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Posted: Wednesday, August 13, 2014 12:30 am | Updated: 8:35 am, Wed Aug 13, 2014.

It was “play ball” in the most interesting of ways for three area families who recently hosted a group of Japanese boys. The 14- to 15-year-olds took part in the St. Louis Pan Pacific and International Games held in Ballwin from July 31 to Aug. 9. Also included were teams from the United States, Europe and Australia.

Two Labadie couples, Laura and Rob Amlong and Mike and Debbie Beardslee, each hosted three boys; and Gary and Heather Jinkerson of Washington provided hearth and home for two youngsters.

When I arrived at the Amlongs to talk with the families, a van pulled up. Out tumbled a pack of kids, Japanese and American, making a beeline for the backyard basketball goal. Then it was inside, the Japanese boys off to the basement and the families upstairs for our interview.

The Jinkersons’ son, Jake, and the Amlongs’ son Jonathan, soon to be freshmen at Washington High School, joined in the conversation around the kitchen table as stories spilled forth about an international experience all said has been more than enjoyable.

Though conversing in English wasn’t always possible for the hosts and their guests, sports became their universal language, Laura Amlong said. Baseball drew them together, as did basketball and whiffle ball, and they were really thrilled to get to play Ping-Pong too, Gary Jinkerson added.

Wonderful Program

The group anticipated tears on Sunday, Aug. 10, when the Japanese players would depart Lambert Field. It was a whirlwind time for all involved in the program, which has been ongoing for a number of years. When the kids weren’t practicing and playing games in Ballwin, they visited the zoo, went bowling, toured Busch stadium, the Arch and got to see the Cardinals play.

They also learned a great deal about one another’s countries and customs. Slippers were the order of the day for the Japanese boys, whose manners were impeccable, the parents agreed. Entering a home, the kids would remove their street shoes at the door and put on slippers they’d brought along with them.

Debbie Beardslee tried to explain that wasn’t necessary, or even a good idea. Leave them there and the dogs will drag them off and eat them, she told the kids.

Jake Jinkerson was amazed at the way the Japanese boys would pray before and after each meal. On the field, the Japanese players would bow to the umpire.

The Japanese took their baseball seriously, warming up 90 minutes before a game, Jonathan Amlong chimed in, adding that they bunt a lot more too, and are very aggressive base runners, Debbie Beardslee said.

Quite the Appetites

When the Americans and Japanese first met, the ride back to the host families’ homes was a bit strained — a cheeseburger at Steak ’n Shake in Washington helped bridge the gap. The Japanese boys could understand “cheeseburger” and gobbled those down, but didn’t really like the chocolate shakes. They quickly learned to verbalize the word “hungry,” the families agreed.

Ramen noodles became the go-to food, Jonathan Amlong said, even for breakfast. When the Japanese kids got to eat sushi at a restaurant in Ballpark Village they were overcome, wolfing down the sushi with raw fish, not the sushi rolls, Jonathan Amlong explained. The experience gave the Americans a chance to beef up on their chopstick skills — but they still need a lot more work with those, Laura Amlong admitted.

To help them converse, the Americans and Japanese relied on Goggle Translate. They’d use it to ask one another questions, most often “kind of dumb ones,” Jonathan Amlong said. Imagine the family’s surprise when one of the Japanese boys asked Jonathan what his dream was for the future. The seriousness of the question caught him off guard.

Jonathan paused, and then said, “To go to Japan.”

That could be a distinct possibility. Who knows what next summer will bring for Jake and Jonathan — perhaps a reunion on the Japanese players’ home turf.

Better keep practicing with those chopsticks, boys.

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