Would You Like Some Baseball With Your Ham?
Armed with a free ticket to go anywhere in the world (well, the world as defined by United Airlines) thanks to a globetrotting brother who travels extensively on business, I decided to make sure that I got close to the maximum mileage out of it. So I packed my suitcase, tossed in my scorebook, and headed for Japan. I was last there in 2003 when I took a lightning trip through the country to see all 12 of Japan's teams in their then 11 different home stadiums. But since 2003, the Japanese leagues have seen one team move from Tokyo to Sapporo, two teams merge, a two-day players strike, and a new team fill out the circuit in the city of Sendai.
So, I decided to go check out the new team and the new stadium and took in three games in a much more relaxed eight-day span. Despite the changes in Japanese baseball, there is one thing that is constant: if you want to go see a long baseball game, go to Japan. While I was there, I took in 11 hours and 38 minutes of baseball that covered just 28 innings.
The first game I took in was at the Sapporo Dome on June 29. In 2004 the downtrodden Nippon Ham Fighters, who always seemed to rank seventh in popularity among the six teams in the Tokyo metropolitan area, moved up to the northern island of Hokkaido and made the Sapporo Dome their home. They changed their uniforms, mascot, and even team name from the Nippon Ham Fighters to the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. Someone must have figured out that a hyphen might keep people from calling the team the Ham Fighters.
The Sapporo Dome uses a twist on the retractable roof idea. The Sapporo Dome uses a retractable field. For baseball, artificial turf is used, but for soccer, a grass field from outside is rolled in through the back of the stadium and then the seats are rotated 90 degrees. You can see the whole process here and scroll down to the link for the QuickTime movie. The Sapporo Dome is one of the few Japanese parks with an organist, although recorded music predominates.
The game experience at the Sapporo Dome is fairly typical of a Japanese game. The Fighters have a loud and organized cheering section like all teams. When you enter the Sapporo Dome, you come in below the seats and the sound from the field doesn't carry down into the concrete vestibule. So when you're waiting in line to buy your food during the game, you can hear the PA announcements and the organist, but no crowd noise.
The game on June 29 was not a thing of beauty. The Fighters, managed by American Trey Hillman, started Australian lefty and former Twin Brad Thomas against the defending Japan Series champion Seibu Lions. Thomas lasted just two innings and threw 71 pitches, but the Fighters won a 4-0 shutout behind some great relief pitching from Naoyuki Tateishi and a 2-run homer from Fernando Seguignol. The game was over in a "brisk" 3:28.
Both teams were scuffling along in the bottom half of Japan's Pacific League as the first place Fukuoka Softbank Hawks (formerly the Daiei Hawks), managed by Sadaharu Oh, and the formerly woebegone Chiba Lotte Marines, managed by Bobby Valentine, were both playing over .600 ball. But you only need to finish third in the Pacific League to make the playoffs. Presently, Seibu, Nippon-Ham, and the newly amalgamated Orix Buffaloes (the merged version of the old Orix Blue Wave and the Kintetsu Buffaloes) are all battling for the final playoff spot in the Pacific League. The second and third place teams play a best-of-three series with the winner facing the first place team in a best-of-five series. The Central League as of now has no playoffs and the Hanshin Tigers have a comfortable lead over the Chunichi Dragons.
After Sapporo, I headed down to Sendai, which is a little under 200 miles north of Tokyo on the Pacific Coast to go see the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles take on the Fighters. The Friday night July 1 game was washed out, so I headed out for the Saturday afternoon game. I arrived over 90 minutes before the first pitch, but was surprised to find the game sold out. I assumed that a game between a last place expansion team that was 21-55 and the fourth place team in the Pacific League would not be a tough ticket. However, the Eagles, who were put together quickly in the offseason, are playing the 2005 season in tiny Miyagi Fullcast Stadium, which seats just under 20,000. After about 20 minutes of wandering around the stadium looking for a scalper, two women offered to sell me their extra ticket in the bleachers and I was in.
The seat, such as it was, was a portion of concrete in the left field stands. But there was a fine view of the field and it was a sunny and warm day in Sendai and not too humid for July. Turned out it would be a nice evening, too.
The game had poked along for six innings in a leisurely 3:08. Every inning seemed to feature runners on base, full counts, pickoff throws, pitching changes, and breaks to go wake up spectators who may have dozed off. Going to the bottom of the ninth, the Fighters led 6-3.
In the ninth, Hillman brought in his closer Yokiya Yokoyama. But he got off to a bad start, walking the leadoff man, DH Takeshi Yamasaki. Yamasaki had notched his 1000th career hit during the game and it was stopped briefly to give him a bouquet of flowers, which he opted not to carry around the bases. After Fumitoshi Takano flied out, pinch hitter Ryutaro Tsuji (but he only uses his given name professionally) singled to right. Then Daisuke Masuda singled to load the bases. Catcher Akihitio Fujii, hitting .212, singled in a run to make it 6-4.
Rakuten manager Yasushi Tao then turned to pinch hitter Koichi Oshima. The slap-hitting infielder was hoping to extend the inning in some way to bring the top of the order back up. But Oshima was able to line a Yokoyama offering down the first base line and into the right field corner for a sayonara triple to clear the bases and give the Eagles an improbable 7-6 win, delighting what was left of a sellout crowd of 19,083. When the game ended, the clock on the scoreboard showed the elapsed time: 4:20. The game featured 13 runs, 26 hits, 8 walks, 3 errors, and 25 men left on base. 13 pitchers combined to throw 337 pitches. And by the time the game ended, the lights were on at Fullcast Stadium and the bright sun had dipped behind some clouds.
A triple in Japanese baseball is a fairly rare play. The leaders in each league have 7 or 8 triples, but no one else is close to them with the second place batters in each league having three. Japanese parks are symmetrical with shallow gaps and corners that don't lend themselves to bad bounces. The shallow gaps allow slow players like Tuffy Rhodes and Benny Agbayani to play center field. The fences tend to be higher than MLB parks all the way around, so there aren't many ground-rule doubles either.
Although the Eagles have taken their lumps in 2005, it appears that the people of Sendai have taken quite a shine to them. The team's logo appears on signs hanging from just about every fixed object in the city of Sendai. Department stores and the stadium shop cannot seem to sell enough of the Eagles gear. The Eagles mascots, Clutch and Clutchina, along with a motorcycle-riding crow called Mr. Carrasco, are a big hit with the crowds. However, the Eagles better be ready for the inevitable drop in attendance that will happen when the people of Sendai realize that they have a bad team on their hands. A new stadium is in the works, or at least is advertised as such from what I could make out, for the 2006 season.
My tour of Japan ended on July 4 at the Tokyo Dome. The Fighters returned to their old home to play a three-game series against the second place Chiba Lotte Marines. Although the Fighters left the Tokyo Dome after the 2003 season, they reserved the right to play a series or two each season in Tokyo as the home team.
The game afforded me the opportunity to see the Fighters' much heralded rookie Yu Darvish, the team's first round draft pick. Darvish, an 18-year-old from Osaka who went to high school in Sendai, had won his first two starts for the Fighters. The Marines countered with their own #1 draft pick, Yasutomo Kubo, a 24-year-old from Japan's industrial leagues.
Both pitchers were sharp for most of the game. Darvish's only blemish came when he surrendered a 492-foot, two-run home run to Chiba's Seung-Yeop Lee in the second inning. The homer netted Lee a one-million yen bonus for hitting an advertising sign with Shigeo Nagashima's face on it, the Japanese version of "Hit Sign, Win Suit" (Lee won about $9000.) Kubo gave up a pair of solo home runs and the game went to extra innings tied 2-2.
In the top of the tenth, Thomas came out of the pen. But he was cursed by bad luck. Chiba second baseman Koichi Hori led off with a popup that Nippon-Ham center fielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo (whose name does not appear on scoreboards written in Japanese characters, but rather as SHINJO) lost in the canvas roof of the Tokyo Dome. The ball dropped and Hori was at second. However, all the infielders had run into the outfield to help and no one was covering third, so Hori just kept on running and took third with what was ruled a double and a fielder's choice. (The choice being to not cover third apparently.) Eight batters later, four runs had scored and Chiba led 6-2.
But the Fighters still had something left. Seguignol led off with a single. Shinjo came up with a chance to redeem himself after a night where he had misplayed the popup and struck out four times (giving me a chance to teach my Japanese friends the phrase "golden sombrero"). Shinjo didn't strike out this time. Instead, he bounced into a 6-3 DP and the Marines went on to win. This 10-inning affair lasted 3:59.
Most of you in the U.S. are probably wondering if there were any future major leaguers that I saw. Well, if I had the slightest bit of scouting acumen, I could tell you something of value. But I really don't. After all, I have a Nori Nakamura bobblehead. One would assume that Darvish, an 18-year-old who is already pitching fairly well, would be the likeliest candidate, but the fate of any pitching prospect is always tricky. Darvish has to hope that he does not run into the burnout problem that many young Japanese pitchers face. He hasn't pitched enough innings to make a judgment about him.
The Fighters' third baseman Michihiro "Guts" Ogasawara had batted .327 with a .411 OBP and a .560 SLG in his first eight years in Japan, but he seems to have lost his stroke a bit in 2005. He has 22 home runs as of July 11, 2005, but he was batting just .248 and his OBP had dropped to .329. His fielding at third base also seemed a bit awkward, although he did break in as a first baseman. Ogasawara's biggest handicap may be that he is 31-years-old and will likely not be a free agent until he's 33. But you have to root for a guy called "Guts."
Bob Timmermann is a librarian who lives in South Pasadena, CA. He is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and has given presentations at SABR annual conventions on Japanese baseball and the life of the only major leaguer born in China, Harry Kingman.