their teams after only a few months of their senior year anyway. In the pros, in the NPB, a star player may stay with their team for upwards of 22 years. A college star player is going to play for their team for 4 years, or 8 semesters; you can get a LOT of championships out of a few good arms or bats. But high school? A true, rare star MAY get to go to 3 summer Koshien tournaments if they are at a really strong school and they are good enough to get on the roster as a freshman. Your average decent player at a strong baseball high school is basically going to have one year of glory, if that. So these high schools not only have an ongoing cycle every year to recruit great players to make up their team, but they also have to spend a lot of time coaching these guys to work together and bring out their full potential -- and as soon as they really come together as a team, the year ends, the 3rd-year students retire and graduate, and it's a new cycle all over again.
Also, on the college or pro level, if you follow a team that kind of sucks -- like if you support the Baystars these days, or Tokyo University -- you will still get to see them play out a full season of games. Win or lose, they have a schedule to stick to. The college teams that win certainly get to play a LITTLE more due to the national tournaments.
But on the high school level, almost all of the tournaments are single-elimination. So if you follow a team that doesn't take their baseball seriously, they are literally going to end up playing like 2-3 "real" tournament games per year, during the early rounds of the regional tournaments, in stadiums in the middle of nowhere. And for someone like me, a white female who sticks out a ton, it is pretty embarrassing to show up at them. (I'm speaking from experience. At least then it was one of my former JHS students playing, so his mother could at least vouch for me not being some fearsome invader from an alien planet.) Also, quite frankly, the lower-tier schools are often truly not worth watching; some of these schools have only 11-12 kids in their baseball club total (as opposed to upwards of 100 in the bigger schools, who have a big talent pool to select their 18-man roster from) and get killed by scores like 28-0 in their games.
And at least in the Tokyo area, there are several decent schools to follow, that are going to play in front of crowds of thousands of people at large stadiums like Jingu, or Omiya, or Yokohama Stadium, where someone like me can just kind of blend into the background. I happen to live a 10-minute bike ride from Teikyo HS and am a big fan of a lot of their graduates, so I chose Teikyo as my team. Urawa Gakuin was my team when I lived near it in Saitama, because the "Support Uragaku!" signs were up all over the place and I actually had friends who were alumni of the school.
Picking any decent school means that you'll get to go to at least a few games per season at a big stadium. This year I also started following Shutoku, thanks to one of my current JHS students, and I got to follow them all the way to the East Tokyo finals (and in a way, all the way to seeing Taiki Mitsumata getting drafted!). Along the way I also got to a lot of other good schools play, and see a wide variety of players. I certainly saw a few lopsided games, but overall, even a lot of the called games I saw were not one-sided blowouts, so much as one unlucky inning for a boy whose arm finally gave out, and the rest of the team fought back to pick up the pieces.
Another big advantage of following one of the better-known high schools is that information will be a lot more readily available about what's going on with the schools and the players. Getting even a list of who appeared in what games can be a royal pain in the neck for a lot of the regional high school games. But a school like Sanko has an actual website with player lists and game scores and photos and even box scores and whatnot, which have been really wonderful for me to follow what's going on. Urawa Gakuin also has an extensive website and a bunch of alumni websites as well.
It's really interesting watching some of these players go from high school or college to the pros or the industrial leagues and seeing how they progress. And watching a decent high school or decent college team means you'll definitely see at least one guy who catches your eye for some reason. And the amateur games are really great because most of these kids are playing their hearts out just because they love the game.
And the fan experience being what it is here too -- where the players always bow to the fans and thank them for their support, and the fans go to the games and yell together -- it feels a lot more like everybody at the stadium is part of a big group rather than completely isolated. (Even if the extent most people say to me at high school games is "Which one of these schools are you the English teacher for?")
Anyway, this is all a big lead-in to me going to watch Nihon University Connected High School Number Three, aka Nichidai San or Sanko, at the Jingu Taikai on Sunday...