Tokyo Little Leaguers looking to continue tradition

Tokyo’s Kitasuna Little League picked its team with the intent of being the best in the world, and they don’t necessarily do that at every local level every year.

Then again, most leagues don’t have three Little League World Series titles this century and three other appearances, including this one, that features a 4-1 win over the West Seoul LL on Sunday. Up next is a spot in the International winners’ bracket final against White Rock, B.C., today

This league is the Lamade Stadium version of Alabama, reloading instead of recruiting, and manager Junnji Hidaka is their Nick Saban, building titles upon what his predecessor, Yoichi Kubo, built like Bear Bryant. And Kubo is here, rooting on the league as one of its founding members.

“We expect this, every time we come here,” said Hidaka through an interpreter about the league’s sixth appearance in 17 years.

Kubo managed Kitasuna to the 2001 title over Apopka, Fla., a 2007 runner-up finish to Warner-Robins, Ga., and a 2012 title over Goodlettsville, Tenn.

The league finished third in 2014, then added another title in 2015 under Hidaka when it rallied from 11 down to beat Red Land of Lewisberry in the final.

That’s a lot of Little League championship banners for a 12-year-old kid to admire, far more than anywhere else this century. And while there’s no relation on this roster to previous teams, these players want too. uphold the standard.

“This is my goal, too,” said player Seiya Arai earlier in the week. “I want to be on the same level as them.”

There’s respect all around for this team, as Korean manager Yeu Hoon Ham described the nations’ rivalry as friendly and good. South Korean teams have become the top threat to Japan in the international half in recent years, winning a title in 2014 and finishing second in 2016, though it was a different Little League from Seoul those years.

“Everyone is saying we have a big rivalry, but in other ways, we’re in a close area and it’s a very strong team,” said South Korean manager Yeu Hoon Ham. “Even though we lost today, we’ll try to get it back from Japan. They’re a good friend and it’s a good rival.”

Like any good college football team from Alabama or Ohio State looking to extend its dominance, Hidaka made sure to send compliments back to South Korea.

“South Korea has very good pitchers and we weren’t sure we were going to score that many runs,” said Hidaka. “We’re just relieved we ended up scoring enough to pull off this victory.”

There’s relief in some quarters, and pressure in others. Player Natsuki Yajima said after Sunday’s win he was aware of the tradition and felt the pressure.

Teammate Riku Goto did not.

“I always wanted to be a Little League World Series champion,” said Gotu through an interpreter. “That’s why there’s not much pressure for me. I wanted to join so I could be a part.”