Seattle Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma on winning in baseball and in life
The Tohoku fans had always given us their enthusiastic support; but in the end, we were the ones most touched by the spirit of the Tohoku fans.
SGI member Hisashi Iwakuma signed on as a pitcher with the Seattle Mariners prior to the start of the 2012 major league baseball season. Although considered a rookie in the United States, he began his professional baseball career a decade before, in May 2001, with the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes, before joining the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles for the 2005 season. He was generally considered to be the No. 2 pitcher in Japan when he signed on with the Mariners for the 2012 season.
The following interview with Mr. Iwakuma was adapted from the January 2013 issue of the Daibyakurenge, the Soka Gakkai’s monthly study magazine. In it, he speaks about how his Buddhist practice and his mentor’s encouragement enabled him to win in baseball and in life.
Daibyakurenge: Last year, you had a wonderful first season with the Seattle Mariners. After becoming a starting pitcher in the second half of the season, you scored an impressive record of 8 wins and 4 losses. At 2.65, you also had the best ERA (earned run average) of any rookie starting pitcher in the Mariners ball club.
Hisashi Iwakuma: Thank you very much. My success was due to everyone’s support.
What motivated you to want to play major league baseball in the United States?
I was inspired most recently by playing in the World Baseball Classic in 2009 [where Japan won gold]. I was able to pitch to top major league batters. The feeling of challenge, of putting everything I had on the line, excited and energized me. A big part of it was realizing that I could strike out those batters.
But the first time I thought about playing in the major leagues was in 2007. At the time, an injury to my right elbow was threatening my career. I had just five wins that season and decided to undergo surgery. As I lay in my hospital bed, I watched on TV as then-Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, another professional ball player from Japan, received the World Series trophy. I thought, I want to play for the major leagues! At the time, I couldn’t even bend my right elbow and had no idea if or when I would recover. The pain was intense, but I endured it through consistent and resolute prayer to the Gohonzon. As I persevered, a sense of inspiration surged within me. It was as if a light had been switched on in the midst of complete darkness. That’s what gave me the power to make it through the painful rehabilitation.
A Bridge of Hope
Two years ago (in 2011), you had a chance of being picked up by a U.S. major league franchise, but the negotiations fell through.
That’s right. I was disappointed, but when I look back on that time, there was deep meaning in that experience. Right after that, on March 11, the earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan (also known as the Tohoku region). I was with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles at the time, and we resolved to play our best to give courage and hope to the people of Tohoku during their time of greatest difficulty. They had always given us their enthusiastic support; but in the end, we were the ones most touched by the spirit of the Tohoku fans.
Even during that most trying time, the local
fans as well as fans from all over Japan continued to cheer us on. For the rest of my life, I will never forget how deeply moved I was by their tremendous support. So that I would never forget the debt of gratitude I owe them, when I came to the U.S. major leagues, I had my baseball glove embroidered with the word hope ( kibo in Japanese). I determined to become a “bridge of hope” for the people of Tohoku.
So last year, your dream of joining the majors came true! But you were designated as a relief pitcher for the first half of the season.
Yes. In Japan, I had only pitched as a starter.
But, once the season began, I could see the clear difference between the Japanese league and the major leagues. From the team’s perspective, I was just a rookie. Besides that, they only had my record in Japan to go on. The coach wanted to see with his own eyes how I could pitch before putting me in the crucial role of starting pitcher. The bottom line is that I hadn’t done well enough in the pre-season, when I should have shown my best, to satisfy the coach. So he decided to use me as a relief pitcher.
So in addition to playing in a new and unfamiliar environment, you were made a relief pitcher.
Yes. But Major League Baseball in the United States is a completely different world from the type of baseball that I was accustomed to. So I was willing to do everything I could, whatever my situation. For example, during practices and games, I would always observe my opponents, especially the batters, and take notes on every detail. Even while traveling to and from our games, I would try out various pitches in my mind.
As the season progressed, I had yet to be chosen as a starter. Though I was part of the Mariners’ bullpen, I wasn’t chosen to pitch until our 15th game; I was the last member in the team’s opening day roster to appear in a game. That is how much I still needed to gain the trust of my coach.
Not having been called on to pitch, my confidence was shaken. The strike zone was different, and the batters were far stronger. I wasn’t sure where to place the ball. I couldn’t figure out how to shut down the batters. On the mound, I couldn’t get in a groove and felt as if I were fumbling my way through each pitch. Having sometimes to travel thousands of miles between games, I felt drained of vitality.
In this emotional state, I couldn’t produce good results. When the outcome of a game was guaranteed, I was often put on the mound as a “mop-up pitcher.” Becoming a starting pitcher seemed to move further out of my reach. I couldn’t see a way forward, and I felt suffocated. It was the first time in my professional career that I felt such deep anxiety.
Words From My Wife
How did you conquer those feelings of self-defeat?
Actually, my wife pointed out what I needed to change. I said to her, “I think I’m losing my ability . . .”
My wife, who is usually very gentle and kind, was very blunt with me. She said: “You’re not losing your ability. The problem is your attitude! You think you’re the only one suffering. Meanwhile your daughter is struggling to find her way in school here in America, when she can’t even speak English.”
Her words struck me to the core. Overwhelmed with my own problems, I had only been thinking about myself. I felt terrible for my lack of consideration.
My wife then said warmly, “Don’t you remember what President Ikeda told you?”
What kind of encouragement did you receive from SGI President Ikeda?
It was at a youth leaders meeting in April 2008. The baseball season had just started, and it had been my first time pitching after the elbow surgery. I tried to protect my arm by not overdoing it, but I worried that I might not be able to finish the season. Sensing my anxiety, Sensei looked at me and said: “Cast away your worries! Become strong!” His guidance was strict yet warm. In his words I sensed with my entire being the trust and high expectations he placed in me. That day happened to be my birthday. I took it as Sensei’s lifelong gift to me.
Due to his encouragement, I felt that no matter how bad my situation was, I would never give in. I confronted my suffering directly and stopped letting it control me. I just faced each batter and put all my power into each pitch.
That year you went on to win 21 games and led the Japanese league in strikeouts, ERA and wins. You also won the Eiji Sawamura Award. 1 So by recalling those times, you were eventually able to achieve success as a major league player in the United States.
Yes. By reminding myself of President Ikeda’s compassionate encouragement, I cast off my anxiety. I’d think to myself: That’s right! Whether they use me or not, I will focus on the task at hand. Facing each batter is a win-or-lose battle. I have to put everything I’ve got into each pitch!
I began approaching each game with a positive attitude, and my first win in the United States came as a relief pitcher. Until then, I only thought about trying to fit into the major league environment. That had been the most important thing. For example, when pitching, all I’d focus on was how to respond to the catcher’s signals. But that wasn’t enough to win. I realized that I hadn’t been taking full responsibility on the mound.
I began expressing my opinions to my teammates and coach, and developed stronger communication. I was then able to get into the starting lineup and began winning steadily.
Did your pitching change as well?
Oddly enough, though my speed increased slightly over the course of the season, my pitching didn’t really change. If I had to say what changed, it would be my attitude on the mound as I confronted each batter. It wasn’t my thoughts or feelings, but something deep in my heart that changed.
Pitching to strong MLB batters, there’s an even chance of winning or losing. It’s the batter’s determination to hit the ball versus the pitcher’s determination to get the ball past the batter. It is the heart of one player versus the heart of the other. For example, whether there are runners on base or the count is against me, it’s about being determined that “I’m definitely going to win!” “I’m absolutely going to make it happen!” I was able to form an inner resolve that just could not be shaken.
Especially in the second half of the season, I began to see the results of forging this solid resolve. This grew from facing and winning over myself every morning and evening. There is a Japanese proverb that says victory or defeat is a matter of timing and luck. But I realized that the resolve one forges in the depths of one’s life invites the right kind of luck at the right moment.
Repaying My Debt of Gratitude to My Father
This is all clearly the result of your prayers and struggle during the first half of the season. We heard that in the middle of the season, your father became seriously ill and you had to return to Japan.
Yes. My father had been diagnosed with cancer and was hospitalized. In July, his condition took a turn
for the worse. I was torn as to whether I should return to Japan. It seemed like a choice between entering the starting lineup or going to see my father. But I decided I had to win in both my family situation and my career, and arranged with my coach to return to Japan to see my father.
My father and I never talked very much, but when I saw him in the hospital, I felt as if I were facing him directly for the first time. My father seemed so happy, not because I was in the major leagues, but because I had continued my Buddhist practice. We had a conversation filled with joy, tears and appreciation for each other. A short time later, he passed away. That trip back to Japan was my way to repay my debt of gratitude to my father.
After spending only one day in Japan, I returned to Seattle for my first game as a starting pitcher. I was physically and emotionally drained, but decided to pitch with all the strength I could muster.
I had 13 strikeouts, winning the game and setting a record as a new starting pitcher for the Mariners. While I thought I had gone to Japan to repay my debt of gratitude to my parents, they were the ones protecting me.
What are your hopes for this Year of Victory for a Youthful SGI?
I want to live with the spirit to keep advancing. As soon as I feel satisfied, that’s when I start to decline. I will always forge ahead! Ever onward! I am determined to respond to all those supporting me by continuing to win!
1. The Eiji Sawamura Award ( Sawamura Eiji sho): Commonly known as the Sawamura Award. An honor bestowed each year upon the top starting pitcher in the Japanese professional baseball league.