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Youth Academy hosts Japanese team

Youth Academy hosts Japanese team

COMPTON, Calif. -- Urban Youth Academy executive director Darrell Miller said it best when he borrowed a line from the film "Field of Dreams" in describing his baseball facility, which celebrates its second birthday this March. "If you build it, they will come."

On Saturday, that was evident when Miller's academy team took on the All Aichi High School team from Japan in the second of a four-game series. Back on Sept. 1, the Japan national all-star team played a series at the academy. Miller says both series are part of a long-term plan for young players from both countries to learn how international baseball is played.

"We have a really good relationship with the Japanese Federation," said Miller. "We have jointly decided to help develop players in both countries and to help establish this relationship. It's a very healthy relationship, because the Japanese high school players are excellent players and they have set such a high standard of competition I think it helps our players here understand the standard that's out there for 17- and 18-year-olds. Our kids now begin to understand how good the world is becoming."

The Aichi team's coach is an all-star of sorts in his own right. Mitsuo Kurano once had a young high school player named Ichiro Suzuki, who may probably be the only professional ballplayer to have a shot of being in baseball Halls of Fame in both Japan and the United States. Kurano believes Japanese stars like Ichiro and Hideo Nomo helped open the door to the true internationalization of the game.

"We are very proud of what Ichiro and Nomo accomplished in the Major Leagues," said Kurano, through an interpreter. "It made the kids in our country strive to be better. I have been thinking about American kids and Japanese kids playing together for a long time, and it's good for kids from both countries to see that they both love baseball and they both practice hard to be the best they can be."

"A lot of Japanese ballplayers are coming to play in the Major Leagues," said Yoshiharu Kamiya, the head of the Aichi High School Baseball Federation. "I believe it's important for the high school players in our country to see how baseball is played in the United States. Our style of play, which we call Yakyu, is a little bit different. So it is good for them to play with American players here."

When the young Japanese players arrived at the academy on Friday, they were overjoyed to see one of the latest Japanese players who have succeeded at the Major League level in the person of Dodgers All-Star closer Takashi Saito, who arrived in Los Angeles on Monday to take part with teammates Nomar Garciaparra, James Loney and Hong-Chih Kuo in riding on the Dodgers' first float in the Tournament of Roses parade on New Year's Day. Saito has worked out at the academy facility for the past two years. He posed for pictures with the Aichi players on Friday and came back Saturday to continue his workouts and throw out the first pitch of the game.

"This is a great way to communicate through baseball for both the young Japanese and American players," said Saito. "To do it here at this beautiful facility, it will continue to grow and I want to help in whatever it takes to bring even more young kids to have more tournaments like this."

After Saturday's game, the teams will play a doubleheader on Sunday. In August, the Urban Youth Academy team will embark on a 11-day tour of Japan, playing series in various cities.

"We have developed a five- to 10-year plan with the Japanese federation to keep these competitions going," said Miller. "We're going to get better here at the academy and they're going to continue to get better. It's going to be a very healthy thing for everybody."

Ben Platt is a national correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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