"Baseball is more than just a game — it has eternal value. Through it one learns the beautiful and noble spirit of Japan."
—Suishu Tobita, Japanese writer who helped popularize baseball in Japan during the mid-20th century.
"This isn't baseball; it only looks like it."
—Former Dodger Reggie Smith, after playing with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan.
OSAKA, Japan — It's the seventh-inning stretch of the pro baseball game at Koshien Stadium outside of Osaka, and the fans rise just like in the U.S. But instead of 40,000 off-key renditions of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," fans here blow up long, colorful balloons with a screamer on the end and on a musical cue, release them in a psychedelic swirl that blots out the sky and pounds the eardrums.
The moment captures the enigma of Japanese baseball, an experience I've found both familiar and foreign in 12 years of watching the American pastime, Japanese style. It's a bit like watching through a pair of glasses that aren't yours (maybe Francisco Rodriguez's wrap-around shades). The outlines are familiar, but the details are a bit blurry.
There are still nine innings and nine players to a side. A full count is still 3-and-2, except that in Japan the strikes are called before the balls, so it is 2-and-3. Batters bow to the umpires. Teams are named not after their home cities, but their corporate owners — giving the league immortals like the Nippon Ham Fighters club. Naming rights of stadiums go beyond corporate monikers to take in whole slogans, hence Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium.
Rabid fan clubs, called oendan, come to every game to beat on taiko drums, blow whistles and sing songs like "To the Sky With Fighting Soul, Ah Giants." Players get their own song sung as they come to bat. This goes on whether the home team is in a tight game or on the wrong end of a blowout. Fans return batting practice foul balls to the team to be used again. After a big home run, players line up formally in front of the dugout to shake the slugger's hand. He then throws a stuffed animal into the crowd.
There are hot dogs. But you can also get tofu, bean curd and deep-fried squid balls on a stick. Young women troop up and down the steep stairs with a pony keg of beer strapped on their back, serving up draft brew from a spigot over their shoulder.
The game is different too — teams focus on the fundamentals and go through practice regimens that would be considered exhausting for spring training in the U.S. Pitchers throw more off-speed pitches, and hitters often play a station-to-station game of "little ball," with rallies consisting of a walk, a sacrifice bunt and a single. Players are expected to contribute to a sense of balance and harmony, wa, that puts the team over individual accomplishments.
Don Blasingame, a former major-leaguer who went on to manage the Hanshin Tigers, famously gave a typically American spin to the concept.
"You can have all the Japanese spirit there is, but it won't hit a good curveball," he said.
Still, even today, players have to learn how to meld with a teamwork ethic that often chafes those used to player-friendly managers and coaches back home.
"You can't be too aggressive and show off," said Tom O'Malley, a former major-leaguer who is a coach for the Hanshin Tigers. "You have to learn patience, both on the field and off."
Baseball has been played in Japan since 1870, and the first pro team dates to 1935. It's considered so Japanese that when the military government banned jazz records and other Western influences during World War II, it encouraged baseball to continue right up until the firebombings of 1944. It was one of the first things that Gen. Douglas MacArthur authorized to resume after the surrender and occupation. In one of the oddest juxtapositions, the ringing cheers of fans could be heard at the old stadium of the Hiroshima Carp that was within sight of the atomic bombing's ground zero and memorial.
Anyone visiting Japan today can easily see a game. There are 12 teams in a country the size of California, linked by high-speed bullet trains. Teams also play games at neutral sites around Japan.
For me, there are two must-see spots in Japanese baseball — the home field of the most dominating team, and a few hours away, Japan's most famous ballpark.
The first is easy. The Yomiuri Giants are the oldest and most powerful team. Their home field is the Tokyo Dome, housing not only the team but also Japan's Hall of Fame. It's known around the city as "The Egg" for its lopsided, white-roofed design, visible from skyscrapers throughout the city.
The Tokyo Dome is a disappointingly sterile ballpark, the cold, concrete interior reminiscent of the late but not lamented Kingdome in Seattle. The mildly air-conditioned dome is welcome, however, during the wet, hot Tokyo summer. Try to visit when the Giants play their traditional rivals, the Chunichi Dragons. Squint a bit and you'll see something familiar — the Giants uniforms are a near-exact replica of the 1960s-era San Francisco Giants', while the Dragons blue script across a white jersey is an intentional homage to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Giants and the Dragons have large oendan fan clubs, and a showdown between the two usually features Yomiuri fans in right field putting up a constant barrage of noise when the Giants are up, only matched by flag- and pompon-waving Dragons fans in their half of the inning. Giants fans are used to going home happy — the team won two-thirds of its games this season.
I asked Shu Yamagata, an official with the Hanshin Tigers, who their fans dislike the most.
"The Giants," Yamagata said without pause. "There are the Giants and then there is everybody else. I think that is the way with most teams. Everybody wants to beat the Giants."
While most stadium gift shops sell merchandise only for the home team and perhaps the team it is playing that day, the large Tokyo store has caps, jerseys and the oddball mascots of all 12 teams. If you want a Yokohama BayStars cap or a Fukuoka Softbank Hawks T-shirt, this is the place.
My favorite Japanese baseball experience is a few hours south in Koshien, an industrial suburb of Osaka. Here is old Koshien Stadium, whose hallowed place in the game is like combining the legacy of Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and the original Yankee Stadium.
Built in 1924, Koshien was designed to resemble the long-gone Polo Grounds in New York City. In a country where historic preservation seems reserved for a few ancient temples, the old park where Babe Ruth once played with a touring team of Americans has survived World War II and the urban redevelopment that gobbled up most of the other early Japanese parks.
It is open to the elements, has a limited roof over a fraction of the 42,000 seats and steep stands whose top sections are sarcastically called "the Alps." It has one of the few grass outfields, though like that of most Japanese ballparks, the infield is dirt. Koshien is revered as the site of the annual high school baseball championship games, the most important sports event in the country.
Koshien is finally changing, due to cracks that developed in the old ballpark in the years after the 1995 Kobe earthquake. A new roof has been put on the stands, one that no longer needs the pillars that obscured views but gave the stadium a distinctly retro feeling. The signature ivy that enveloped the brick wall exterior — a talisman to Japanese baseball fans who would trim small pieces to take back home and plant — had to be removed to make repairs to the wall. New ivy has been planted, but in the interim a fake facade with drawn ivy encircles the park.
"It will take about 10 years to grow back — we hope it will look just like before," said Yamagata, whose Tigers play home games at Koshien. "The ivy is important to fans' memories of Koshien Stadium."
More than old parks and ivy unite the Hanshin Tigers with the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs. Like the two American clubs, the Tigers carry a hex — in this case The Curse of Colonel Sanders.
Hanshin last won the championship in 1985, led by the slugging of American import Randy Bass. After the final victory, fans in Koshien ran through the streets in celebration. In one of those cross-cultural rites that defies explanation, they indulged in the time-honored high jinks of throwing people who looked like Tigers players into the river. But in the far suburbs of Osaka, there was no one that night who much looked like the barrel-bellied Bass. The closest thing was one of those plastic statues of Colonel Sanders outside of a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. They pried the old plastic man from his moorings and tossed him into the river.
Hanshin hasn't won a championship since. But there is hope. Early this year, workers dredging the river for a construction project found the now encrusted Colonel embedded in the mud. They pulled him out and turned him over to city hall. The hope was that with the statue rescued, the curse might be over.
"Not this year," said Masaaki Koyama, a retired Hall of Fame pitcher for Hanshin who was visiting the team clubhouse. "Too many injuries. Too many players who are old. No young prospects. But our time will come again."
Japanese professional baseball is at a crossroads as it celebrates 75 years. So much has changed since I first wrote about it in 1997. Back then, the traffic between the U.S. and Japan was one-way — players came to Japan in an attempt to resurrect their careers. A few, like Cecil Fielder, enjoyed triumphant returns. Some players settled into careers in Japan, while others lasted a year or two and then were out of the sport altogether.
All that changed with Hideo Nomo. He made a splash in 1995 as the first big star to make a successful jump to the U.S. to what even the Japanese called "the major leagues."
For a while, Nomo was seen as an anomaly. A few pitchers like Shigetoshi Hasegawa of the Angels were signed. Scouts concentrated on pitchers and thought the hitters were too weak to make the transition. A scout for a major-league West Coast team told me in 1997 that Ichiro Suzuki, the Pacific League's batting leader, might at best be on par with Brett Butler, the fast but far-from-flashy outfielder with the Atlanta Braves and later the Dodgers.
Fast forward to 2009. Suzuki sets an American League record with his ninth consecutive 200-hit season. Hideki Matsui, the Central League home run champion known as "Godzilla," has made a seamless jump from the Tokyo Giants to the New York Yankees, where in seven years he has hit more than 25 home runs and had 100 RBIs four times. American teams are beginning to scout Japanese players on the high school level.
All this has some Japanese concerned. Though the teams still draw strong attendance, the TV networks now show more major-league games featuring Japanese players than they do Japanese league games.
"Most teams are not run for a profit — they are a corporate write-off for the owners, a way to get their corporate names out there," said Barden Smedberg, a Tokyo-based writer who follows Japanese baseball. "A lot of teams lose money. When it was a small amount that was usually OK. But with the top stars being lured away for tens of millions of dollars, the teams here know they can't compete. And if the best players all leave, they are afraid the fans eventually will leave too."
Atsushi Mori, a sportswriter for the Nishi-Nippon Shimbun newspaper, isn't so sure. The Japanese were proud their team won the World Baseball Classic this year, and though Ichiro Suzuki played, it was a host of lesser-known Japanese players who sparked the victory.
"The stars in the major leagues are important and Japanese want Ichiro or Hideki Matsui to succeed," he said. "But Japanese fans' allegiance is not to the player, but to the team. It runs deep and is something they grew up with. I don't think most will lose it."
In Japan, even the fans have wa.
Gary A. Warner: gettingawayocregister.com