Onward march, Raiders!??Malaysia
New Strait Times, By Intan Maizura Ahmad Kamal - April 29, 2017

League champions, Team Raiders, with coach David Hirofumi Sakamoto in white. Pictures by Aswadi Alias, Intan Maizura Ahmad Kamal and Mohd Khairul HelmyrnRaiders star pitcher, Kotarorn
rnJUST softly now. No need to shout it out, the gentle but firm command is issued by Raiders inspirational team captain, Winson Low, as team members stack their hands on top of each other in a show of solidarityRaiders! The cheer that accompanies the eager pumping of hands is soft but the sense of pride and jubilance is palpable. Its only as they break apart that the boisterous clapping and back-slapping follows to mark a job well done yet againTeam picture, everyone! I holler above the celebratory din, smiling indulgently at the players as they excitedly attempt to form a huddle.Pint-sized powerhouse Sara Subra, the teams catcher, makes an excited beeline for the centre, followed by the rest of his buoyant teammates.This is the team, led by Japanese coach David Hirofumi Sakamoto, whose progress Ive been following for more than a year (and for whom my tai-tai Sundays have been sacrificed) for hours under the blazing hot sun crouching awkwardly on some hardened padang (field) armed with my trusty Nikon, all the while being at the mercy of some loose ball careening towards my faceTeam Raiders, set up sometime in 2012, and comprising former national players, working professionals and students, truly epitomises a Malaysian team, with all races, including a Korean and Japanese, in the melangeThe team has an enviable track record behind them. And todays convincing victory over Korean team, Dragons, adds another feather to their (baseball) capThis modest league, explains Sakamoto, during a moment of respite under the welcoming canopy of some dappled trees, is a continuation of the previous local league and is open to everyoneIn its second year now, the number of teams involved remain small, comprising his own team, Raiders, Selayang Stars helmed by another baseball and softball stalwart, Mohamad Rosli Abu Bakar, and two Korean juggernauts, Team Dragons and 9Innings.In the first year, the League was organised by the Koreans, 9Innings, and only three three teams were involved, begins Sakamoto, wiping the beads of sweat forming on his foreheadThis time, Selayang Stars came onboard. The players are involved for 12 weeks, the duration of the league, with each team playing six games each, every alternate week. The team with the best results is the championFor the second year, Sakamoto took over the reins as the field that theyre using for the games at SMK Menjalara in Kuala Lumpur is also where this industrious coach trains Form 1 to Form 5 children in the skills of the games. So its a contra of sorts.An audible sigh escapes his mouth when I ask Sakamoto (who has made Malaysia home for many years) just why the number of participating teams is so lean. Its a challenge hes been plagued with for years - of raising awareness for the game of baseball in the country and getting everyone together so that the game can flourishI guess we didnt really do much advertising about the league to begin with, he replies, a tone of resignation in his voice We did invite Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) but their response was long in coming and we couldnt wait. Of course, if we had more teams participating, itd be betterIt doesnt help that there arent many active baseball teams in the Klang Valley for him to pool from either.Despite the challenges, the League went ahead because as the coach puts it, the main thing is that continuous opportunity is provided, especially for local players, to play the game, competitively or otherwiseBrows furrowing, he adds: No matter how hard we train, if theres no game, itll be harder to sustain players interest. Something like this is a useful contribution towards the baseball agenda as a wholeLack of game opportunities for players serious about the game has always been a monumental headache, confides Sakamoto. Theres the tendency to flit over to softball, a variant of baseball but played with a larger ball and on a smaller field. The former is more widely played here compared to baseball and is a staple in some schools around the countryMost of the local teams are softball teams and whenever they have softball tournaments, that becomes their priorityPlayers will play baseball when they get the opportunity. But when theres not enough, they jump to softballPerhaps if there were more games, theyd stick to one game, says Sakamoto, poking a small stick hes holding in his hand into the ground frustratedlyHopefully, in the future, well be able to have genuine baseball players in the team and not just makeshift players whove jumped over from softball. If we can groom serious players, then well be able to have a better chance at putting together a strong national team so that we can play in more international tournamentsHes keen for the awareness to be raised on the existence of this League so that when and if it goes into its third year, therell be more local teams involved. Itd be great if we could create league tiers like you get in football, for example. But for that to happen, we need more teamsIMPORTANCE OF FOLLOW-THROUGHSrnAs my gaze travel to the already emptying field and rest on the players who are now busy going through their cooling down drills, a memory of one special night suddenly floats into my mindIt was sometime late last year and I, together with Raiders Low, himself a former national player, was involved in a late night send off at UPMs Sports Centre, Serdang, of our newly-formed national team, under its new Japanese coach and former Indonesia national team coach, Katsumi Harada.The youngsters, all of whom hailed from softball backgrounds, were excited but nervous at the prospect of carrying the countrys aspirations for sporting success on their inexperienced shoulders. The Cambodia Baseball International Invitation 2016 was to be their baptism of fire. The results from their outing were not swift in coming, relegated only to the Baseball Federation of Malaysias (BFM) Facebook page and pretty much contained within the fraternity. As such, the country remaineThere have been baseball and coaching clinics organised since then, activities enthusiastically pursued and promoted by UPM, and our countrys Under 12 baseball team made history by making their first appearance in an international tournament recently. In fact, a new president was also elected early this year to preside over BFMBut dissemination of info remains tardy, at best contained within the pages of Facebook. Have there been any follow-throughs or developments since then?rnTurning to coach Sakamoto, I share my thoughts with him. He frowns before replying: Ive been in this game for a long time and Ive yet to see any real concerted effort and progress. That trip to Cambodia is good but whats happened since then? Any follow ups?rnLooking forlorn, he adds: Theres a lack of youth development here. The current players I have in Raiders, some of them have been with me for more than 10 years. And of course, theyre older now. The youth need to be groomed now. Youth development is key to succeeding in the higher levelAs the last of the drills is completed and his players start to troop over, Sakamoto concludes: I hope the national body will invest more time and money in developing the youth. The important thing is continuous effort so quality can be improved. How? By organising leagues consistently and by giving opportunities to locals and foreigners to play more. You may not have a good national team next year or the next, but maybe down the line.? If the Indonesians and Thais, and Singaporeans can do it, why not us?rnWith Tokyo Olympics 2020 just around the corner and baseball making the list of sports to be contested, perhaps we need to get our skates ond in the dark about developments in the sportrn