BY OOWADA AKIKO
It’s a marvelous spring day, crisp and cloudless with static trapped in the atmosphere. Two freshly-painted foul poles bracket the outfield fence like faithful sentinels; cut grass crunches underfoot, tipped with residual frost. In about a week, plastic megaphones will start flying off the shelves, flags and fanfare ushering in a new season of victory or loss. And with eyes on the prize, Seidou’s Baseball Club intends to give its long-time supporters a new name to chant.
“We have ‘Dinosaur’ Masuko and the infield ‘Iron Wall’,” explains Assistant Coach Takashima Rei, leading me to the dug-out. “Yuuki-kun is dead-set on adding ‘Clean Socks Fujiwara’ to the repertoire, but Isashiki-kun vehemently opposes it--the nickname, of course, not the sentiment.”
The sound of a bat cracking against an incoming pitch brings our conversation to a neat halt, and Takashima lifts a hand to adjust her glasses. I follow her line of sight, squinting at the small white ball plummeting down, down, down to earth.
Under Takashima’s joint mentorship with former pitcher Kataoka Tesshin, Seidou has managed to recruit two of last year’s hottest, most promising players. But their rising star is a last-minute addition to their revamped lineup, a second-year fielder who deftly snatches the ball out of the sky and flashes a grin as shouts from all corners of the diamond pepper the practice grounds.
“Fujiwara-kun,” Takashima calls, unable to suppress her own answering smile, and Fujiwara Takako trots out of left field to join us in the dug-out, mitt cradled against her chest, socks dirt-streaked and rumpled.
When I inquire into the origins of ‘Clean Socks,’ Fujiwara blushes and fidgets with her glove. She’s a little hesitant, a little shy, but her gaze is clear and confident with the knowledge of how hard she’s worked to be here, how much she deserves her place.
“It’s because I run fast,” she clarifies. “Not to toot my own horn, but go fast enough and you can outstrip dust, that’s their line of reasoning.” After a moment she adds, “Some of my teammates think it’s hilarious, but it really makes me sound like a laundry detergent advertisement, I’d cry of embarrassment if it caught on.”
With a stellar batting average of .591 and an almost prophetic knack for predicting the trajectory of the ball, Fujiwara could be the hint of rain in an era of parched earth. And I reckon not a moment too soon--for this year will be Seidou’s first appearance at Spring Koushien since their crushing loss to Inashiro in Summer Koushien of 200X. Even today, the rivalry of West Tokyo blazes on, and the two schools recently went toe-to-toe in the Fall Tournament, ending with Seidou trailing behind by two runs.
“We played our hardest, but we’ve grown since then. This time we’ll turn the tables,” Fujiwara says without hesitation.
Speaking of tables to turn: as one of the few girls in high school baseball, Fujiwara occupies a tenuous position in both the media and the sports landscape. Razor-sharp and fresh, her skill has lent its flame to the discussion about gender representation in baseball, X years after Kawasaki-Kita’s famous Knuckleball Princess took the baseball world by storm. In fact, it was Fujiwara’s performance during the Fall Tournament that catapulted her into the spotlight: her spectacular dive into the stands clinched the win for Seidou in Game Two, and video clips of her triumphant catch trended on the Internet for weeks afterward.
Quiet and contemplative, Fujiwara takes a moment to process my statement. I offer to change the subject, but she shakes her head and holds up a hand, considering the stitching of her mitt.
“I know what people are saying,” she begins. “I’ve done softball and baseball, and I love them both, but I’ve only got enough time for one team. So I made my pick and now people want me to stand for something, to mean something more than I am, and the problem is, I’m only me, I don’t know how to be the answer to other people’s questions. They want me to prove them wrong or right, and I’m not sure I'm ready to be either.”
She sneaks a glance at her fellow outfielders, batchmate Isashiki Jun and first-year Shirasu Kenjirou, both of whom loiter around and stare conspicuously, knocking the dirt out of their cleats. They’re waiting for her to rejoin their formation, and Fujiwara gives me a sheepish grin when I notice her momentary distraction.
“The take-away is, I'm not sure how to feel about the attention. If girls and people who get pushed out of baseball start playing because they see me, I’d be happy. But I don't wish this kind of pressure on them. And I want softball to be taken more seriously, too.”
From where I sit, Fujiwara's silhouette looks oddly striking, backlit by the glow of the green field and the upturned bowl of the sky, her teammates clustered like so many small, dazzling constellations across a map. It seems fitting, then, to ask about her future, whether the world of strike zones and moonshots will feature in her plans.
“I don’t know if I’m going pro,” she answers, sincere. “But if people remember my name, I want them to remember it with Seidou’s. I made my home here, you know? I found my team here. I don’t think that’s too much to ask, like, to be remembered as a part of a team.”
“Damn straight that’s not too much to ask,” Jun says feelingly, pausing in his read-aloud.
The crowd of sweaty high-schoolers clustered around the dining table collectively oooh and aaah, nodding in unison.
Takako’s ears feel like they’re on fire. “Are we done yet?”
“Shhh,” Ryousuke teases, hovering over her shoulder. “This is your moment. Go on, Jun.”
Takako shares a bracing look with a sympathetic but wholly invested Shirasu before Jun launches into a passionate retelling of the article’s conclusion, shifting his weight on the chair that substitutes for an elevated podium.
“‘As a whistle announces the start of baserunning drills, Fujiwara tugs on her blue-and-yellow cap, rising to her feet. This is a player who lives and breathes with each play, who understands the physics and flow of the game as intuitively as she reads her own heartbeat.’”
“Accurate,” Chris murmurs, approving.
“‘I watch her stride onto Seidou’s A Ground, the number seven on her back, ponytail swaying, shadow dark and slender at her feet. Re-entering the dug-out, Takashima touches my elbow to escort me to the mouth of the field, and the gaze we exchange is knowing. Fujiwara Takako, Seidou’s left fielder and lucky star--’”
Cheers split the air and Jun snaps, “Shut up, I’m not finished!” He shakes out the newspaper before continuing. “‘No matter what path she may carve out, no matter where her feet may take her, Fujiwara has left an indelible impression, a bright imprint that will, surely, be remembered and celebrated for years to come.’ The End, now you can scream all you want.”
This time the room erupts, someone in the back banging a pan. Clapping, Miyuki grins from across the table, cat-like and impertinent. His growth spurt has got him looking a little stretched out and gangly, and Takako would make fun of him if she weren’t going through the same thing. “Wow, senpai, need lotion for that sunburn?”
Simultaneously embarrassed and pleased, Takako scowls through her fingers, bright as a tomato. “Can it, Sideburns,” she threatens without any real heat.
Still perched on the chair, Jun brandishes a pair of very sharp scissors. “Drum-roll, please,” he says gravely, and Shirasu adds, a teensy bit concerned, “Jun-san, you should probably get down before you lose an eye.”
“I do what I want,” Jun sniffs, but he steps off anyway, Tetsu reaching up with a hand to stabilize his elbow.
The scissors snip-snip-snip, and an anticipatory hush falls over the reverent team. Tanba gives her a thumbs-up and Takako glances away, heart about to burst.
“Great article, great player,” Shirasu comments, offhanded, as Jun passes the clipping around. It’s a team rite and a maudlin one, bleeding sentimentality, a blatant excuse to emotions-jam, but when it gets to Shirasu, he handles the paper so carefully that it makes Takako want to cry.
“You know it’s just an article,” Takako starts.
“It’s your article,” Jun points out. Shirasu nudges her with his elbow, face unchanging, and Takako nudges him back. “And it goes on the bulletin board next to everyone else’s.”
Takako remembers admiring the bulletin board as a first-year, reading the names of upperclassmen gone on to do great things, articles on Kiyokuni Azuma and Kataoka Tesshin, and all of a sudden, something so small means so much. Her team loves her, treasures her accomplishments, and she loves them back with every fiber of her being.
Obligations fulfilled, the troop begins to disperse. As the only one trusted with push-pins, Jun assumes responsibility over the bulletin board, and Takako crosses to stand beside him, Shirasu trailing behind by only a few steps.
“There we go,” Jun says, smoothing out the creases in the paper. “Framed for Forever.”
Adorning the top of the page is a picture of Takako with Jun and Shirasu in the outfield, gloves half-covering their mouths, laughing. Takako knows when that was taken, recalls the joke--”Mr. Reliable’s turned into Mr. Obvious,” after Shirasu said, “That was a long interview”--but she’s grateful that there’s a picture to accompany the moment, because they all appear so content, dirt-stained and full of life, vitality.
“Thanks, Jun, Shirasu,” Takako says, staring at her name in black-and-white. “I mean it.”
“What are you talking about,” Jun grumbles, slinging an arm around her shoulder. He has to stand on his tiptoes to bridge the four-centimeter gap, and Takako puts an arm around him as well, a little overwhelmed, a little sniffly from the outpouring of care. “You did real good, got that? We’ll make you proud to wear blue and yellow, I swear.”
Takako nods, drying her tears on her wrist. “Ugh, eye-water.”
“How about ‘Lucky Star’?” Shirasu says abruptly, a hand on the in-curve of Takako's waist. “‘Lucky Star Fujiwara,’ one of Seidou’s best.”
“Better than ‘Clean Socks,’” Jun says, thoroughly disgusted.
Twisting around to draw Shirasu into the hug, Takako laughs. “Mr. Reliable pulls through again,” she grins, turning the words over in her head, Lucky Star. She likes the ring of it, the sound of something huge and glittering and luminous, gold inside-out. “It's great. I think I’ll keep it.”