By John Sammon
Every time Jeff Enkoji tells his players he’s thinking of quitting as coach of the Florin Baseball Team in Sacramento because he’s been around for so long, the players loudly protest and force him to stay.
“I’ve stuck with it, I joke around and say I might quit, and the players they say ‘no you can’t, no way! You’ve got to just stay for one more season,’” Enkoji said.
The players know Enkoji has become an iconic symbol of Japanese American baseball in California.
At 55 he has been with the team for 37 years. The magic number “40” his teammates are determined he will achieve.
Another milestone will be reached when the AA Nisei Baseball Tournament League of which the Florin team is a member stages its 65th annual state tournament to be held over the Labor Day weekend, Saturday, Sunday and Monday Sept. 2, 3 and 4 at the Laguna Creek High School, 9050 Vicino Dr. in Elk Grove near Sacramento.
Japanese American baseball like the Japanese American communities in San Jose, San Francisco and Los Angeles has left a rich cultural heritage in California and has survived times good and bad. The sport was played in the camps where Japanese Americans were illegally imprisoned by the U.S. Government during World War II.
“It’s been a very important part of sports in California,” Enkoji said.
In the early part of the 20th century Japanese American baseball teams originally formed partly because of racism—-Caucasian players would not allow Japanese Americans to participate in the Anglo leagues. However the players were determined not to miss out on their love of the sport and formed their own leagues.
Four generations of Japanese American baseball players helped to break down racial and cultural barriers in California by playing baseball. That tradition continues today.
Enkoji’s father John as a five-year-old was imprisoned with family members at the Tule Lake Camp in a remote part of Northeastern California during World Wat II. As an adult he worked at a grocery store in the Sacramento area and married his wife Midori, who had been born in Japan (her family came from the Wakayama area of Japan near Osaka Bay on the coast south of Tokyo).
The couple had two children including Enkoji’s older sister Tina.
Enkoji said his father had a love of baseball and played the game himself, introducing him to the sport when he was just a small boy.
“My dad had played baseball for Placer High School (Auburn, Calif.) as an outfielder and got me started and I played in Little League baseball,” Enkoji recalled. “I grew up in South Sacramento and played high school baseball for the McClatchy Lions. I eventually went to Consumnes River College (Sacramento) where I studied business administration and took a job with the Holsum Produce Co. I worked in warehouse and delivery.”
For a while he quit baseball. Then a friend of his father told him about Florin (Japanese American League) baseball and asked John Enkoji if his son would like to become involved. Jeff Enkoji was 18 at the time.
“They had an opening and so I joined the Florin Athletic Club,” Enkoji said. “This was in 1981. I played as a pitcher and an outfielder.”
Class AA baseball is defined as the second highest level of play behind Minor League baseball in the United States after Triple-A ball. The players on the Japanese American teams are amateurs and the game is open to just about anyone who is good enough regardless of age.
“We have players aged 14 to 50,” Enkoji said. “Our oldest player is in his 50’s and we have 20 players on our roster.”
Four teams comprise the Northern California Japanese American league, in Fresno, Lodi, Florin and San Francisco. League play starts in June and lasts until the last week in August. A total of 18 games are played including double-headers on weekends.
Each team plays the others six times. At the end of the season the team with the best over-all record is the winner and a Labor Day weekend playoff is held between eight of the best teams from both Northern and Southern California.
Average attendance is 300 people. Ease of parking and the chance to watch first-rate baseball in a relaxed setting is an attraction. Admission to the games is free to the public.
Longtime Florin Coach Jim Tsukumoto himself a legend in Japanese American baseball passed away in 2006. Enkoji stepped up to replace him as both a coach and player.
To play in the Japanese American leagues you only have to be partly of Asian extraction.
“We have players who are one-quarter Asian, one-half or full,” Enkoji said. “You don’t have to be of Japanese heritage we have some players who are partly Chinese.”
Enkoji has cut back his playing and now mostly coaches but during his heyday he was noted for throwing a good fastball and curve as well as a famous lob-pitch changeup that often threw batters off balance.
There are no bench-sitters in Japanese American League play. All the players get to play and although the competition is keen, the comradery between the players is strong.
“Everyone gets along real well and these people become like family,” Enkoji said. “You get real close to each other.”
Home turf for the Florin team is the John F. Kennedy High School in Sacramento. The Fresno Sansei team is based at the Buchanan High School in Clovis and the Lodi JACL team at Tony Zupo Field in Lodi.
Park fees and other expenses are raised by the Florin team at an annual fund-raising spaghetti dinner. However the players cover some of the expenses out-of-pocket for bats, helmets, shoes and other equipment.
Above the pleasure and excitement of the game, Enkoji said it is the lifetime friendships that develop between the players that he values the most. One such is with Mike Furutani, sports anchor/reporter for television KSBW Action News 8 in Monterey County. Furutani plays for the Fresno Sansei.
“These guys (players) become like your own kids,” Enkoji said.
For more information the Northern California Japanese American Baseball League has a Facebook page at www.facebook.com/NCJABL/