Let them play ball

Students at a special needs school in Tokyo have a dream. They want to play baseball just like other high school students. This summer, they have been given a chance to take part in a regional preliminary event in the run-up to a national baseball championship tournament. They will be the first team composed of special needs students to compete in the renowned contest.

To prepare for the tournament, members of the baseball club of Seicho Special Needs Education School have been training four days a week under the watchful eye of teachers. All of the players have mild intellectual disabilities.

Members of the Seicho Special Needs Education School's baseball club practice four days a week under the supervision of teachers.

Shirako Yuki, the team captain, suffers from a rare disease that causes gradual muscle atrophy in his limbs.

He has loved baseball since he was a kid.

Shirako was not able to participate in sports at his junior high school. He tried to join the baseball club, but was turned away.

"I was told that it was dangerous. I thought, if ordinary people can do it, then we can do it too, so it shouldn't be dangerous. It was quite frustrating," he said.

Now that he's a member of a baseball club, he carefully polishes his cherished glove after every practice. Shirako said he wants to keep the glove, which he bought by saving up his allowance, in top condition.

Shirako Yuki has always wanted to play for a baseball club.

Members had their first summer as a club last year. But they lacked the requisite nine players to form a team. So they participated in a joint team with regular high schools. Five players from Seicho sat on the bench, while only one of them took part in the game. Shirako never had the chance to play.

But this year, six freshmen joined the club, bringing the number of players to 12, enough to form a team. The Tokyo branch of the Japan High School Baseball Federation granted the club approval to compete in the tournament.

"Let them challenge more"

Club manager Kubota Hiroshi formed the team.

In his youth, Kubota was a member of his high school baseball team. He says he wants students with disabilities to experience what he experienced -- training hard with teammates and aiming for victory.

Manager Kubota Hiroshi strongly believes intellectually challenged students can compete on an equal footing when it comes to tasks requiring locomotion.

As a manager of softball clubs, Kubota has coached children with disabilities for 17 years. He transferred to Seicho three years ago where he became acquainted with Shirako.

"Shirako told me, 'Sir, I've bought a baseball glove. I just want to play baseball.' I made up my mind by that word. If I couldn't help my students fulfill their aspirations, I would have failed as a teacher," said Kubota.

He soon after started coaching baseball at the school. But he had to suspend the training as school officials were concerned about the danger of using baseballs.

He consulted with them to develop safety measures, such as keeping a sufficient distance between players when they catch, and instructing them not to throw the bat after a swing. Kubota was finally allowed to resume the baseball club.

"The students have lived in an environment where people surrounding them have worried for them, judging what is dangerous and what could harm them. But I think we can let them challenge more, give them a chance to decide on their own. I'm sure such challenges would enrich their lives," said Kubota.

Practice hard to be in the spotlight

Six, first-year students joined the team this year. Several said they chose Seicho because they wanted to become members of the baseball club.

The team has had limited experience of playing actual games. So members have been repeatedly practicing scenarios in preparation for the summer tournament.

Club captain Shirako says he's pleased with the team's improvement. But he also feels the addition of more members has intensified the competition for a regular spot on the team.

His goal is to play as an outfielder and participate in the baseball tournament. As a senior, this summer will be his last chance.

Even on non-training days, Shirako spends time practicing his swing in a batting cage.

He says he's thrilled to have the chance to play baseball and vows to give it his all.

Shirako Yuki practices batting.

"I'm happy I can play baseball and do what I could not do before. I'm trying to improve myself as much as possible so I can get some hits in the games," said Shirako.

"Run out and don't cut corners. That's what I teach the team members as our basic playing style. The games really are an unknown world for them, but I hope they will gain great confidence from the sport," said Kubota.