JAPANBALL MISADVENTURES

By Dave Birks

I keep memorabilia in scrapbooks and on bookshelves at home in Florida.

There are many Hanshin Tigers items: A genuine game hat, a pair of plastic “cheer” bats, wristbands, an eyeglass cleaning cloth, pins, key clips and a couple of ticket stubs. A Nori Nakamura bobble-head doll, the only bobble-head I’ve ever owned, sits motionless in his Kintetsu Buffaloes uniform on a shelf.

I have a ticket stub from Game Two of the 2001 Japan Series between the Buffaloes and the Yakult Swallows won in dramatic fashion on a walk-off homer by Tuffy Rhodes.

Another stub evokes a more somber memory. It is from a Buffaloes victory over the Chiba Lotte Marines on September 11, 2001. I remember returning to my flat at 9:30 that night. It was 8:30am on the east coast of the United States and for Americans the world was about to change.

While in Japan, I saw no Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles or Cubs. The teams had names like the Bay Stars and Marines, the Lions and Fighters.

I did see the Tigers play the Giants but, instead of Barry Bonds and Ivan Rodriguez being in the line-up, it was Hideki Matsui and George Arias swinging the big bats.

It was baseball in Japan and I was fortunate to be there and see it played by boys in Little League, sand-lot players on a field near the shrines of Sumiyoshi Taisha, and big leaguers in big league stadiums.

HOW I SPENT MY SUMMER VACATION

In 2001, I had the opportunity to work in Osaka. Through a stroke of luck, I’d been hired as a guitarist to perform with a musical group at the newly opened Universal Studios Japan.

I signed a six-month contract but the contract was extended twice so I was in Osaka for nearly a year.

I knew there was professional baseball in Japan so before leaving home I did some research about the Japan League. I discovered Osaka was home to the Kintetsu Buffaloes who played their home games at the Osaka Dome.

Not only that but, there were two other teams within the surrounding Kansai area. One is the Orix Blue Wave, Ichiro’s old team, who play in Kobe at Green Stadium, now called Yahoo BB Stadium.

The other team is the immensely popular Hanshin Tigers who play at the oldest park in Japan, Koshien Stadium. Koshien would become one of my favorite ballparks.

My plane landed at Kansai Airport on Sunday, August 19, 2001. I attended my first game at the Osaka Dome the following Saturday with one of my band mates, a trumpet player named Kenny.

I found a Buffaloes schedule from the desk clerk at our apartment house. Kenny and I made plans to go.

We took the Chuo subway line to Kujo station at around 1pm and walked to the Osaka Dome to check it out and buy our tickets early for the game which, according to the schedule, started at 6pm. We exited at Kujo, walked through the covered mall there and then several blocks along narrow back streets until we saw the futuristic-looking dome rise like an alien spacecraft before us.

When we got to the dome’s outside concourse there were thousands of people milling about. It seemed odd to fine such a large crowd this far ahead of game time. Maybe it was a common Japanese practice to arrive early for tickets.

I approached an usher. He understood the word “tickets” and directed us toward the ticket window but communication broke down when I asked him about the starting time. He didn’t seem to know what I was saying, but was very polite about it. Again he directed us to the ticket window.

With the crowd growing, we decided to take our chances and buy the tickets. Luckily, the girl in the booth spoke some English and told us that the game started in about 15 minutes. At 2pm not 6pm. I’d misread the schedule.

Feeling like charter members of the American Moron Society, we bought two tickets for 2800 yen, about $25 US, and hurried inside.

From its UFO outer appearance to its seamless perfection inside, the Osaka Dome is a great example of how an indoor stadium should be designed and built. Granted, the only other enclosed stadium I’ve been in is Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, home to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

There is no comparison between the two. The “Trop” is a combination microwave oven, due to its incandescent inner glare, and a toilet bowl. It’s an awful ballpark.

The Osaka Dome is a dynamic, state-of-the-art creation with great sight-lines and a roof sufficiently high not to interfere with play as can happen in St. Pete.

DIFFERENCES

Several striking differences between the Japan League and its American counterpart became apparent to me.

As in the States, there was a protective net rising from the backstop to protect fans from foul balls. The netting, however, also extended down each baseline to the edge of the outfield grass to protect those in lower boxes and reserved seats much like the bordering glass does around a hockey rink.

And there were cheerleaders!

At Osaka there were attractive young ladies who wore matching cowgirl outfits, complete with black and white cowhide vests, skirts, boots and hats. They stood on top of the home dugout doing cheers and dance steps to pre-recorded music.

At Koshien Stadium, the cheerleaders performing in front of us in the right field grandstand were athletic young men in matching warm-ups. They wore white gloves and yelled their cheers through megaphones, a decidedly old school touch.

In both these parks, and in Green Stadium, the fans screamed along and rhythmically smacked together plastic logoed cheering bats in a steady cadence. These bats are now showing up in Major League ballparks in the US, especially on the west coast.

I saw no one keeping score and I had to draw up my own scorecards because they were not sold by vendors.

A Japan League player who homered was greeted at home plate by a young lady presenting him with a bouquet of flowers and a stuffed toy version of the team mascot. I’d love to see that happen at Fenway Park after a Manny Ramirez blast over the Monster.

A pageant, as listed in the dictionary, is described as a showy spectacle. To see and hear the home and visitor cheering sections and their bands at a Japan League game was to witness true pageantry.

Drums boomed. Trumpets blared in and out of tune. Bright flags and banners were waved by spirited young fans dressed in team colors. A full-throated chorus joyously roared their carefully prepared cheers for their team and individual players and, though obviously rehearsed, the over-the-top execution seemed delightfully spontaneous.

Every American baseball fan who thinks he’s really whooping it up at the old ballpark by drinking four extra beers and belting out “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” with his buddies, should get a load of this celebration. It was simply spectacular.

KENNY AND HIS FOUL BALLS

During this game between the Buffaloes and the Nippon Ham Fighters, my friend Kenny snared not one but two foul balls within the first few innings of the game. Two!

I’ve seen a lot of baseball over the past forty-plus years and I have never caught a foul ball at a professional game. Not one.

But here we were seated in the lower reserves along the third base line about even with the bag. The first ball landed a few feet away from us. Kenny, who was closer, went after it, got it and then excitedly returned to his seat.

I noticed that the Japanese seated around us didn’t go after the ball nor did they make much of an attempt to get out of its way when it landed.

We learned why immediately as the air split with the shrill report of whistles blown by quickly advancing ushers. We looked at each other wondering what in the hell was going on.

A young man and woman wearing matching yellow polo shirts politely approached us and made it clear to Kenny that he must give up the ball. In return he would receive an official Buffaloes key chain to keep as a souvenir. Although he refused at first, Kenny acquiesced and returned the ball in exchange for the trinket. He was very disappointed..

Two innings later another foul lofted toward us in almost exactly the same spot as the first. Once again Kenny retrieved it.

This time, however, rather than handing it over he took off running. The ushers then followed in bewildered pursuit.

Whistles shrieked. People stood and pointed after Kenny. And a posse of six “Foul Ball Police,” converging from different sections of the dome, soon had him surrounded. They, once again, politely demanded that he hand over the ball. He did so, but with great reluctance.

Once Kenny and his captors arrived back to our seats, they then told us, and not so politely this time, that we were to leave the Osaka Dome for breaking the house rules. I was mortified.

I glared at Kenny as we made our way out of the stadium under whistle-armed guard and made a vow that I’d never attend another game with him while we were in Japan.

My first day of Japanese baseball ended in ignominy.

(Editor’s note: Fans today may keep any ball hit into the stands.)

THIS IS A HOT DOG?

The concession food in Japan was as different to me as moving to another town.

A tradition at every ballpark I’ve ever been to is to have a hot dog and a beer. Call it a Fenway Frank, a Yankee Dog, or Chicago Style with peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers, you can’t beat having one and washing it down with a cold beer.

I had no complaint with the beer in Japan, especially Kirin. It was cold and rich even if the bartender sometimes went a little too thick on the head. The Japanese know beer.

The unusual taste and texture of the Japanese ballpark frank was something else. First of all, it was the size of a bratwurst and it came on a stick. No bun. A stick.

They were encased in skin so thick that it popped, then ripped and finally snapped when you bit into it. We’re talking serious casing here.

Because of its size and shape, trying to keep mustard and ketchup on it was like pouring motor oil on the nose of the Space Shuttle and hoping it stayed on during lift-off.

The Japan dogs I ate had a strange, synthetic taste to them and bore absolutely no resemblance to the taste of an American dog. I did have a favorite name for one that I found at Green Stadium. It was called the “Green Monster.”

I had no trouble with the native “bento” box lunches that contained sushi, sashimi, rice, etc. I enjoyed that very much and shared it with my Japanese friends at Koshien and Osaka Dome on several occasions.

There was one traditional dish that was sold by festival vendors and at an outdoor concession stand at Koshien that baffles me to this day.

My guess is that it was tofu. It was a golden-brown crusted substance cut into different shapes and lengths and floated in a kettle of what seemed to be steaming, brackish water.

I never saw any Japanese eating it and that was good enough to convince me to leave it for more adventurous eaters. I remember standing outside Koshien staring into a kettle of the stuff, exchanging glances with an elderly lady behind the counter.

My eyes asked, “What is it?”

Hers impatiently replied “Are you buying?”

I did not.

SOUND FUNDAMENTALS

I’m always amazed when I see mistakes in fundamentals by Major League players in America. It seems that for every spectacular diving catch a guy makes, sure to be on that evening’s highlight reel, there are many more bone-headed plays. Bad throws, base-running errors, botched bunts (Can’t anybody lay down a bunt anymore?), and a lack of hustle.

I was impressed with the quality of play in Japan.

My good friend, Chris Kovic, and I went to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. We saw a lot of baseball featuring teams from the US, Cuba, Nicaragua, the Netherlands and Japan. We watched a quarterfinals in which a fundamentally superior Japanese team pasted a sloppy and over-rated U.S. club by a score of 10 to 2.

It was evident that the players from Nippon worked hard on their game and it’s no fluke that Japanese players are now making a strong impact on Major League Baseball.

While in Osaka I had the chance to see how their command of baseball fundamentals is developed early on.

I lived in the Osakako section of the city near Tempozan. Across the street from my apartment is a school with a ball field beside it. I could see it from my small balcony. A couple of kid’s teams would regularly practice there.

One team was made up of Little League-aged boys. The other of early teens like those who might play Babe Ruth League ball here at home.

Despite the age difference, there was an obvious similarity and a consistency between the two groups.

Day after day, week after week, they ALL showed up for practice. They always had two full practice squads. I’d coached both Little League and Babe Ruth and it was a miracle if you could field a team with two or three subs on game day, let alone for a practice.

Players and coaches in Japan were dedicated to making themselves into as good a ball team as they could. Obligated might be a more appropriate term to use, as in being obligated to each other.

To me, practically all of those kids were real ballplayers with a natural ability to play the game but, they worked hard at getting better and showed discipline and precision in their execution.

I watched them run drill after drill on the basics: how to properly field a grounder, calling for a pop-up, throwing to the right cut-off man or base and paying attention on the base paths.

The coaches were stern and made sure that their players did things correctly. For example, if a youngster booted a ground ball or misjudged a fly, the coach would come right back to him with another ball hit to the same spot just as hard. Rarely did the player make the same mistake again.

It was all a pleasure to watch.

HOW’S THIS FOR A SIGN?

One of the last games I saw was between the Hanshin Tigers and the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants at Koshien Stadium in June 2002, not long before I was to leave for home.

Koshien is to me a combination of elements of Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. It is the oldest stadium in the Japan League and is home to arguably the second-most popular team in Japan, the perennial also-ran Hanshin Tigers. Only the Tokyo Giants seem to enjoy more attention.

Koshien reminds me of Wrigley because thick ivy covers its outside wall. As Fenway was for most of its history, the stands are all on one level, both infield and outfield. There is no upper deck.

Larger than either classic ballpark. Koshien holds 55,000, nearly all of whom are rabid fans who love the Tigers with the same blind devotion as Boston does the Red Sox and Chicago Northsiders do the Cubbies.

I also saw a sign in a tunnel there leading to the grandstand. On the tunnel wall was a rectangular metal sign that read “NO WAVE”

Next to the command, written in English, was a stick figure person with arms stretched over its head as if doing “The Wave.” Covering the stick figure was the universal red circle with a diagonal line through it!

The Wave is forbidden in Koshien Stadium.

MY 15 MINUTES OF FAME

Because the Giants were in town, Koshien was packed and I mean literally. You couldn’t find an extra square inch of room in the stands. A sardine would have felt claustrophobic.

I was at the game with several members of our all-Japanese stage and sound crew from Universal who were very excited to be at this big game. We were seated in the right field grandstand in a perfect spot to catch a Hideki Matsui home run if one came our way. Matsui was the home run king of the Japan League and in his last season with the Giants before signing with the New York Yankees.

The game was in the fifth inning and after drinking a few “biirus,” I excused myself to go to the men’s room and set off negotiating a path through the jammed aisle to the tunnel.

With everyone squeezed in so tightly on benches rather than seats, it was hard to make my way. After going maybe ten feet or so, I tripped on someone’s feet, lost my balance and fell into the people in the next row down to my left. I broke my fall by putting my hand on an unsuspecting guy’s head and pushing myself upright.

“Sumimasen” (Excuse me), I said as I tried to get to my feet.

“Gomenasai” (I am sorry), I offered meekly to the man who was decidedly and rightfully unamused by this.

Because the aisle was so tight and filled with drinks, food, people and their belongings, it wasn’t long before I again lost my footing. This time I teetered to my right, landing in the lap of a middle-aged lady dressed completely in red, yellow and black Tigers gear from head to toe.

She was not happy to have this awkward, possibly slightly drunk Yankee sitting on her. A man whom I suppose was her husband grabbed my arm and pulled me off her.

“Domo arigato” (Thank you very much), I said, now completely embarrassed.

I finally made it to the steps leading down to the tunnel. And, after going to the bathroom I, of course, felt the need to stop and get another beer. What was I thinking? But to my surprise, I navigated my way back with little trouble.

When I returned, I found my companions in hysterics, wildly laughing and yelling excitedly to me in their broken English as I sat down. I noticed that people seated around us were all grinning broadly and giggling too.

Between laughing fits, Midori, my diminutive but sometimes fiery stage manager explained what was so funny. And that was that as I had stumbled my way through the stands the stadium cameras had caught me and they showed it repeatedly on the Diamond Vision screen in centerfield while I was in the restroom.

My Japanese friends got a lot of mileage out of that one..

A FINAL THOUGHT

From my experiences in Osaka, I feel confident in saying that baseball is a true national pastime to the Japanese..

They have a keen knowledge of the game fueled by a true passion. I especially saw this on display at the two games I attended at Koshien Stadium.

Maybe a reason for this is, unlike in the United States, Japan is not inundated by sports year-round. Sure, they have soccer and sumo with an increasing exposure to American football and basketball. But it’s not like in America where baseball is pushed aside by football which is pushed aside by basketball with hockey overlapping everything and all in a dog-fight for TV ratings and revenue.

In Japan I saw baseball as having a special and elevated place. Often, when I was unable to get my points across on some issue with a Japanese co-worker or with the guy at the local produce stand or the papa-san who cooked at our local yakitori, we could talk, somehow, about the Tigers or the Buffaloes. They felt it like I did and they loved it as I do.

There was as much a festive atmosphere at the big league games I saw as one finds at the big celebrations of Gion Matsuri in Kyoto or the Tenjin Festival in Osaka.

There was an atmosphere of mutual respect and good-natured fun between the two local teams I happened upon one afternoon while going to see the shrines of Sumiyoshi Taisha in the southern part of Osaka.

During the seventh-inning stretch at the big parks, there was no singing of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” Instead, they released thousands of colorful, whistling balloons in a joyful salute to the game they love and to themselves.

There is a beautiful quote inscribed on a wall of glass at the Tempozan Aquarium that reads:

“It is said that the image that brings peace to the heart of the Japanese is the view of a calm sea. Then it should be proper to think of the sea, for the Japanese, as the place where the soul is alive at its deepest.” – Kunio Tsuji.

Baseball may have a similar affect. The Japanese enjoy and understand the structure and flow of baseball, which is the beauty of the game. It suits them the way the sea that surrounds them does.

They find purpose in its objective, joy in its execution and peace in its simplicity. Hit the ball, catch the ball, throw the ball.

Most importantly, they feel, although the game has its roots in England and was born in America, it truly belongs to them.

What I have in my home on my bookshelves and in scrapbooks is memorabilia.

What I will always keep in my head and in my heart are the wonderful memories I have of a special period and place in my life.

I go there often.