FORT MYERS, Fla. – Last month’s Perfect Game National Underclass Showcase-Main Event had a decidedly international feel with players from Australia, Canada and Puerto Rico dotting the rosters of the event’s 34 teams.
And not to be lost in the shuffle, there was also a class of 2016 shortstop and right-handed pitcher in attendance. He was the 6-foot-2, 170-pound prospect seen wearing the No. 38 Red team jersey and a determined look on his face while taking in all the action at the 550-player Main Event, held Dec. 28-30 at the jetBlue Park Player Development Complex.
That would have been 16-year-old Tyler Sapsford, who traveled with his father Jathon Sapsford, mother Yuka Hayoshi and 12-year-old sister Maya Sapsford all the way from their home in Tokyo, Japan, for the opportunity to perform in front of a large contingent of Perfect Game and professional scouts and cross-checkers at the Main Event.
“Perfect Game is probably one of the biggest names in college baseball recruiting services,” Tyler Sapsford told PG on the final day of the event. “If you want to go play college ball you’re going to want to pass through here.
“I’ve seen how I compare and I see how I’m stylistically different than anyone else, and I hope to play that up as much as I can,” he said. “But I see that there are a lot of kids here and I just have to try to be the best player that I can be.”
The experience of performing alongside of and competing head-to-head with 550 other top high school juniors, sophomores and freshmen that filled the six fields and the main stadium at the Boston Red Sox’s jetBlue Complex– along with fields at the Minnesota Twins’ Lee County Sports Complex – over three days could have been intimidating for a young man attending his first PG event.
But the Sapsford family felt it was important Tyler was there and also had a perfect opening for choosing the Main Event.
“Tyler told me that a Perfect Game showcase was something we really needed to be a part of because it’s the premier event of its kind,” Jathon Sapsford said. “We did a little bit of research, and as luck would have it my mother is retired right here in Fort Myers, so we were able to combine this with a Christmas visit. One thing led to another and here we are.”
This wasn’t the family’s first visit to the United States, of course. Jathon Sapsford’s parents were missionaries and he was born in Japan while they were serving there, and he stayed there until he was 9 years old. Jathon then spent several years living in both Japan and the United States and found enough time while he was here to earn a degree from the University of Michigan.
Jathon, now a chief administrative officer at a large investment banking firm in Tokyo, was working as a journalist for the Reuters News Service in Tokyo when he met his wife and Tyler’s mother, Yuka Hayashi, who was also working for Reuters. She is now a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal reporting on the economy, foreign policy and politics out of the Journal’s Tokyo news bureau.
Tyler Sapsford was born in Japan but also spent a number of his early years living in New York City, where his parents’ jobs had taken them. The family settled back in Japan for good when Tyler was in second grade, and he entered the Japanese school system. Shortly thereafter he began playing baseball.
He played for five years in Japan’s competitive Little League system, and then for his middle school team before he’ll move up to his high school team this year (Tyler is a sophomore at American School in Japan, which is in Tokyo).
During his middle school years his coach was Musuni Kuwata, a legendary Japanese pitcher who played 21 seasons in Japanese professional leagues before pitching in 19 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2007 as a 39-year-old rookie.
“It’s rigorous; it’s very hard,” Tyler said of the regimen young Japanese baseball players endure. “It’s sunrise to sunset every weekend and some weekdays. There were times I had quite a bit of frustration but it definitely makes you quite a player.
“That culture, from the non-baseball aspect, with the determination, the hard work you have to put in and the discipline – the discipline is the biggest thing I take out of it,” he continued. “The discipline that comes with that baseball culture is something that I will keep for the rest of my life.”
The entire experience becomes very much a family affair, according to Jathon. He also used the word “rigorous” to describe the Japanese system and spoke of Tyler playing baseball from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. on 50 weekends a year, with just two weekends off.
“It was something the entire family was involved with for years – it was almost a bit too much – but we’ve been pretty committed to this all along,” he said.
Tyler Sapsford performed well enough at the PG National Underclass Showcase-Main Event to be named to the Rawlings Top Prospect Team, and all three areas of his game – pitching, hitting and fielding – received positive appraisals from Perfect Game scouts. The three game reports – strung together here – read in part:
“(Sapsford) has an arm that works, the ball comes out clean and he has tight spin on his curveball; (he) showed a short, compact stroke at the plate and has solid defensive tools. He has smooth actions in the field and solid arm strength; (he) made some nice plays on the infield … (and) displayed good footwork with arm strength and has lateral agility.”
From his perspective, Tyler was pleased with his performance while also admitting he found facing the pitchers here in the States to be more of a challenge than he was used to back home.
“They throw a lot harder here in the States than they do in Japan,” he said. “In Japan, there are a lot of pitchers that have six-plus or seven-plus pitches but they don’t throw 90 (mph) like they would in the States. That’s one of the biggest adjustments you have to make coming over here.”
Sapsford has plenty of time to make those adjustments and he will do that while completing high school in Tokyo. He has a lot going for him as he continues to work on his game within the “rigorous” confines of the Japanese system. He speaks English and Japanese fluently and carries a 3.9 GPA, and is steadfast in his desire to take baseball to its next logical level.
“I want to come back over to the States and play at an academically rigorous institution and play four years of college baseball,” he said emphatically. “I’ve been talking to some schools but I haven’t made any commitments or anything. I have a lot of work to do, but right now I’m just working hard every day to become the best person I can be.”
He said he hopes to return for more Perfect Game events in the coming years, too, and Jathon is firmly in his corner on that front.
“The exposure you get at something like this you just can’t get, for people like us living overseas,” Jathon said. “I don’t want to say it’s one-stop shopping but it’s pretty close. It’s a fantastic way to sort of see where you fit in to the American baseball firmament – what your skill level is, how good you are. It’s very helpful for that reason.
“The idea here is to try to take some of the things that he learned in Japan and give him an opportunity to make a contribution at some point in the U.S. baseball firmament,” he concluded. “We’ll see how it goes but so far the feedback has been pretty good.”