Tom Ashizawa (1949 - 2006)
Feb 4, 2006
This week, the baseball association where I have been a coach for the past fifteen years suffered the kind of loss that makes any defeat on a baseball diamond inconsequential. Tom Ashizawa, a longtime coach and volunteer, passed away after a lengthy illness at the age of 56.
I coached opposite him for a number of years - I won't say "against" him, because the games between our teams were never that adversarial. I had the privilege of meeting him twice in championship games (and slightly less auspicious privilege of losing both times).
Tom was a coach who believed in playing the game "the right way". In the majors, this generally refers to unwritten rules about not bunting to break up a no-hitter, and retaliating when one of your guys gets plunked. In youth baseball, it's a little more simple. It's the type of coaching that keeps the kids interested and the game fun; the idea that leaving with the biggest smile is more important than leaving with the biggest trophy.
That's not to suggest that Tom didn't strive to win and instill that desire into his players. A former pitcher himself, Tom taught the finer points of that art to players at several different rep levels.
Overall he held just about every position imaginable: house league coach, rep coach, division convener, league vice president. On any given day, you might find him coaching a team, groundskeeping, or running the snack bar. He was one of those cornerstone volunteers, without whom local sports programs and leagues would cease to exist. One of those guys that you look at some weeks and wonder if they live at the ballpark.
Baseball was a family affair for Tom. His wife is another of those amazing volunteers without whom we'd be lost, and his youngest son - a fine left-handed pitcher and catcher - has his father's zest for sharing his knowledge with youngsters, and is one of the most composed and capable 15-year old umpires you'll ever find.
Tom's passion was working with younger children, at the T-Ball and Rookieball level, where pitchers are replaced by pitching machines, and players get their first taste of hitting a moving target.
Tom coordinated the T-Ball and Rookieball programs for years. "Coordinated" is volunteer code for doing just about everything, whether picking up uniforms, shuttling equipment, setting up the field, coaching the kids or tirelessly feeding the pitching machine and moulding young batters.
He did his utmost to make sure that a child's first foray into organised sports was a positive, rewarding one. An experience worth having again. To many of these kids, he became "Uncle Tom". He was the heart and soul of the program for seven years, and the main reason that it thrives today.
Tom was responsive to his young customers. The league Introduced Blast Ball a few years ago - a T-Ball variant for young children that uses a single honking base and a tee. The batter hits the ball and runs to the base. The fielders try to retrieve the ball and yell "Blast" before the batter steps on the base. The honking base was fairly popular, but a pair of 4-year olds who arrived bursting to play were disconsolate about the lack of second third and home, and left the park in tears because they didn't get to play "real baseball". The following week, Tom made sure that there were three bases - all of them honking, naturally.
At Closing Ceremonies or the year end Rookieball picnic, you could always count on Tom to fulfill his executive duties, whether handing out awards, or making a short speech; generally ensuring that the season came to an orderly close. Not long after, you could count on him to be skulking around the park with a Super Soaker, ready to drench unsuspecting players or fellow coaches. He opened his family cottage regularly to host year end parties for his rep teams and their families. Once again, he's pack his Super Soaker, and an inevitable water fight would ensue.
Tom's efforts on a baseball field and as a scout master, affected hundreds, if not thousands of children. While they may have lost their Uncle Tom, they will retain the love and appreciation of sport, fair play, camaraderie and above all. fun, that he helped to instill in them.
There aren't nearly enough people like Tom Ashizawa in the world. But thanks to him, there are more on the way. Already, some of Tom's players are active coaches, and many more continue to work their way up the baseball and scouting ranks. Because so many of these kids have been given a great experience, many will want to pass that on to others. That 5-year old who was picking daisies in right field a few seasons ago will one day be coaching their own team, or trying to track down bases that honk. Tom's efforts will be felt for generations, a fitting legacy for a man who believed that if you helped one child, you've helped to make the world a better place.
Starting this season, the Tom Ashizawa Rookieball Award will be presented to a graduating 8-year old who best exemplifies sportsmanship, a positive attitude and a love of the game. Along with a plaque, the recipient will also receive a Super Soaker.
York RiverDogs, winners of the 2014 Tom Ashizawa "Little" Big 8 Mosquito Select Tournament