Final stop: Koshien StadiumSusan Hamaker visits the Hanshin Tigers' home field
But we weren't there to watch teenagers play; we were there to watch the first-place Hanshin Tigers take on the Yakult Swallows. Before taking our seats, we walked around Koshien and took in the carnival atmosphere. Vendor stalls and bars lined the streets, giving the scene a Fenway-like feel. We stopped by the baseball shrine located on the grounds of the stadium. An elderly local told us that rubbing the baseball statue in front of the shrine gave the Tigers good luck. Fans, decked out in full Hanshin Tigers regalia, gathered outside the stadium in noisy clusters.
Koshien isn't a domed stadium with modern amenities. There are no air-conditioned seats. There are no fancy graphics on the scoreboard. It's a down-and-dirty stadium with cramped hallways and narrow seats with outdoor smoking sections on the concourse next to concession stands. I loved it. Being there gave me goose bumps. The cheering section, which encompassed the entire right field bleachers, was the largest and most vocal of any stadium I visited.
As I sat in the left field bleachers, I took in the sights and sounds of the crowd that surrounded my group. I wrote in a previous article that Japanese fans don't yell insults. Well, I hadn't witnessed a Hanshin Tigers game yet. The men sitting near us complained about calls and opposing players throughout the game.
It helped that the game was close. Hanshin got on the board quickly, scoring three runs in the bottom of the first. But Yakult chipped away and eventually tied the game. The Tigers had several scoring opportunities with runners on base, but they could not seal the deal. Tension filled the air as thousands of fans held their breath with each pitch and let out loud sighs with each out. With the score still tied at 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Tigers finally won on the most exciting walk-off walk I've ever witnessed.
That brought to an end my tour of Japanese baseball. Bob Bavasi son of Buzzie Bavasi of Brooklyn/LA Dodgers fame runs the tour group through JapanBall.com. It's a great way to see baseball and Japan, even if you have only the slightest interest in either. After a week on this tour, you'll become a fan of both. The folks at YESNetwork.com were generous in allowing me this forum to tell these stories, and I hope you enjoyed reading my accounts of the games. Domo arigato gozaimashita! (Thank you very much!)
Friday, September 12: Posted at 10:32 p.m. EST
The baseball tour group went to far western Japan to the city of Fukuoka and a matchup between the Rakuten Golden Eagles of Sendai and the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. The highlight of this trip wasn't the game itself, but our meeting with Hawks manager and world home run king Sadaharu Oh.
The meeting was arranged by Wayne Graczyk, an ex-patriot who has been a baseball columnist for the Japan Times and a Yomiuri Giants television announcer for more than 30 years. As we waited in the dugout, former Mets and Yankees pitcher C.J. Nitkowski greeted us after shagging fly balls in the outfield. Afterward, Sadaharu Oh joined us and posed with us for a group picture. He was gracious and humble as he thanked us for coming to the game, and he promised that his team would do its best for us. (Alas, their best wasn't quite good enough; the Hawks fell to the Golden Eagles 3-1 despite having many scoring opportunities.) Although the meeting was brief, this American baseball fan was in complete awe.
We were then allowed to watch batting practice, which was more serious and precise than what I've observed in the States. Oh-san stood behind the batting cage and gave tips on mechanics to a few of the players. What an experience it must be for these players to play each day in the presence of baseball greatness. Oh leads the world with 868 career home runs. The atmosphere of the Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome was pretty awe-inspiring as well. This was the first stop on our tour where the national anthem was played. The cheering was a precise as batting practice; the entire crowd was in sync throughout game. Although the official fan club's cheering section is located in center field at every ballpark, every fan knew the songs for each player and the hand movements for each cheer.
The most electrifying moment happened in what could be called the Japanese seventh Inning Stretch. During the sixth inning, vendors sold yellow balloons, and every fan bought them and proceeded to spend the next inning and a half blowing them up. The anticipation mounted, and finally, in the middle of the seventh, after singing a stirring rendition of the official Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks fight song, the fans let go of their balloons, sending them flying straight up into the rafters of the enormous dome. The elongated balloons have some sort of whistle in the back, and when they were released it sounded as if thousands of little rockets were being shot into the sky. It was an aural and visual display worthy of Game 7 of the World Series, not an ordinary game between two teams vying for fourth place in the standings. And it was sensory overload for the uninitiated. It blew away any version of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" that I've ever heard.
How can that be topped? Our last stop on the tour will take us to the hallowed halls of Koshien Stadium in Osaka where the first-place Hanshin Tigers will host the Yakult Swallows. Can Koshien, where Hideki Matusi and Daisuke Matsuzaka became legends during their high school tournaments, be as exciting as the Fukuoka Dome? Tsudzukeru. (To be continued...)
Wednesday, September 10: Posted at 1:05 p.m. EST
The third game of the Japanese baseball tour took us to "the spaceship," the Kyocera Dome in Osaka, and featured the Seibu Lions and the Orix Buffaloes. It may seem confusing that the majority of the teams I've mentioned don't have the names of the cities associated with them. That's because in Japan the teams are named after the companies that own them. Seibu, a train station and department store company, owns the Lions. Orix, a financial company, owns the Buffaloes.
The Orix team used to be called the Orix Blue Wave, Ichiro's former team. The Buffaloes used to be the Kintetsu Buffaloes, owned by the Kintetsu rail line. After financial troubles threatened both teams, the league allowed them to merge, and the Orix Buffaloes were born.
I've been able to pick up a few more tidbits about the Japanese game as it compares and contrasts with our American pastime:
1. There are 12 total teams in Nippon Professional Baseball, six teams in two leagues, the Pacific and the Central.
2. The season is 130 games, as opposed to Major League Baseball's 162-game marathon.
3. One league has the DH (Pacific), the other doesn't (Central)
4. Games here sometimes end in ties. They do go to extra innings, but 12 is the limit. That's because the majority of fans take public transportation to games and the subways don't run 24 hours.
5. Distance between the base paths and from the pitcher's mound to home plate is the same as in MLB.
6. While the Japanese fans intensely root their teams, they are completely organized about it. All cheering seems to be done at designated times. Fans do not boo or yell out insults during a game.
The Kyocera Dome is my new favorite Japanese stadium, even though the small crowd was a disappointment. First of all, the seats, despite being a garish purple, have built-in air conditioning vents. Of course, I must discuss the food. Distinctly Japanese meals such as omusoba, (an omelet wrapped around grilled soba noodles), katsu curry (a pork cutlet in a curry sauce), and oden (a stew with fish cakes and boiled eggs) could be found at concession stands. While the food may be vastly different in Osaka than in, say, New York, I did find one similarity: the exuberant fan. You know, that one guy who stands out, the one who everyone knows and expects to see at each game. He was at the Kyocera Dome during our game, just as he has been for every Buffaloes home game for the last 42 years. He's like the Freddie Sez character at Yankee Stadium, except he beats his chest with his fists (pachi pachi pachi in Japanese) and responds to instructions on the stadium scoreboard.
As for the game itself, the Buffaloes received a great pitching performance from 25-year-old starter Chihiro Kaneko, who went 7 2/3 innings with seven strikeouts in leading them to a 6-2 victory over the Lions. American Tuffy Rhodes went 2-for 4 with a double, a triple and a run scored.
Here's an interesting story behind Rhodes, who is a fixture of Japanese baseball. Japanese teams are limited to four foreign players on their rosters, but because Rhodes has more than 10 years of service in Japan (12) he does not count against the Buffaloes' quota of foreign players.
The next stop on the tour is Fukuoka in western Japan, where the group will meet world home run king Sadaharu Oh before we watch his Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks host the Rakuten Golden Eagles from Sendai. This is sure to be the highlight of the trip, and I look forward to writing about it. Gambarimasu! (I will do my best!)
Monday, September 8: Posted at 11:06 a.m. EST
Game 2 of the Japanese baseball tour took me to Nagoya, 160 miles west of Tokyo, to watch the Chunichi Dragons take on the Yokohama BayStars. What a difference a game makes. The atmosphere of Meiji Jingu Stadium pales in comparison to the Nagoya Dome. The defending champion Chunichi Dragons are my new favorite Japanese baseball team because they have the most enthusiastic crowd and the cutest mascots. Almost every seat in the 40,500-seat house was filled with stick-pounding, flag-waving, chant-yelling fans. All this for a third-place team.
The Dragons won easily 6-1, but the game itself wasn't nearly as interesting as the festivities surrounding it. Before the game began, dozens of cheerleaders danced on the field with the team's three mascots, two dragons one blue, one pink and, strangely enough, a koala named Doara. Of course, it's hard to explain the Philly Phanatic to people who don't know anything about the MLB, so who am I to judge a Japanese team that has a koala as a mascot?
(A quick Google search revealed that the popularity of the koala was solidified after the zoo in Nagoya received the marsupials in 1984.)
Doara, aside from being cute, is also athletic, cartwheeling and tumbling across the field. Fans are so taken with this character that many of them were sporting his ears during the game, myself included. The Yokohama BayStars mascots were in attendance at the Nagoya Dome, but I wasn't as impressed with their outfits (giants stars as heads).
I was more impressed with the fans for both the visiting BayStars and the Dragons. The cheering section for the BayStars was just as exuberant as the home team's. Quiet during Chunichi's at-bats, the Yokohama section came to life when their players stepped to the plate. The trumpets wailed, the flags waved, the chanting swelled. There was a designated cheering section for the Dragons, but the rest of the stadium followed the lead, singing the same songs and clapping their noisemakers. These fans pay attention to the game. During each player's at-bat, a skinny guy lifts a huge flag that has the jersey number and name of that player. Then the fans collectively sing a specific song for him.
Let's talk food now. I went to the "Western food" concession stand and chose the "Ebi burger," which is a burger made of fried shrimp. American-style cheeseburgers and fries were could also be found among the bento boxes and okonomiyaki (a sort of Japanese pizza topped with cabbage and octopus). No beer girls this time, but the shrimp burger made up for that.
The next game will be in Osaka where the Seibu Lions from Saitama visit the Orix Buffaloes. I'm looking forward to seeing American Tuffy Rhodes play. Ogenki de! (Take care!)
Sunday, September 7: Posted at 10:24 a.m. EST
It was an auspicious day for me at Meiji Jingu Stadium in Tokyo on Friday. I caught a foul ball at the first Japanese baseball game of the tour! Well, technically I didn't catch it; I merely retrieved it from the ground after it almost hit a fellow tourist. But for the sake of semantics, I'm telling everyone that I caught a foul ball. And you're all sworn to secrecy.
The contest was between the Yomiuri Giants and the Yakult Swallows, natural rivals from Tokyo, on Yakult's home field. I had read that this stadium is referred to as the Wrigley Field of Japan, but I actually didn't get that feeling. Opened in 1925, it's Japan's second oldest stadium, but the similarities with Wrigley end there. There are no ivy-covered walls or friendly confines. Both the grass and the dirt are made of Astroturf. I found this odd since this isn't a domed stadium. The most stunning feature of the stadium is its amazing new scoreboard. It is simply the most remarkable scoreboard I've ever seen in my life.
The Swallows were blanked by their cross-town rivals 8-0 in what was somewhat of a yawner, save for my brilliant foul-ball pickup. In the grand scheme of Nippon Professional Baseball, the outcome of this game was of significance for only Yomiuri. The Giants are in second place in the Central League, 3.5 games behind the Hanshin Tigers. The Swallows are the loveable losers of the bunch, 4 games under .500 and 13.5 games out of first. The game was, however, a great introduction into Japanese baseball and the dynamics of the league.
The Giants are like the Yankees: history, money, championships, money, best players, money, Matsui, money, haven't won a little in a while, money. The Swallows' mascots shoot T-shirts into the sparse but energetic crowd, and cheerleaders wear little shorts and dance on the field.
Overall, the Japanese game didn't seem that much different from MLB. It's the crowd that makes the game. There were actually more Giants fans than Swallows fans, but both groups gave lively, impassioned performances to cheer on their respective teams. They waved giant flags and played drums and trombones and sang songs and chanted for each player.
Did I say the fans make the game? I meant the food. Fried octopus, bento boxes with rice dishes, fried pot stickers, fried chicken chunks on skewers, fried chicken filet sandwiches, noodles eaten with chopsticks, French fries (called "fried potatoes" here), sweet rolls and anything else that can be fried can be bought at concession stands. After all that fried food is consumed, it must be washed down. Enter the beer girls. The beer girls make the Japanese game. They work harder than anyone else in the stadium, cheerfully serving beer (in the bottom of the 9th inning, no less!) while toting a small keg on their backs.
Heading to Nagoya on the bullet train (shinkansen) where our next game will be between defending Japan Series champions the Chunichi Dragons and the Yokohama BayStars. Mata ne! (See you later!)
Saturday, September 6: Posted at 10:24 a.m. EST
What comes to mind when you think of Japanese baseball? Hideki Matsui? Daisuke Matsuzaka? Ichiro Suzuki? What about the Japanese game itself? Have you ever wondered what America's national pastime is like in another country? I have, and I'm going to find out firsthand how Japanese baseball is similar to and different from the game we love in the States. Join me for one week this month as I tour Japanese baseball with a group of other curious people, going to five games in four different cities. I'll report on these games, as well as the ballparks and the cities, starting tomorrow right here at YESNetwork.com.
The first stop will be Tokyo, Japan's bustling capital, where we'll attend a game between the Yakult Swallows and Hideki Matsui's former team, the Yomiuri Giants, at Meiji Jingu Stadium. The stadium, located near the grounds of a revered Shinto shrine, is considered to be the Wrigley Field of Japanese baseball. I wonder if this match up is the equivalent of a Mets/Yankees rivalry. I'll attempt to answer this and many other questions about Japanese baseball during my trip (such as why do some Japanese baseball games end in ties?). In addition to the games, the fans, and the ballpark food, the most fascinating part of the trip is sure to be our visit with Sadaharu Oh, the manager of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks and the world's home run king (he hit 868).
If you need a break from the MLB, I invite you to indulge in Japanese baseball (Nihon yakyuu) with me. It'll be a learning experience for all of us.
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