In a league on her own
by Wayne Graczyk
We’ve been getting some answers to our Weekender Readers Survey for the past two weeks, and many respondents answered the question, “What would you like to see in the Weekender?” by writing, “More stories about people and what they are doing.” OK. Here’s a story about a person, Susanna Hasebe, and about what she’s doing—playing baseball.
Sure, lots of people play baseball, but Susanna’s situation is somewhat unusual for two reasons: She’s the only gaijin, and the only female on an otherwise all-Japanese, all-male team in an all-Japanese, all-male league. She’s not a benchwarmer, either, but the starting second baseman (basewoman?) for Burroughs, an amateur nanshiki (rubber-coated hard ball) team that plays most Saturdays at Shakujii Park in western Tokyo.
Susanna, 26, married and the mother of two, enjoys playing because she loves baseball. She was born in Orlando, Fla., after her parents met at Yokota Air Base here. Her father, Gerald Holt, was an enlisted man in the U.S. Air Force, and her mother, Shinko, a native of Okayama Prefecture, was working at the base in the same office as her dad.
As a child, Susanna wanted to play ball with the boys, but her mother discouraged her, saying, “It’s not fitting for girls to play baseball. You’ll ruin your fingers for playing the piano.” She finally got a chance to play Softball for three years in high school in Aurora, Colo., where her family settled following her dad’s retirement from the service in 1979.
Eventually, Susanna herself married an Air Force officer, Thomas Hasebe, a sansei from Hawaii, and they were assigned to Japan in February of 1990. Tom is currently a major, stationed at the Japan Self Defense Force’s base in Ichigaya as an exchange officer. They live in a Japanese neighborhood, about halfway between Tom’s work place and Yokota, near the park where her team’s ball games are played each weekend.
Susanna’s baseball “career” began here one day about three years ago when she went to Shakujii Park, saw some teams playing and sat for five hours through two games and was bit by the bug to get out there and play. The following week she went again and took along her glove. She found a team practicing with a shortage of players and asked the coach to let her shag some flies. In return, they let her take a turn at batting practice.
Eventually, she got up enough courage to ask for a tryout with one of the teams, and they took her on, but with reservations. “I think the attitude of the older guys on the team was, ‘give her a chance, but there’s no way she’s going to be a starter,’ but one day when I had a chance to play, I was hit by a pitch in the ribs, and hen they saw I could take it, they seemed to change their way of inking,” she says. She became a starter at the end of the 1991 season and earned her position at second base, winning the slot over a guy who formerly held that place but now plays right field. As each game starts, Burroughs coach Takekuni Ishida calls out the lineup, and when he gets to “Hachi-ban, secando, Naomi,” Susanna answers, “Hail,” acknowledging her place as the eighth batter. Naomi is her middle name which she uses on the field because it sounds Japanese.
There is no language barrier for Susanna, as she is completely bi-lingual. She even went to Japanese school for a year—the third grade in Okayama, and was also stationed with her parents for five years at Misawa Air Base in northern Japan.
How do the opposing teams view playing against a female gaijin? The players have various reactions. “One time,” said Susanna, “we started a game and the other team’s pitcher breezed through our first seven hitters, retiring them all on strikeouts or easy grounders or pop-ups, when I came to bat with one out in the third inning. I lined a double right over the pitcher’s head for our team’s first hit, and I think he was kid of embarrassed.” . Susanna blends in so well that sometimes it takes the opponents some time to figure out who she is. She came up to bat once in the fifth inning of another game, and the catcher suddenly took off his mask and asked her coach, “Josei, desu ka?” (Is this a girl?) She laughed.
Her own teammates accept her just fine because of her dedication to the game. She plays an adequate second base, though “it took a while to get used to the bounce of the rubber ball,” and she carries a .220 batting average, an area of her game she’d like to improve. As a token of her appreciation to her coach and teammates, she recently took them to a pro game (on Yankees Day) at Tokyo Dome, along with husband Tom and their two kids, son Jeff (almost 4) and daughter Jody (who’ll be a year old in November).
Of course, she had to sit out a few months of last season while expecting the baby, but she figures to continue playing until the family rotates back to the States, a move expected next July. Tom and the kids do not go to the field to watch Mom play because
“Jeff would be all over the place at the park.” They stay home and that’s Tom’s time with the kids. As a family, the four of them get away occasionally to enjoy Tom’s hobbies of water skiing and camping.
Being from Colorado, Susanna is an enthusiastic Rockies fan, but as much as she likes watching, there’s nothing like getting out there and playing ball. “I love it,” she says, “getting sweaty and dirty.” She also has advice for any foreigners—male or female—living here who want to play baseball. ‘They should look into the amateur leagues. It’s really a lot of fun. Check out your local park on a weekend and sec who’s playing and what’s going on.”
The league in which Susanna plays has all the rules of regular baseball. It’s fast-pitch, stealing and bunting are allowed, and there are some pretty good players. One of the better hitters carries a batting average of .875. By the way, the two players shown in different uniforms in the picture were borrowed from other teams, which is sometimes necessary due to conflicting schedules on the part of regular players, but it would take a real emergency for Susanna to miss a game. The other player in a non-Burroughs uniform (front row, second from left, next to Susanna) is a junior high school kid who’s playing because his school doesn’t have a team.
The season is a long one, as they start practicing at the beginning of spring and, unless the weather turns bitter cold or there’s rain or snow, they sometimes schedule games in December.