The Adventures of a Gaijin Fan: Three Games in Japan

QVC Marine Field celebrating the Lucky 7. (via Daniel Brim)

QVC Marine Field celebrating the Lucky 7. (via Daniel Brim)

I’ve been watching Japanese baseball regularly since 2014. My sister, despite not being a huge baseball fan herself, turned me onto the concept. She moved to the Tohoku region to teach English for the JET program in 2013. That Christmas she gave me some merchandise from her local Nippon Professional Baseball Organization (NPB) team, the Rakuten Eagles. The best piece was a Blu-ray with highlights from the Eagles’ run to the Nippon Series title earlier that year.

During the same trip home for Christmas, I was beginning to prepare my first article for Dodgers Digest, outlining the statistical case for why the Dodgers should sign Masahiro Tanaka, who was the cornerstone of the Eagles’ title run before he was posted. While I was taking breaks from crunching the numbers, I’d put on the video and watch highlights.

(A quick detour into proud older brother mode: my sister’s place of residency in the Tohoku region is Minamisoma. This sleepy town on the coast of northern Japan was devastated by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and the subsequent tsunami. My sister arrived two years later. Minamisoma is the closest town to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that has been deemed safe to live in (about 1/3 remains off limits more than five years later). The courage and selflessness that is required to live and teach there is an inspiration.)

A few weeks later, the Dodgers lost the bidding for Tanaka, but the seed was planted. The idea of a new (to me) kind of baseball half a world away was alluring. When the 2014 NPB season began, I “adopted” the Eagles as my team of choice. They were my sister’s home team, and their highlights from the previous season were why I was watching. Fandom doesn’t need better logic than that. Besides, how much logic do people use to pick which European soccer team to root for? The Eagles also pioneered the practice of broadcasting home games in English, and Pacific League TV started taking US credit cards. It was a great time to be a fan.

The Eagles were fascinating as a Dodgers fan. Andruw Jones, so reviled in Los Angeles due to his disastrous 2008 season, was the Eagles’ cleanup hitter and designated hitter. He completely transformed his swing, helped lead the Eagles to their title behind a .243/.391/.454 batting line, and was back for a victory lap. Takashi Saito, who signed with the Dodgers at age 36 and owns MLB’s fifth-best post-integration adjusted ERA among pitchers with at least 300 innings pitched, returned to pitch his final innings with his hometown team. There were other storylines, such as the Eagles’ draft pick of the extremely unconventional Yuki Matsui (a 5’8″ starter-turned-closer who posted a sub-1 ERA in 2015, and was briefly profiled at FanGraphs). Takahiro Norimoto was drafted out of college in 2012 and is now one of NPB’s best starting pitchers. Kevin Youkilis played for the Eagles for a couple months in 2014. Finally, there was the steady presence of Motohiro Shima behind the plate. If you watched highlight videos of Tanaka while he was still in Japan, it was likely Shima’s face staring back at your screen.

Even though I still root for the Eagles, I’ve branched out as a fan. Last year brought a chance to follow Shogo Akiyama, the Seibu Lions’ leadoff man, as he chased and set the NPB single-season hit record (once owned by Ichiro Suzuki, then former Red Sox/Cubs outfielder Matt Murton). Luis Cruz, who I followed as a Dodger fan, was fascinating to watch in the infield for the Marines. Even though it came at the expense of the Eagles, watching the Hawks steamroll through NPB on the way to their second-straight Nippon Series championship was extremely exciting. Dae-ho Lee, the MVP of the 2015 Nippon Series, is now hitting homers for the Mariners. Nobuhiro Matsuda, the Hawks’ third baseman and one of their other top sluggers, attempted to join Lee in MLB but couldn’t find a job. And, of course, there is the two-way player and phenom Shohei Otani. Who wouldn’t want to watch him? My Eagles were bad, but it didn’t really matter because I was discovering a whole new world of baseball and was a richer fan for it.

This brings us to the start of 2016. My sister, who inadvertently got me hooked on Japanese baseball, is moving back to the US in August. I’ve always wanted to go to Japan, even before NPB got its hooks in me, and my sister was an excellent travel partner. The stage was set for a nine-day trip in mid-April: before it was too hot in Kyoto but after it had started to warm up in the north.

This isn’t an article on “my introduction to Japanese baseball.” I was already hooked. Instead, this is a summary of my experiences at three baseball games. If all goes well, people who aren’t familiar with NPB can learn something, while people who are can be amused by my naiveté.

Eagles vs. Buffaloes, April 20

Kobo Stadium in Sendai. (via Daniel Brim)

Kobo Stadium in Sendai. (via Daniel Brim)

The first game of the trip was at Kobo Stadium in Sendai, the home of my Eagles. At that point they were off to a surprisingly decent start and were facing the Buffaloes, dwellers of the Pacific League’s basement.

Kobo Stadium felt most like a baseball park in the US. From the large Eagles-decorated entryway, to the traffic carefully planned to funnel fans into buying merchandise, the experience is built around the sport and fandom in a way that the other two stadiums were not. Since Kobo Stadium opened in 1950 and didn’t host an NPB team until 1973, one can surmise that the myriad renovations that the stadium has undergone over the past few years (some planned, some very unfortunately forced upon it by nature) have improved the experience.

Other than our seats up the third base line, which were angled towards center like the grandstands in Fenway Park, the in-stadium experience was excellent. Kobo Stadium is one of the most picturesque venues in NPB. After seeing it in pixels for so long, watching the sun set hazily over actual baseball was a treat. The Eagles’ fans were great, too. The die-hards (some of whom were still in suits from the day’s work) spilled far away from their main cheering section. Much of the stadium was involved in the player cheers, which my sister and I participated in to our best abilities. Our neighbors were hanging on the result of every pitch. It was a cold night for baseball, with temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, but that didn’t stop more than 20,000 fans from nearly filling the outdoor park.

The fans were very tolerant of my incompetence, too. NPB games have a ritual called the Lucky 7, which takes the place of the seventh-inning stretch. During the breaks in the seventh (top of the inning for away fans, middle for home fans), spectators at most stadiums will blow up balloons in advance of the team’s official song. The balloons are waved in time with the music and the fans sing along. At the end of the interlude, the balloons are released, fly around for a few seconds, then fall back to earth. The image at the top of the piece shows what this looks like in action.

Baseball as a Business, a Historical Perspective
The more things changes, the more they stay the same.

On TV, it’s a fun spectacle. What I didn’t realize while watching from afar is that what goes up must come down. I panicked as a (probably) spit-laden balloon descended into my face at the end of the Eagles’ Lucky 7. I swatted at it to keep it away, but instead of going straight down as I intended, it went backwards into the people sitting behind me. An unintentional but extremely rude gesture on my part could have led to justified anger, but instead the victims of my panic cracked up laughing and smiled as my sister translated my embarrassed apologies. It’s a moment I won’t forget, but hope the people I accidentally assaulted with a balloon will.

The game was extremely exciting. The Eagles fell to a 3-0 deficit in the fifth inning behind some rocky pitching from veteran Manabu Mima (who won the 2013 Nippon Series MVP after pitching six innings of shutout ball in Game 7), but the Eagles stormed back with a Shima sixth-inning home run:

After the offensive outbursts, the teams traded zeroes for the next couple of hours as the game continued into extra innings. My favorite Eagles pitcher, Yuki Matsui, was responsible for one of those scoreless frames (his offspeed command wasn’t great but he struck out two). The game reached the twelfth inning, which introduced a tension that I’ve never felt at a baseball game before. Because NPB games end in a tie if the game is still locked up after twelve, and because spending four and a half hours watching a tie would have been a bummer, the desire for the Eagles to score was extreme.

Kazuo Matsui (yes, he is still playing) led off the inning with a single and was sacrificed to second. A walk and a strikeout left Motohiro Shima, my favorite Eagle position player and the man who tied the game earlier, as the only thing between the stadium and a tie. He worked the count to 3-0 and got the green light, but his swing resulted in a pop fly that narrowly escaped into the stands behind first base. The 3-1 pitch was targeted low in the zone, but it missed middle-in and Shima drove it to left field. Yuya Oda, who was inserted on defense in the prior inning, was playing shallow to keep the lead runner from scoring in case of a single. The ball was over his head but hung up long enough to give the appearance of a chance of being caught. I shouted “drop! drop!” to a crowd who didn’t understand my words but understood the emotions. The play looked closer in person than it actually was, and the ball hit the left field wall on the fly. We released our prematurely inflated victory balloons. They were the wrong color. It didn’t matter. We went home happy. What a treat for my first NPB game.

Giants vs Baystars, April 23

The Tokyo Dome. (via Daniel Brim)

The Tokyo Dome. (via Daniel Brim)

The experience we had at the Tokyo Dome couldn’t have been more different than the one we had in Sendai a few days earlier. Before entering the stadium, things were great. The Giants’ easy English ticket purchasing portal made life incredibly simple before we showed up. Even better, the NPB Hall of Fame is located in the Tokyo Dome’s basement. It isn’t as big as the MLB equivalent, but reading the plaques and seeing the memorabilia was a fun history lesson. The first plaque I saw after walking in the door was Hideo Nomo, whose delivery I tried to mimic as a Little Leaguer in the Los Angeles suburbs. It didn’t work. A 700 yen trip down memory lane and history lesson is highly recommended.

Unfortunately, despite the positives before the game, the in-game experience was poor. The Tokyo Dome, perhaps as a consequence of its home team and its location, felt corporate. Antiseptic. After such a fun time in the stands earlier in the week and a few years of watching Pacific League broadcasts online, this was unexpected. It’s very out of character for the league. It didn’t help that we were sitting in a major foot path, inside a high traffic area and not raised above it. When it was clear the Giants would lose in the late innings and fans started to depart, I was only able to see about half of the pitches, the others blocked by the heads of passing traffic. These disappointing tickets cost more than the other two games combined.

However, the BayStars fans breathed some much-needed life into the building from their small cheering section beyond the left field wall. Their energy was unflappable, despite their offense turning in an extremely frustrating performance early on. Giants starter Aaron Poreda allowed three hits and no runs in six innings, but walked six batters and hit two. He was pitching terribly (it was later revealed that he was pitching with a bad shoulder) and the BayStars were averaging nearly two baserunners per inning without a run to show for it. If there’s a BayStars Twitter, they were probably livid. The BayStars fans in the stadium were happy to continue singing and chanting.

After the fans in blue sung their Lucky 7, the team finally broke through against side-armed reliever Seiji Tahara. With two outs and the bases loaded, shortstop Toshihiko Kuramoto hit a triple high off the wall, missing a grand slam by inches. Those three runs were enough, as Shoichi Ino was able to finish a complete game shutout for Yokohama.

Following the game, my sister and I sat and waited in the stands for the majority of fans to exit and for traffic at the subway station to die down. We got a chance to watch the BayStars fans celebrate their win over their rivals. After the win, they were 7-14, but that didn’t seem to matter in the moment as the mascot danced on the field below. It was the most fun the game had been all night.

After 15 minutes, the party finally died down and we filed for the exits. Even from a poor experience, good memories formed.

Marines vs Buffaloes, April 24

View from the ouenseki at QVC Marine Field. (via Daniel Brim)

View from the ouenseki at QVC Marine Field. (via Daniel Brim)

My journey to Chiba was not originally planned. However, QVC Marine Field is the closest NPB stadium to Narita Airport and I had to be at a hotel adjacent that night. My sister and I had to part ways the morning of the game, so my plans were still open. Two days earlier, I was informed that Steve Novosel, who writes for We Love Marines and The Ouendan (two excellent resources for following NPB in English), might have an extra ticket available. When was the next time I was going to be able to go to an NPB game?

Steve instructed me to meet him at the “giant inflatable mascot,” which is a useful landmark in Japanese baseball stadiums:

The giant Inflatable Mascot. (via Daniel Brim)

The giant Inflatable Mascot. (via Daniel Brim)

After we found each other, Steve informed me that we would be sitting in the main cheering section, called the ouenseki. This section is responsible for leading chants and songs for each player and gives NPB games their unique flavor, like the BayStars fans had the previous night. Today we’d be sitting with the raucous Chiba die-hards, our cheers echoing off the concrete walls of the sold out stadium.

QVC Marine Field is one of the most unique venues in NPB. Fans in the upper deck can see the ocean behind the right field wall. The sea can play havoc with the winds, but were calm on this day. It’s an outdoor stadium, but the turf is artificial, which allows doorless Audi convertibles to cart in relief pitchers without breaking the field. The most unique in-play feature is the vast stretch of foul territory; during a game in mid-May a runner advanced to second on a sacrifice fly to the catcher.

I’m not particularly a Marines fan, though they have some fun players. Through an agreement with the Cuban government, select players are allowed to sign with NPB teams without defecting. The Marines have used that pact to sign Alfredo Despaigne, who is considered one of the best players in Cuba. His Baseball-Reference page from his peak years have the gaudiest numbers this side of Barry Bonds (in 2009 he hit .404/.489/.814), and he’s starting his third year in Japan. He’s 5’9″ and has 80-grade raw power:

Steve tells me that the ball in that video hit the lights. As you can imagine, Despaigne is one of the most fun players in all of baseball, anywhere. If the Marines are good enough for Despaigne, they’re good enough for me. In this game, he would go 2-for-4 with two singles and a walk.

Sitting in the ouenseki was intimidating because cheering is not optional, but despite my initial hesitations it was an absolute blast. After the Marines scored, it was a big party:

During chants with clapping and hand gestures the speed of sound was visible, since people were following their ears and not their eyes. Cuban flags waved as Despaigne batted to chants of “¡Vamos! ¡Vamos! ¡Despaigne!” Dominican flags made appearances for the newly acquired Yamaico Navarro. Even the USA was represented for the Marines’ starting pitcher Jason Standridge, who has thrived in Japan since his stateside career ended in 2007. Steve helped me blend in with an English-translated sheet of the players’ songs. The giveaway jersey top helped too. During the Marines’ rallies I was high-fiving strangers, not because of the pressure to do so, but because the Marines became a genuine rooting interest.

The game went down to the wire. The Marines got on the board in the fourth inning on a throwing error. The Buffaloes struck back with a run in the fifth and three in the sixth, led by a Yoshio Itoi home run, the second I had witnessed in less than a week. Itoi was once considered one of the best position players in NPB and at one time it looked like he would be MLB-bound, but the onslaught of age has caught up to him in recent years (at the Eagles game, my sister remarked that he looks like he’s 50). At age 34, he seems to have found some of the power that went missing in previous years.

In the bottom of the sixth the Marines brought the score within one following a pair of walks and a double by catcher Tatsuhiro Tamura. The Marines kept fighting, but stranded runners in scoring position in each of the remaining three innings and fell, 4-3. Even though the result was disappointing, sitting with the hardcore fans was the best way to see the game and I was wrong to be worried about it. I wore my new Despaigne jersey on the three trains and the bus to get to my airport hotel and got a few supportive “Go Marines” nods along the way.

If you’re going to a baseball game in Japan, I cannot recommend sitting in the ouenseki enough. You may have to buy the right color shirt, but chanting and singing with the locals is its own reward. It makes you feel like a real local fan, and before you know it, you’ll be one.

On the twelve hour flight home I had a lot of time to reflect upon the trip. Other than the bad seats at the Tokyo Dome, just about everything had been perfect. To me, a good vacation is measured by how much you want to turn around and get back on the plane as soon as you land. There’s a lot of the world to see, so repeating a destination removes the option to go somewhere new. I’m now planning on returning to Japan in the next few years. There are nine more NPB venues I have not seen, including the hallowed Koshien Stadium. Just about everyone in the country was lovely and hospitable. I likely won’t have my sister as a language crutch next time, but there’s still so much of the country to see. If baseball is as important to you as it is to me (and it probably is, since you’re reading The Hardball Times) you must go at some point in your life.

References & Resources


Daniel Brim is a mechanical engineer who occasionally ventures into baseball writing, which you can read at Dodgers Digest. Follow him on Twitter @DanielBrim.
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MarylandBill
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MarylandBill

Great article… I love how hardball times doesn’t just focus on major league ball, but on the wider world of baseball. We all know that Japan’s professional league is second only to the majors, but I really know very little about them. Its cool to see how they have developed their own traditions… and in fact from the video clips, it looks like they are having quite a lot of fun.

Jim S.
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Jim S.

I saw two games in Japan in 1986, one with Randy Bass playing. His fans chanted (something like) “Cot-toe-bazzai-Baa-aaa-suh.” Which my friend explained meant, “Make a hit, Bass.” Yes, I had a great time. But I agree, see as much of the world as you can. I had chances to visit other countries when I was younger, which I thankfully did. And now at 67, I might be a little too old.

Rob D.
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Rob D.

The word is “kattobase” and as you said it means “get a hit”.

D. Goat
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D. Goat

pretty fun article here, mr brim. nice to see a reminder of why we tolerate the awful terrible wonderful amazing sport of baseball.

SignPunto
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SignPunto

Cool stuff, Brim. My expert scouting opinion is that the Dodgers should get Alfredo Despaigne.

Capn Sparrow
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Capn Sparrow

Mr. Brim, this was a fun article to read. The hardball Times would be well served to find a way to send you back for another sojourn to cover the NPB playoffs. For those that aren’t familiar with your passion with the NPB, might I suggest following @DanielBrim on twitter for updates and live links to streamed NPB games.

NotTym
Guest

This is a good article, it makes me want to watch more NPB than the clips I’ve seen in this article, thank you for your insightful read.

Paddles
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Paddles

It’s cool that the Marines have chose Pablo Sandoval as their mascot.

K. Johnson
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K. Johnson
Thanks for the article – brought back very fond memories of seeing a game at the home of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows several summers ago. I don’t know if you observed any of these things, but some of the things which most struck me were: * Each hitter, in his first plate appearance, bowed as a show of respect to the home plate umpire. * The fans in the outfield bleachers were segregated according to their rooting interests, with one team’s fans in left field and the other team’s fans in right field. * Whereas each MLB hitter has a… Read more »
Cauld
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Cauld

Loved the article. I’ve wanted to go to an NPB game for a few years. Any tips on how to sit in the ouenseki section? I would want to know all the chants and everything to fit in.

Lorraine Suzuki
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Lorraine Suzuki

You have a DESPAIGNE jersey?!?!?! Oh, I am envious. And I so envy you this trip to these stadiums. Great article, Daniel!

Chris
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Chris

Big time Rakuten Eagles fan here. My story is very similar to yours! I began following them in 2014 because they had an English broadcast on TuneIn. I fell in love with Takahiro Norimoto and Motohiro Shima. It’s tough times in Sendai, but they’ve got enough young talent to turn it around soon.

Rob D.
Guest
Rob D.
Thanx, Daniel, for a very enjoyable article. I’ve seen several NPB games also. Some things I noted: – As you alluded to, the “oenden” cheer tirelessly the entire game. And the intensity remains the same no matter how far behind or ahead their team is. – As someone mentioned, they do expect you to dispose of our own trash. This is not just at ballgames but everywhere in Japan. In fact, some people take their trash home w them to dispose of there. I did not know this beforehand and I was politely informed by a fan that that is… Read more »
Josh
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Josh

As a Japanese, I’m happy you enjoyed the trip.
During your next trip, I must recommend you go to Hotto Motto Stadium Kobe. It’s kind of a hassle to get there, but the stadium is gorgeous. There are only about 10 games played there each year so might not fit your schedule, but if you can make it, you absolutely should.

Dave
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Dave

Great article
The Koshien High School championships every August should be on every fans bucket list. It’s basically march madness. 40k fans high school bands non stop singing and cheering. Best of all most of the tickets are sold walk up the day of the game. You do need to get there 3 hours early but as expected the line ups are orderly. Btw you forgot to write about the stadium food! Octopus balls, teriyaki chicken skewers and curry were among my favorites.