MY INTRODUCTION TO JAPANESE BASEBALL
By Herb Howell
Baseball in Japan is almost a paradox to the culture and everyday life in Japan.
Each city is clean efficient and orderly. There is no sense of congestion or unusual hurry in cities of one million or more! The orderly passing of pedestrians and cars flows easily. No one is trying to merge or barge ahead of those around you. This was especially evident in what might be expected as a post-game rush of people. This was true in each city, whether Osaka or Hiroshima.
After spending most of this September in Japan and South Korea, baseball emerged as a congested, hurried and emotionally noisy place to be. This possible experience became an adventure in my imagination a few years ago, only to become a realty last month!
About three years ago I saw a website detailing Japanese Baseball Tours, by Bob Bavasi, son of former Major League General Manager Buzzie Bavasi (Dodgers, Padres, and Angels). I filed the idea away, saved my money, and created a window of time to ensure my participation in the 2014 Japan Baseball Tour.
Then came the whirlwind tour with bullet trains, shrines, ancient temples, subways, and screaming ballparks: seven games in nine days! It was exceptionally well organized, with great game day tickets at each stop and a wonderful group of fellow travelers, from all walks of life.
Twenty five people from across America, Canada, Hawaii and even one from Germany quickly melted into an affable and friendly touring part. With only a few basics in terms of trains (and rail pass) and games (with tickets) , the tourists were free to blaze their own trails: alone or in small groups It was a pretty harmonious group. Everybody had their stories to tell; in baseball or otherwise.
The country of Japan offers diversity at every turn. The calm of the ferry boat rides along the inland seas was exceptional. The smooth and modern, always on time, bullet trains were deceptive with their 186 mph speed, but yet so gentle that one’s coffee does not even jiggle.
Everywhere were the ancient temples and shrines of hundreds of years ago. Historic sites like stunning Kyoto, peaceful Nara, and the Sacred Island of Miyajima head most tourist lists. Their classic architecture is exemplary. Modern Sendai has recovered, almost without notice, from the Tsunami, less than two years ago. Their baseball team, the Golden Eagles, won the Japanese League Championship last year!
The most poignant moments came with the exploring of Hiroshima. This city was devastated in 1945 and leveled to the ground for miles around. It is now entirely rebuilt, with memorials, museums, and a giant Peace Park commemorating the events of the A bomb explosion. A peaceful river winds through the ground zero area. These were chilling and quite sobering. When we left, to return to Tokyo via the bullet train, everyone was silent.
The trip to each of the baseball parks was an adventure, in itself. Except for the smaller stadium in Sendai and the enormous old (1924) Koshien Stadium in Osaka seated thirty to forty five thousand spectators each.
A couple modern domes stadiums added to the mix in Osaka and the famed Tokyo Dome, near our hotel. These two largest cities host two and four Nippon Baseball League teams respectively.
Once one enters these ballparks, the realization hits like a 90 mph fastball. Most spectators are dressed in team colors and sit in their designated areas. You really do not want to wear the Giants orange while sitting in the Tigers yellow dressed section: not done!
Visiting teams often have as many spectators as the home teams. In the case of the Hiroshima Carp visiting the Yakult Swallows, the Carp had a considerable large thrown and made much more noise, until the Swallows walk off ninth inning homer. . . silence from the red throng!
There are cheerleaders, big bass drums, shrill rows of trumpets, and chanting leaders who implore the crowds from warm ups to the last post-game interviews are completed. Some fans stand the entire game and never stop beating their plastic clappers together. The noise is deafening!!
The atmosphere at each ballpark is more like a big college football game or an afternoon at the Portland Timbers- a constant throbbing din, of singing, chanting, screaming, to the beat of the big drums and blaring trumpets.
What spirit and what fun. And they will do it again every year.