By Nathan DeSutter
Snap! As seven-year-old Takahiro Yamada plummeted from the structure he climbed to get a better view of some fireworks, the piercing sound he heard erupt from his arm—and gruesome sight of a radius bone now split in two—affirmed the obvious.
A broken arm isn’t always the worst news for a little kid—a tough look on the playground, extra ice cream, and a cool, neon cast for classmates to sign—but what he didn’t know at the time, a decade later, this seemingly routine break would force him to make the toughest decision of his life in order to chase down a dream.
After a few months, in an effort to strengthen his now slightly shrunken arm, Yamada picked up baseball. It was a brand new activity for his family, neither his mom nor dad had any experience on the diamond, and, at first, he wasn’t really interested.
“It’s not that I wanted to play,” he said. “It was my rehab. That’s why I started.”
But during his first practice, as he attempting to swing off a tee with one hand and fielded ground balls without throwing, he felt a connection to the sport. Even after he got healthy, he kept coming back.
Seven years later, Yamada, an eighth grader and blooming baseball star in the prefecture of Aichi, Japan, received news that far surpassed the pain of a broken arm. His family was moving. Again.
Two years prior, they’d uprooted their lives in Hiroshima, where Yamada had spent almost all of his childhood, and headed back to Nagoya, where he was born.
But instead of a six-hour, 300 mile trip across the island like last time, his dad’s new job was 6,500 miles away, smack dab in the middle of Indiana.
Cows, cornfields and tractors, Yamada’s rural Columbus, Indiana home was an extreme change of pace from his suburban residence in Nagoya.
But more pressing than the concern of adjusting to midwest culture, Yamada had to learn English.
“I didn’t speak English at all,” Yamada said. “I couldn’t communicate with people.”
He knew a few words here and there, similar to how an American might know a couple of words in Japanese, but nothing substantial. And that made for some difficult first encounters with his new classmates.
“They tried to talk to me, but I fully didn’t understand what they were saying,” he said. Most conversations involved Yamada smiling, nodding and offering a well-intentioned ‘yes’ in an attempt to fill the conversational void. Though, he said it normally ended with a long, awkward pause.
But language was far from the only hurdle, Nagoya and Columbus presented two extremely different styles of living.
Nagoya is a city of 2.2 million—which would qualify as the fourth largest in the United States—and has a population density of 18,000 per square mile, which trails only New York City in terms of major U.S. cities.
Columbus has 46,000 and a density of 1,700 per square mile. The cities demographics, per the 2010 census, 87 percent white, 5.6 percent Asian.
Despite the drastic differences and seemingly impossible hurdles to overcome, Yamada said he was actually surprised by his peers in Indiana. Everyone was much friendlier than he expected.
“I thought they were gonna be just like, “Oh, this kid is from Japan. I don’t know who this is, I’m not gonna acknowledge him,’” he said. “But it wasn’t like that, people were asking me questions. I was surprised.”
Another surprise, American baseball culture.
Yamada joined signed up for baseball right away, but when he received the practice schedule and arrived for his first day, everything was a bit more lenient.
Whereas young Americans are used to two or three-hour practices throughout the week, followed by out of town tournaments on the weekend, Japanese practices are up to 12 hours long, feature strict coaching, and don’t contain the word fun.
“(In Japan) you’d wake up at 7 a.m., eat breakfast then drive to the field,” he said. “We’d drag the field when we arrived at practice. Then, we’d stretch for 45 minutes, run, do base running for 30 min, take infield and BP. Then, we’d have lunchtime for an hour.”
After lunch, the afternoon was filled with more communication, fly ball, and baserunning drills until sundown. That was every Saturday and Sunday. Luckily, his Wednesday and Friday practices were only a measly six hours.
“We can’t really have fun,” Yamada said. “Winning is fun. Being on the field is not fun. Trying to win is the fun part.”
But the differences didn’t matter to Yamada, it was still baseball. As long as he had a bat, glove and a place to play, he was just fine. He’d decided long ago that he was going to be a professional baseball player, and nothing was going to stop him.
Plus, he soon discovered he enjoyed the new approach to baseball, and the more free-swinging style not as focused on small ball.
His involvement also slowly helped him learn slowly pick up some English, though he later learned that the baseball slang used by his teammates and coaches isn’t always the cleanest.
“People would come up to me and say, “Say this and say that,” he said. “it’s kind of how I learned. On the field, then ESL (English as a Second Language courses) were my biggest helpers in learning English.”
Initially, Yamada’s family only planned on staying in the states for three years, and Takahiro would’ve been back in Japan by his Junior year. But his dad, working as an engineer in a rotational position, had his time commitment extended to five years.
That was alright with Yamada, he’d found his groove in the states, and collegiate baseball coaches had found him as well.
“Probably my sophomore year in high school, schools were talking to me and contacting me for my information,” he said. “I was thinking I could go somewhere and play.”
And as he continued to bring home accolades at Columbus East High school—first team all-state, all-district, all-conference and Team MVP—the offers came in.
But with the growing reality of playing collegiate baseball, another reality was slowly approaching.
His father’s five-year work commitment in the United States was coming to an end, and this time, there was no extension.
Before the possibility of college baseball, the decision was a no-brainer. He was going to return to Japan with his family, but Yamada knew the best chance of obtaining his life-long goal of professional baseball lied in the states.
So, he said good-bye to his family and headed off the University of Dayton. Alone.
“I was definitely sad. I’m wasn’t going to get to see them a lot. Maybe once a year,” he said.”But I had to be on top of everything and grow up as a person and as a kid. It made me grow up more.”
His freshman year at Dayton proved more challenging than anticipated, both in school and on the diamond.
“Academic was tough,” he said.” I was in ESL (in high school) so I got a little bit of help. But when I was in college, I had to do all of that stuff by myself. That was the biggest challenge.”
For the Flyers, he hit .200 with one extra-base hit in just 60 at-bats.
But Yamada isn’t the type to fold in the face of adversity. At this point in his life, he’s used to things not going according to plan. His sophomore year, he bounced back to the tune of a .291 average over 158 at-bats while adding 4 doubles, 3 home runs, 23 RBI and 93 percent fielding percentage.
And this summer with the Lakeshore Chinooks he picked up right where he left off, hitting .286 through his first 28 at-bats.
Like everyone else on the Chinooks roster, Yamada plays the game with the ultimate goal of reaching the big leagues. But his daily grind at the park has another purpose. It reminds him of his family, and the sacrifices both he and his parents have made.
“Baseball helps keep me close to (my dad),” he said. “He learned baseball as I was playing. He coached me through middle school. So I look up to him.”
Yamada’s parents are attempting to come to a game this summer, but they aren’t sure if it will be possible. All both sides can do is hope it works out. So, for now, they’ll watch from 6,000 miles away as their son chases his dream.