Team USA San Diego (from left), Andy Rios, Kalani Nakamura prepare for their trip to Japan to play in the 2011 World Boys League Tournament. — Nelvin C. Cepeda
When Kalani Nakamura was about 7 or 8, his uncle would send video footage to the States of Japanese baseball games. Nakamura, a middle infielder at Horizon High in Clairemont, grew up admiring Japanese star Ichiro Suzuki, the Seattle Mariners right fielder.
Less than five months after the 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami killed more than 15,000 and left more than 8,000 missing in Japan, Nakamura will be making his first trip there on a goodwill mission as a member of San Diego Team USA. He’ll also be visiting his uncle, who has lived in Japan for 25 years.
The team of 14- and 15-year-olds will be playing in the 30th World Boys League Tournament in Fukuoka. Nakamura has Japanese roots, but he also grew up as a fan of former Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who grew up in Chula Vista. Gonzalez and brother Edgar, as well as ex-Padres Brian and Marcus Giles, who grew up in El Cajon, are former San Diego Team USA members.
To play on this team and to travel to Japan is an opportunity not lost on Nakamura or his teammates. “It’s a dream come true,” Nakamura said. “I’ve always wanted to play Japanese baseball. It’s going to be awesome.” The 18 boys, who were selected in January by coach Mark Wilson from high schools across San Diego, will be departing Aug. 1 for Yokohama — San Diego’s sister city. The boys will be playing in eight friendship games there the first week and will attend a reception by the city’s mayor before heading to Fukuoka.
“The players are in for the experience of their lifetime,” said Wilson, the pitching coach at Mission Bay High who has coached 11 San Diego USA teams. “I think this team just might have the most talent from top to bottom of the roster of them all.” The first tournament was held in Osaka, Japan, in 1982 with eight teams. This year’s has grown to 16 teams representing 10 countries.
San Diego Team USA, established in 1977 by Al Alvarado, has won four times and hosted the tournament five times. “I feel almost like a representative not only for my family, but for the United States going to Japan and playing in the international tournament,” said Aaron Ping, a Patrick Henry sophomore shortstop who is half Japanese. Ping hopes baseball will be therapeutic for the people of Japan. “Baseball’s healed nations in the past,” he said. “By us playing we can maybe help, not the entire country, but a few people recover and have a fun time.”
Three players — Andy Rios, Markus Melin and Isaiah Armenta — were members of the 2009 Chula Vista Park View Little League World Series championship team. Rios, a sophomore shortstop and pitcher at St. Augustine, hopes the team can bring a little relief to the Japanese people through baseball. “… Because I know that’s what everyone loves over there,” he said. Otay Ranch sophomore outfielder Melin relished his experience at South Williamsport, Pa., but he’s looking forward to this one. “The Park View thing was the biggest baseball thing I had ever done in my life,” he said. “But this … it’s going to be even better competitive baseball than the Park View experience. It’s probably going to be more fun.” More fun than winning the Little League World Series? “I think this is bigger than that,” he said.