A Near-Flawless Record : A Brief Player Profile
If you get a hit once out of every three career at bats, you can end up in the Baseball Hall Of Fame. If you hit 2 for 3, and you’re 14-year-old Kinu Takasugi, your batting average actually goes down. The recently graduated middle schooler ended her final South Pasadena Little League season Monday batting over .800 and went 6 for 6 including her first home run in a Tournament of Champions win over the Los Angeles Bandidas. She has gotten a hit in every game she played this season without a single strike out, besting her last season’s 42 for 66 (.636) with only three strike outs.
The 4’-11”, 90-pound lead-off batter is by far the smallest person to take the field in Juniors, a Little League softball division of girls 14 and under. She routinely plays against girls more than twice her size, but that hasn’t kept her from being starting point guard on her middle school’s basketball team and was one of two girls who played last year on the boy’s flag football team.
Kinu, (pronounced “KEY-new”) widely known by just first name, ala Oprah, Beyonce, and Madonna, started as a Tee-Baller in kindergarten and continued to play through Juniors, completing the last leg of her Little League journey. In Little League, she plays with the girls she’ll be playing with in high school and especially likes it when friends from school come to support the team. There have been a record number of boys this season cheering from behind the centerfield fence, but then again softball is gaining popularity everywhere. Kinu has made almost all of the games but her priority for the last four years has been travel ball.
From August, 2016, til March, she tried out for about 20 teams, three in a day on two occasions. The middle-infielder tried out for teams in most of the national powerhouse programs like Firecrackers, Batbusters, So Cal Athletics, So Cal Choppers, and a lot of smaller but nationally competitive teams. She received emphatic offers to join in all but two, one of which she declined to attend the call-back.
“We’re a few minutes into these try-outs, and lots of parents start whispering about the short Asian-Latina girl (Kinu’s ancestry is actually half Japanese, half Iranian),” said her father, who continues to coach a younger division softball in South Pasadena Little League. “Kinu’s too short to pass the ‘eye-ball’ (size) test but if you blink she’s a first,” he said of his daughter who runs to first base in a quick 2.7 seconds, down from a 3.1 just six months ago.
“We were getting so many instant on-the-field offers that we kept trying out for better and better teams said her ‘fanager,’ her father/manager who believes Kinu’s softball needs strategic planning and coordination. “She improved so much in one year, teams we would never have considered trying out for last year were now below her level of play.” Kinu spent a couple of months with a Firecrackers team, the largest girls softball franchise in the country, and weeks with some of these other teams going to practices and playing scrimmages (“friendlies”). She eventually decided on Ohana Tigers-Natividad.
Ohana Tigers is the name of the organization led by Shawn and Joey Quarles. They have placed armies of girls in colleges throughout the country and Shawn’s daughter, Malia, will be playing for UCLA next year. Jonathan Natividad is the actual coach who runs the team on a day-to-day basis with Craig Lundberg, who just drove his older daughter Kylie home from Oklahoma after the Sooners won their second consecutive Women’s College World Series Championship. The other assistant coach is Danielle “Peanut” Peterson, who played for UCLA from 2005-2009, and was part of the coaching staff following her graduation.
Travel Softball : A Formidable Beast
In the beginning, there was Little League and it was good. It was baseball, and in 1974 girls were officially allowed to play. It was the main show in many towns and folks tracked star players like celebrities, but it was a boy’s world.
Few girls excelled like 2014 Little League World Series pitcher Mo’Ne Davis, who at age 13, became the first girl to pitch a shutout in Little League baseball history. Most girls lost interest or quit lacking competitiveness, and those that continued often reinforced age-old stereotypes of girls’ athletic inferiority. Even boys who rode the bench mocked girls who rode the bench. Sometime later, Little League introduced softball, but many girls continued to play baseball believing an all-girl event was not competitive enough for them.
Softball, which obviously shares a lot of similarities to baseball, is a very different game. It is played on a skinned (grassless) infield, pitching is underhand from a circle, not a raised mound, and the bases are a shorter 60 feet (Major League Baseball is 90 feet). Despite a smaller field, a typical 65 mph softball pitch has the same reaction time as a 95 mph baseball at 60’-6”. There is no leading off of bases in softball, the home-run fence is 200 feet, and the “short game” of bunts and well-positioned infield grounders are just as important as bombs to the outfield.
Travel softball is a whole different creature from what has traditionally been lessons on character, courage, and loyalty – hallmarks of Little League.
There is no mandatory play in travel softball and even in out-of-state tournaments, some players do not touch the field. Some teams show up with 25 players and in close games only the top 9 or 10 girls play. (Softball has the “designated hitter” which they denote the “designated player,” and the non-batting fielder is the “flex”). Complaints of not enough playing time are often met with retaliation and there is a lot of team jumping.
The travel ball teams run the gamut from disgruntled fathers who take girls from Little League so they can coach and their daughters can play coveted positions, to national organizations who own their own indoor batting cage facilities, have 100-girl try-outs, and decades of national championships in all age groups. Some of the teams have coaches with prison tattoos. Other teams collect report cards, offer academic tutoring and organize SAT/ACT workshops.
Travel ball life can be tough. There have been times Kinu “rode the pine” the entire weekend in tournaments hundreds of miles away only to let the tears she’d been holding back pour on the long drive home. There have been some pretty demoralizing times for the young teenager.
Raising a Champ : Passion for the Game
No different from playing the violin, chess, or theatre, practice is the mantra. Several years ago, Kinu’s father bought netting for a 35-foot batting cage. Like an elliptical trainer after a failed New Year’s resolution, it remained wrapped in plastic for months.
It finally got set up in their hillside backyard, cubic yards of hard clay soil were shoveled, and then came three Costco flood lights, then five, and now six. Like chores and homework, batting practice has become routine five times a week. While they use a ball machine purchased years ago, Kinu benefits more from live pitching.
For those who have never watched high-level softball or checked the wanted ads in “Hey Bucket,” lefty slappers are as coveted as seven-footers who can make free throws. Slappers stand in the rear of the batter’s box and step toward the pitcher while the ball is in the air. Since the slappers are already in motion on this running hit, they have an advantage in the dash to first base. Kinu likes hitting real leather balls (the machine uses rubber dimpled balls) and it’s hard for slappers to practice off a machine because their timing is based on the pitcher’s delivery.
For her father, pitching batting practice is the only exercise he gets since Kinu, as a player, has surpassed his ability to coach consistent with her skill level, although he still believes he has a lot of softball to offer her. “Kinu is headed for places in the softball world that shouldn’t allow me to even sit in the bleachers,” mused the manager who took the 2015 Majors All-Star team to a District 18 championship, and is hopeful to do the same this season. And while it seems they spend hours arguing her batting stance, swing, and balls and strikes, they spend a lot more time talking about life, success, and -of course- softball. “You can’t buy that kind of father-daughter quality time,” said the multi-sport athlete, who as a youth spent a lot of time with his own father practicing baseball. “It also shows her ‘coachability,’” he said, knowing how hard it can be for parents to teach their own children anything.
And commitment doesn’t come cheap. Her dedication to practicing is the only reason her parents pay the thousands of dollars a year for her to continue playing. Ohana Tigers dues are $175 a month, her batting lessons are $50 a week and speed and agility training is another $25 a week. She swings a $300 2017 Louisville Slugger composite bat and has two back-up bats almost the same quality. She wore out her Worth fielding glove and now has a new Rawlings Heart of the Hide she’s breaking in to the tune of $240. Unlike her father who wears $15 shoes off the clearance table at Big 5, Kinu has two sets of metal cleats (in different colors) and will probably have a new bat before her current favorite loses its “pop” (the liveliness carbon fiber has over its metal and wood bat counterparts). And the traveling part of “travel ball” isn’t remotely covered by the Super Bowl squares, Yankee candles, and raffle tickets she’s had to sell. In the last couple of years, Kinu’s played in Orlando, Portland, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Salinas and San Diego, and by Nationals this summer, she’ll have touched fields in Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Kansas City, and Colorado Springs.
“Who would have thought there were so many pieces to playing softball that all have a price tag?” said Kinu’s father, who grew up playing sandlot baseball with a bunch of guys, half as many gloves, and ONE ball. Kinu has four buckets of balls, BowNets, electronic gizmos, “and with all we’re already spending, there’s no way with our current finances we’re going to deny her a $100 doo-dad that might make her better,” Kinu’s parents, both in the field of law, agree.
Kinu’s parents have been criticized for pushing her too hard. South Pasadena Little League families have accused the Takasugis of physically working her too long, playing her in too many games, and denying her a normal childhood playing with friends. She’s missed so many parties, movies, sleep-overs, dances, and just hanging out with her friends drinking boba that at times they’ve stopped calling. When the softball insanity was just starting, Little League friends discouraged Kinu from practicing because she was “good enough.”
However, that was years and evolutions ago, and while her parents may have provided the vehicle for her obsession, they certainly did not implant her drive. “Anyone who thinks they can get a 14-year-old girl to do something she doesn’t want to do, doesn’t know teenagers”, her mother, Haydeh Takasugi, said.
“Softball is my passion,” Kinu defiantly announces. And the bottom line is nobody pushes Kinu as hard as Kinu.
Her parents will be the first ones to admit Kinu’s softball has gotten away from all of them. “We can’t stop the insanity and don’t know how to rein it in at this point,” confessed the enabler who, during the rains, used a propane torch to get the batting cage dry enough to practice.
Needless to say, this is not for every family. It’s a full family commitment of time and resources,” said the father who pitches not only to Kinu but other girls in the neighborhood as well. “We know a lot of girls who hit harder and field better who won’t get half as far as she has now. There’s something about the discipline of the lifestyle that allows these kids to do it in a tournament when they’re chasing runs, with two strikes, runners on base,” said with a voice that can’t hide the enthusiasm or intensity for the sport.
On weekends, mom and dad practically live in different time zones, often leaving the house before light and returning after dark. Kinu sleeps in the car almost as much as she does in her bed. The family has a folding wagon to hold food and water, a canopy for the sun, a propane heater for the cold, blankets, folding chairs; and with Dad goes his Nikon equipment. It is infrequent both parents will be at the same game because Kinu’s brother, Matthew, 12, has his own activities and plays baseball and basketball. Scores, plays, at-bats, highlights and other off-colored comments dart back and forth from diamond to gymnasium thanks to unlimited texting.
A Bright Yet Uncertain Future : The Road Ahead for a Budding Athlete
So what is “making it” in the world of girls softball? While the National Pro Fastpitch league is still fledging with only six teams and four-digit salaries, and softball will make its return to the Olympics in 2020 and 2024, the end game for girls like Kinu is college scholarships.
College softball, like most sports outside of football, does not make money. If you’re over six foot, 350 pounds, and can run the 40 yard in the low 4 seconds, scholarships are plentiful. Many of these monster jocks may have low grade point averages and will not graduate. With the passage of Title IX in 1972, colleges cannot discriminate against female inclusion in athletics programs. However, softball girls need to have perfect GPA’s to raise the overall GPA and graduation rates of all scholar-shipped athletes. That’s why football powerhouses in the South have so much softball money. Oklahoma, Florida, and Alabama have each won the NCAA National Championship at least once in the last five years, and about a fourth or fifth of those players come from sunny California where the weather permits year round play.
Thousands of girls like Kinu go clack, clack, clack as their metal cleats contact the concrete in dugouts throughout the country. They all have their bat backpacks and rolling ice chests with a day full of snacks and water. In major out-of-state tournaments, different teams of girls – all wearing their respective uniforms – wait to get on the same airplane at Los Angeles International Airport to play in front of hundreds of coaches from colleges and universities throughout the country.
With her age and size, no recruiter is coming to watch Kinu. She has hit very well against pitchers who were being scouted by Division 1 coaches but because they were not home runs, it is hard to know if they’ve even registered (college coaches have regulations against talking with parents per NCAA rules.)
Kinu attended two college camps in Orange County during the holiday break run by Dartmouth and Harvard, and a third at UCLA mid-January. At $150-200 a camp, it might be a waste of birthday and Christmas money for someone just finishing middle school, but she did get a chance to meet the players and coaching staffs, and hit against top high school pitchers. “She was completely unfazed by the faster pitching,” said her father, who stayed the whole eight hours on two days, and a half day on the third. While she struggles to maintain her 4.0 GPA, she knows there’s no counting on admission without perfect grades, and so much depends on the SAT and ACT, which are years from now.
Kinu’s been around long enough to know the lingo. Getting a “verbal” is when a college coach offers you a position on the team with scholarship money but nothing’s in writing. It’s a promise they can break. A player gets “committed” when she accepts the verbal offer, and she runs the risk of being black-balled if she pulls out of the deal. Nothing is official until the girl gets “signed.” It occurs during senior year, and it’s usually followed by a “signing party.”
At the UCLA camp, Kinu was placed in the top group that included all the “committed” players. “She’s a bit of a show off and a little bit of a ham, but for whatever reason she does very well when being observed at try-outs and college camps,” said her father, who inevitably ends up alone after she runs off to join groups of girls, whether she knows them or not. “I try not to be one of those ‘hovering’ parents, but when she’s with softball girls she doesn’t even acknowledge me.”
So Kinu continues to keep her grades up, she studies vocabulary flashcards to prepare for the SAT, and she practices or plays softball almost every day. “It’s hard to know if she’ll play in college,” her father said while sun-screening his neck at Easton Stadium on the UCLA campus. “She’s everywhere she’s supposed to be for her age, and maybe a little ahead in the skills department,” said her father who watched her playing heads up with older girls who were UCLA “committed.”
Kinu is on an Ohana Tigers team that will be a major contender in this year’s PGF and Triple Crown national championships. She is registered and has a profile on the college recruitment websites, and is in email contact with college coaches. She is playing in “showcases” attended by college scouts, and she’s on the spreadsheets of a couple of them. In her team huddles and high fives with her opponents in major tournaments, she is touching the hands of girls who will be playing in college.
Hope and Determination : The Spirit of a True Contender
Kinu and her father sat on their sofa watching the NCAA Women’s College World Series on television last week. They talked about well executed plays, team strategies, and plate approaches. They watch her teammate’s older sister, who is on ESPN.
“Am I going to be there?” Kinu asked.
There was no response and the game continued.
“I am going to be there,” Kinu whispered. “I am going to be there.”
For now, it’s homework, softball, college prep, and the never ending: “Keep your eye on the ball.”
John Nishimoto’s years of involvement in the South Pasadenan Little League community have engendered some of his fondest memories. He has had the privilege of knowing and coaching Kinu Takasugi since she started playing softball at Orange Grove Park in South Pasadena years ago. After coaching softball at Glendale College in the early 2000s he was very active in South Pasadena Little League for many years and is currently promoting girls youth softball for Crescenta Valley United Softball Association.