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As Arizona State University continues to create partnerships around the world, one Sun Devils coach is looking to baseball-crazed Japan for potential opportunities.
Tracy Smith, who has been the head baseball coach at ASU since 2014, traveled to Japan for a week earlier this month to forge ties with university and sports counterparts there.
“I wanted to learn about the baseball culture and, from a program standpoint, whether we could we learn anything about the future of recruitment. And on a much broader scale, I wanted to take this opportunity to be an ambassador for ASU,” Smith said.
He met with administrators and coaches at Fukuoka Institute of Technology, which has already had an engineering faculty exchange with ASU, as well as Keio and Meiji universities.
“We didn’t just talk baseball. We talked about creating and enhancing the relationship between the two countries,” he said.
While NCAA rules restricted Smith from actually recruiting players during his trip, he did talk about baseball with the Japanese — who are huge fans.
“What’s bigger than anything is the high school baseball tournament called Koshien,” he said. “They’ll have 50,000 fans at a game there.”
But the Japanese don’t embrace the concept of the student-athlete the same way Americans do.
“At ASU we’re always trying to find good players who are good students — they want a world-class education but they also want to make it to the big leagues,” Smith said. “In Japan, there’s an emphasis on specialization.
“We’re restricted to working with our student-athletes to 20 hours a week, and there, they practice five hours a day. They have a hard time understanding how you can be a good baseball player if you have to go study at 3 in the afternoon when you should be practicing.”
Smith said that a potential rule change by the NCAA could open the door to sports exchanges, similar to a study-abroad program for athletics. Currently, student-athletes in NCAA sports programs must sit out a year of competition if they transfer to a different university. A committee in the NCAA is considering eliminating that requirement for students who meet certain academic criteria. If that change happens, student-athletes from international universities could study at ASU for a year and also play for Sun Devils sports teams.
Japan is a logical place for Smith to recruit not only because it has good baseball players but also because Japanese schools are academically rigorous. He said other countries have strong baseball-development leagues but that the players typically are not academically qualified to attend ASU.
Smith said that current Sun Devil Lyle Lin is a good example of how recruiting in the Far East could succeed. Lin, who is from Taipei, is a sophomore international business major at ASU who plays catcher for the baseball team with a .291 batting average in the 2016 season. He was the first Taiwanese-born player to be selected in the Major League Baseball draft, picked in the 16th round by the Seattle Mariners in 2016.
“Lyle’s story made me think it could be done. He’s one of our best players, and he learned the English language in six months. The fans love him,” Smith said.
“In Japan, I told the Lyle Lin story a hundred times and said, ‘This can be done.’“
Any international baseball players who are on the roster of an American university team would be much more visible to Major League Baseball scouts, as well.
Smith said that the student-athlete concept is becoming more global and that ASU will take advantage of that.
“We’re the most innovative school in the country. This is an innovative process, and that’s why it makes sense to do it in a place like this,” he said.
Video by Casey Smith
Top photo: ASU head baseball coach Tracy Smith visited with Teruo Shimomura, president of the Fukuoka Institute of Technology in Japan, earlier this month.