Nippon Wiffleball: The Wiffleball Tigers Aim to Spread the Sport in Tokyo
If you’re good, you’re good, no matter where you pitch.
- Luis Tiant on Hideo Nomo, March 1995
On a cool and cloudy autumn day in Tokyo – with wiffleball players on the other side of the Pacific already weeks into their winter hibernation – a noteworthy game is about to get underway.
To little fanfare, with the exception of several Instagram posts marking the occasion, Tokyo’s Wiffleball Tigers are about to take the field for their first official game as a unit. Dubbed the “Tokyo Series”, the game is a friendly contest between the Tigers and another Tokyo area squad. The Tigers are clad in their team t-shirts that bears their team logo – a beautifully illustrated picture of a Tiger wearing a hachimaki of the rising sun. Crossing behind the Tiger is a samurai-like sword intersecting with not another sword, but a yellow Wiffle® bat. The Tigers’ opponents on this day are far more casual by comparison, both in attire and style of play.
“We play to win,” Tigers’ captain Masashi Igarashi, 27, wrote to an Instagram commenter upon the announcement of the game.
And win they do. Playing on a grass lot next to an on-ramp with a standard wiffleball target strike zone and backstop right where they ought to be, the Tigers make relatively easy work of their overmatched opponents. Igarashi lands the big offensive blow, a two run triple. The other team’s pitchers struggle with the strike zone on occasion and when they do come over, the Tigers’ more experienced bats often make them pay for it (a familiar tune for any new wiffleball team). The Tigers’ ace pitcher Keiske starts the game for his team and is perfect through two innings, striking out all six batters he faces. With the game trending in the right direction, three Tigers’ relievers follow Keiske into the game. They also keep the opposing team off the board and the Tigers cruise to a relatively stress-free 6-0 victory.
Igarashi calls the outcome a “wonderful result” but notes that the hitting was not where it needs to be. A win is a win and for the moment at least, the Wiffleball Tigers have at least a claim as the best wiffleball team in Tokyo.
Wiffleball is an incredibly niche sport in the United States – the country where the ball was invented and where it enjoys the status of an iconic toy – so you might expect it to be planted even more firmly underground in a foreign country like Japan. And you would be right. At over 38 million people, the Greater Tokyo area is the most populated metropolitan area in the entire world. Very few of those 38 million, however, would be what one might consider a Wiffle® enthusiast and even fewer take the game seriously enough to make a sport out of it.
How few is anyone’s guess. When asked by The Drop, Igarashi responds that there are only two wiffleball teams in all of Tokyo – the Tigers and their November opponents.
That might be an exaggeration. As it is in the United States, getting a firm reading on how many serious wiffleball players and teams there are is an impossible task given the sports’ backyard foundation. Needless to say, wiffleball as a sport is far further out of the public eye in Japan than it even is in the U.S. Examples of wiffleball being played at a serious competitive level in Japan – at least examples visible to someone an ocean away – are few and far between.
A YouTube user going under the username “wdb201029” rose to some level of notoriety earlier this decade with video clips of his indoor practice sessions. His most popular video – a 2 ½ minute highlight video of him throwing clean balls to a couple of batters – has garnered more than 2.1 million views to date. One year ago, the Japanese YouTube channel “World Minor Sport” – which, as its name suggests focuses on obscure sports – posted a clip using footage of American wiffleball games to explain the sport to its target audience. That clip has also surpassed the 1 million views mark. There are other well-viewed videos of Japanese wiffleball to be found but few that suggest a significant competitive sport.
The most prolific wiffleball group in Japan might be the Japanese Wiffleball Association (“JWA”) which operates out of Kyoto in the Kansai region of Japan. Four teams compete in the JWA’s Kansai League and their web site also mentions a potential league in Kanto that the organization is currently recruiting for. JWA has a rather ambitious plan for spreading the sport across the country, including holding tournaments and events for elementary and junior high school children as well as for senior citizens in the Kansai area. The group plans to manage in-house wiffleball events for interested companies and groups as well, as a means of promoting the sport. The JWA’s mission is to spread the game in a way that allows all people to enjoy it and have fun with family and friends.
The essence of fun in JWA’s mission is best represented by their participation in several “plastic series” events – mixed games that combine wiffleball with other balls like ping pong and even bottle caps. The bottle cap throwing in particular is both an ingenious idea and impressive in execution with some participants able to spin the caps in ways the rival a quality wiffleball slider. Likewise, the table tennis games – sometimes with the pitching throwing the ball, other times using a paddle – appear to be equally challenging.
In addition to videos of their games – wiffleball and otherwise – the JWA’s YouTube channel also contains pitching tutorials and an “introduction to wiffleball” video to help and spread word on the sport in Japan.
Igarashi, too, views promoting the fun nature of the game as well as its competitive benefits as essential in spreading it throughout Tokyo.
“Now we are preparing to spread [the game of wiffleball],” Igarashi wrote. “We aim to be a team that can convey the fun and necessity of this sport.”
The Tigers’ captain says that he has taken to SNS (social networking sites) in hopes of finding additional players and teams but as of yet has not had much luck. His stated near term goal is both a realistic and modest one – get four teams in the Tokyo area playing regularly. Four tends to be the magic number in wiffleball when it comes to building a foundation for a league or a tournament.
It was just two years ago – at age 25 – that Igarashi says he began playing wiffleball. About one year after first experiencing the game, he recruited friends to join him, leading to the formation of the Wiffleball Tigers. Ranging in age from 27 down to 21, the Tigers represent a typical wiffleball team demographically. The Tigers practice regularly throughout the year and share clips from their practices, scrimmages, and occasional games to follows on Instagram and Twitter.
It should not be surprising that the Tigers have gained more of a following outside of their home country then in it. Through short clips on Instagram and Twitter put out by members of the team, the group has caught the eyes of many US-based wifflers. As a group, wiffleball players have an unquenchable thirst for discovering new talent. Naturally, talented players 6,000 miles away are going to turn some heads. On social media, it is not rare to find Igarashi and the Tigers interacting with U.S. based players and teams whether it is discussing the action in the Tigers’ latest Instagram video or trading pitching tips.
While the Tigers’ videos clearly show that they don’t take themselves or the game too seriously, it is also clear that there is real talent among the group. Igarashi throws a good screwball with both solid velocity and command. He refers to the current quality of his screwball as “decent” but aims for it to be “phenomenal”.
When asked about the art of pitching, Igarashi modestly deflects and directs all pitching questions to his teammate, Keiske – the Tigers’ pitcher who struck out all six batters he faced back in his team’s November debut. While Igarashi is almost exclusively a screwball pitcher at this stage in his wiffleball playing career, Keiske appears bit more well-rounded, throwing an assortment of sliders and risers that he will often change speed with to keep hitters off balance.
“Keiske has a nice pitching motion,” MAW lead broadcaster and Drop contributor Nick Schaefer noted after watching some of Keiske’s work on Instagram. “He has a hesitation that is sort of like old-school Japanese pitchers. The ball seems to jump out of his hands, especially since he hides it well.”
Schaefer adds that while he sees Keiske as currently being a solid #3 type that can gobble up early tournament innings were he competing in high quality tournaments in the US., the potential is there for him to develop into a top of the rotation pitcher if he continues to expand his arsenal of pitches.
“As he faces more and higher competition, Keiske will need to develop pitches outside of his main assortment of sliders and risers. He could benefit greatly from working on a drop and/or screwball.”
To that end, Igarashi says that he and his teammates have sought out video to aid in their development. Like many pitchers starting out in the sport, Igarashi has used Sean Steffy’s YouTube pitching videos as a reference for he and his teammates.
“We practice and study the necessary pitching,” Igarashi writes of the Tigers’ pitching game plan.
It is fair to wonder – given the prominence of baseball in Japan – if wiffleball could find a similar foothold (albeit on a much smaller scale) in that country.
A direct comparison between the spread of baseball in Japan and the potential of wiffleball in that country is a reach, but the fact that Japan is already a baseball stronghold makes developing wiffleball a potentially easier task relative to other countries. For his part, Igarashi sees a clear connection between the popularity of baseball in his home country and the potential popularity of wiffleball in Japan. Like many of his fellow wifflers in other countries, Igarashi views wiffleball as a potentially safer alternative to baseball that will allow baseball fans and players like him and his teammates to pitch with less stress and overuse of their arms. He also views the potential of children playing wiffleball rather than baseball early on as a potential injury-reducer. Accessibility is also something that he sees as being in wiffleball’s favor.
“I feel that the sport is important in that it is easier to enjoy pitching [in wiffleball] than baseball,” Igarashi writes.
For the time being, the Tigers are content to keep on practicing in Tokyo while serving as an example for others who might have interest in the sport but need to be made aware of its potential. As for coming to the U.S. to play, such a trip doesn’t seem imminent but that hasn’t stopped Igarashi and his teammates from contemplating what it might be like to face competition abroad or perhaps face a traveling group of American wifflers in Tokyo.
Earlier this week, the Barrel Bruisers’ Jerry Hill posted video of himself taking practice cuts against an offset pitching machine to simulate the experience of facing a screwball. Knowing a thing or two about screwballs himself, Igarashi playfully replied with video of him locking up a fellow Tiger with a knee buckling screwball in a recent scrimmage. To which Igarashi also added – with the Wiffleball Tigers’ ever present Tiger emjoi for extra emphasize – “Let’s meet someday.”
You never know.