When Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout faced off in the final at-bat of the World Baseball Classic on March 21, it marked another high point in the 150-year history of baseball between the United States and Japan.

Ohtani, the peerless, dual-threat Japanese player who has revolutionized the game, clinched the championship for his country by striking out Trout, an American baseball icon, three-time Major League Baseball MVP and 10-time All-Star.

“I believe this is the best moment in my life,” Ohtani told ESPN afterward.

“For me, that moment of Trout versus Ohtani and U.S. versus Japan in the WBC finals symbolizes how important baseball is as a vehicle that connects the two societies and how important baseball is to the two countries,” said Hiroshi Kitamura, a native of Japan and associate professor of history at William & Mary.

It was also a big moment for Kitamura, Director of Public Policy Paul Manna and Academic Director of the W&M-St Andrews Joint Degree Programme and Government Professor Marcus Holmes, who are leading a research project on U.S.-Japan baseball diplomacy.

The research group, which also includes 35 undergraduate students, was awarded a grant from the United States Department of State through the U.S. Embassy in Japan to commemorate the 150th year of U.S.-Japan baseball diplomacy. Through scholarship and a series of events planned through January 2025, the team from William & Mary aspires to bring attention to the U.S.-Japan baseball connection and its impact on the countries’ relations off the diamond.

“I think the WBC really elevated and reinforced our excitement about this project, especially because we’ve always thought there was so much to the baseball relationship between the U.S. and Japan,” Kitamura said.

“And for me personally, I’ve always been excited about it. Growing up in Japan in the 1980s, when the Major League All-Star team came to play the Japanese All-Stars, it was always an exciting event, and I think from then on you saw top-notch Japanese players come to the U.S., like Hideo Nomo, Ichiro, Hideki Matsui and now Ohtani.”

The project combines academic elements with public activities. An on-campus symposium is planned for October, featuring a special keynote speaker representing Major League Baseball. There is an interactive online trivia game in the works, and a youth team exchange is targeted for the summer of 2024, where a squad of 10 to 12-year olds from Virginia would travel to Japan to play exhibition games.

Manna remarked at the project’s multitude of student scholarship opportunities. “Consistent with William & Mary’s mission of the high touch student experiences, this one is hitting all of those buttons in a lot of great ways,” he said.

Ari Pearlstein ’26, a government and American studies major who is working on the academic research team as well as the trivia team, said, “Baseball is a critical bond that these countries share. I think this project allows us to bring this point to light, so hopefully both young baseball fans and policymakers alike can appreciate the rich relationship that the U.S. and Japan have cultivated through baseball.”

Bilateral bond through baseball

Kitamura said the goal of the project is to open up new avenues for audiences to think of baseball in global terms. The WBC showed how baseball can bring cultures together. For example, the Czech Republic team was comprised of firefighters, teachers and office workers, while Japan and the U.S. were both made up of some of the top professional players in the world.

“I feel that there is an expansive global dimension that many American consumers may not see that the World Baseball Classic may have opened up a little bit for those audiences,” Kitamura said. “Our aim is in part to highlight a bilateral bond through baseball, but there’s something bigger and more global that baseball is operating to connect.”

Holmes said the WBC championship game was indicative of the special relationship between the United States and Japan.

“It felt different than the World Series; it felt different than the NBA playoffs. It was clearly so much more than that,” said Holmes, who will assume duties as chair of the government department this summer. “We didn’t know that this was going to happen, so it crystallized almost in a way the entire project in one night, showing us exactly what this is about and why it’s important.” 

Diplomacy through sports has been a topic Holmes has focused on for years. In his introduction to international politics course, he spends a unit on examining the history of sport and its impact on international relations.

“A number of scholars make the argument that sports have a big effect on state relations,” Holmes said. “You think of ping-pong diplomacy or cricket diplomacy, all these different examples. The Olympics, of course, was partly premised on this idea that when you bring people together, you get better relations.

“Then you have skeptics who argue that if anything this is just on the margins, it’s meaningless. Or maybe actually this has nothing to do with improving relations, but rather these exchanges imply that relations have already gotten better.”

The intersection of baseball, politics and international relations is nothing new to this team of researchers. Manna, who played the game growing up and now closely follows his son’s teams, helped design a presidential baseball trivia game a few years back.

The sport has grown so much on an international scale. Manna, the Isabelle and Jerome E. Hyman Distinguished University Professor, remarked about a moment during the 2022 playoffs where the San Diego Padres had players on the field representing five different countries. In addition to the American players, there was shortstop Ha-Seong Kim (South Korea), pitcher Yu Darvish (Japan) and outfielders Juan Soto (Dominican Republic) and Jurickson Profar (Curacao).

“It’s a metaphor for the cultural exchange and the impacts of it,” Manna said.

‘The engine of the whole thing’

Students have been involved in all the elements of the project from the very beginning. A student designed a project logo. Students are working on building the website and developing a social media strategy.

“They’re the engine of the whole thing, really,” Holmes said.

“Students are helping to develop all the content,” Manna added. “Students are going to be some of the translators. There’s going to be a team of students doing academic research on these topics, and we are thinking at the symposium there would be something like a poster session where they present their research.”

The goal is to publish the students’ scholarship in a journal, book or website.

“Professors Holmes, Kitamura and Manna have fostered an immensely open and creative environment where as students we get to create something physical and real whether it is a website, online game or published paper,” said Olivia Schlamp ’26, an international relations major with the W&M-St Andrews Joint Degree Programme and a member of the project’s website-database team and social media team.

“It’s been amazing to use my academic skills to work on something that I know will outlast my time at William & Mary and be here long after I have graduated.”

While some of the student researchers aren’t baseball fans, Holmes said they are motivated to show empirically the impact baseball has had on U.S.-Japan relations.

“One student wants to create a data set of exchanges, the players that go back and forth between the countries, and see whether the intensity of exchanges is correlated in any way with what is going on in the policy world,” Holmes said. “It’s a fantastic idea.”

Manna said the database team is tasked with building a comprehensive data set of Japanese and American players who played in the other countries to determine how attitudes and tolerances shifted when international players were in those other communities. How did countries embrace those other cultures?

The W&M researchers hope a team exchange between the U.S. and Japan could open the eyes of the youth players to different cultural norms.

“We are trying to potentially set up a home stay, and we are going to plan some activities for American kids to go to a Japanese professional baseball game and engage in cross-cultural activities,” Kitamura said. “We hope to make the trip a memorable one for the kids.”

, Communications Specialist