In 1962 Sadaharu Oh had a big problem. He had been drafted out of high school as one of the the most promising players in Japanese professional baseball. He was playing for the Yomiuri Giants, whose dominance in that league can be compared with the New York Yankees in the United States.
Unfortunately, he could not get a hit. Despite his enormous talent, Oh had a hitch in his swing. Just as pitchers released the ball, Oh would pull his bat back slightly. He would wind up a little tighter before uncoiling his powerful swing.
In order to compensate for the slight delay this caused in his swing, Oh, was committing himself to pitches too early. Pitchers understood this weakness and were striking him out with ease. Oh was on his way out of professional baseball.
Oh was fortunate however. He had an insatiable desire to hit the baseball.
His batting coach, Hiroshi Arakawa, had been guiding his career since the age of 14, and he and Oh had an unshakable trust in each other. Perhaps most importantly, though, Arakawa was a direct student of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido.
Aikido is a martial art in which practitioners learn to merge with and redirect an attacker's energy. To accomplish this they must cultivate an almost supernatural sensitivity to timing and space and an absolute control over their movements.
As if that weren't difficult enough, in order to apply the techniques correctly, Aikidokas must learn to react to deadly attacks with a relaxed and generous spirit.
I have heard Aikido described as "the art of hitting people with planets."
I believe this refers to the fact that many techniques end with the attacker firmly planted face down on the ground. I think this also refers to the devastating power of techniques that are said to channel elemental forces of the universe.
Using the concepts of Aikido to hit a baseball, however, had turned out to be no easy thing -- especially when Oh had not been allowed to practice the art directly.
Because his team had been afraid he would be injured practicing a martial art (injuries were inevitable in Japanese martial arts), Oh had been limited to watching his batting coach practice the art.
They would meet later and discuss what his coach had felt during each technique that Oh had observed.
Neither Oh nor Arakawa had given up on each other or their belief that the principals of Aikido could help Oh master himself and hit.
As Oh prepared to bat in a game against the Taiyo Whales, he faced his last chance to hit or be cut from the team. Both he and Arakawa knew that Oh had not eliminated the "hitch" from his swing and they were painfully aware that the pitcher knew this as well.
What happened next must have been as dramatic as anything in the "Karate Kid." In desperation, Arakawa ordered Oh to stand on one leg during the crucial part of his swing and the pitcher's motion. Oh feared this would be a precarious and futile position from which to attempt a hit but he trusted his coach. Arakawa knew that hovering there on one leg, Oh could not wind his bat any further without falling over.
On a two and two pitch, Oh assumed what he would later call the Flamingo style and waited. When the pitch came, Oh hit a clean single. He homered at his next at bat.
At that moment, Arakawa decided Sadaharu Oh could become the greatest hitter in the history of Japanese baseball.
In his autobiography "Sadaharu Oh, a Zen Way of Baseball," Oh describes their quest to make that dream come true. It chronicles their further efforts to incorporate Aikido principles to learn how to wait patiently on one leg and "acquire the body of a rock."
The book tells how Arakawa and Oh turned to Iai, the art of withdrawing and engaging the Japanese long sword, both for its emphasis on the proper hip movements and also for its practitioners' life or death focus on achieving a proper mental state.
The story ranges from Ginza, the debauched pleasure capital of Tokyo, to the misty mountains of the island of Hokkaido where they searched for the wood of a male yachidamo tree and a bat maker with the skill to "match the soul of a tree with the soul of a batsman."
If all this sounds hokey or implausible, you might reflect on the improbability of three white rappers from NYC singing about a Japanese baseball player who was, in 1962, one strike away from obscurity.
If you find this story as compelling as I did, you may want to sit down for a beer with Clint George of Last Chance Aikido. He has devoted every day of his adult life to the study of Aikido.
Clint spent a good portion of that time in Japan studying with a direct student of Aikido's founder. He saw Sadaharu Oh play and knows some stories Oh conspicuously left out of the book.
If you are in a slump and the voodoo chicken bones aren't helping, Clint also knows a ton about hitting a baseball.
- Peter Bovingdon can be reached at email@example.com