Segment 1: Washington State, June 15, 16, 17
We kicked off the tour with day one in Tacoma, where we saw the Rainiers host the Sacramento River Cats in a matchup between the AAA affiliates of the Mariners and Giants. We had a no-hitter into the eighth inning, but perhaps the two highlights of the day took place off the field.
Bob Fontaine Jr., one of the most respected scouts in the game (he signed Tony Gwynn, Ozzie Smith, and Randy Johnson), joined us to share tales from 50+ years in the game. Hearing from Bob what he sees when watching a game is such a treat. Bob also joined us on day three in Everett and will accompany the group for two more games on the tour. We are grateful that he is sharing so much time with us!
The other highlight was playing catch with John Scukanec. He is almost one-third of the way to his goal of playing catch 365 days in a row, and we had tons of fun playing a small role in it. Most of us hadn’t played catch in years – even decades- and the connection and nostalgia we felt were strong. John already has many surprisingly touching stories from his 100+ catch sessions, and we are rooting for him to get to 365 so that we can hear more tales of his journey. Follow his journey on Twitter and check out this great interview.
On the morning of day two, we toured a baseball training facility and were blown away by the modern state of baseball development. The technology, level of detail, and holistic approach were all fascinating to learn about.
Then, at night, we were treated to brilliant performances by the world’s two best baseball players. Shohei Ohtani started on the hill and batted third against the host Mariners, and he was his typical #ShoTime self, rapping out two hits and mixing pitches brilliantly over six shutout innings. Mariners-killer Mike Trout gave an all-too-familiar site to the Mariners fans, jogging around the bases for his 29th and 30th home runs at T-Mobile park, the most by any visiting player.
In case you’re wondering – yes, I did try the famous grasshoppers (“chapulines”), T-Mobile Park’s most famous cuisine. The review: crunchy, tangy, and goes well on nachos!
Day three was an opportunity to learn about the history of JapanBall and the Everett AquaSox from Bob Bavasi, who founded both entities! We drove up to Everett and met Bob and beloved longtime JapanBall guide and cultural attaché, Mayumi Nishiyama Smith, at the Japanese Cultural Resource Center and Nishiyama Garden (named in Mayumi’s honor) at Everett Community College. Mayumi taught us about the history and significance of this beautiful traditional Japanese garden, whose construction, design, and funding she spearheaded. If Mayumi hadn’t been such a devoted member of the college staff, Bob may have never decided to start JapanBall, so we are forever grateful for Mayumi’s tireless work to educate others about Japanese culture.
Next, Bob and Margaret Bavasi hosted us at their beautiful home in Everett. They had a big-league spread of food and drink ready for us on arrival – what hospitality! We had a delightful happy hour on their deck, admiring the waterfront views while sheltered from a typical Pacific Northwest drizzle, and learning the history of Everett baseball from Bob and Margaret, who were the first to bring pro ball to Everett.
Finally, we were off to Funko Field at Everett Memorial Stadium. The rain stayed light enough for an on-time start to the game between the AquaSox and Tri City Dust Devils. Not that a delay would have mattered much, as it was the Sox’s fastest game of the season! The game length was just 2:10, a result of the very-effective minor league pitch clock and two light-hitting offenses. The quick game was well-received by those continuing on to the Southern California tour segment, for we had an early-morning ride to the airport to fly south for some SoCal baseball fun!
Three days and games down, eight days and games to go!
Segment 2: Southern California, June 18, 19, 20, 21
Our Southern California itinerary called for four games in four days: the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, Los Angeles Dodgers, Anaheim Angels, and San Diego Padres.
We started day four in Seattle, catching an early morning flight to Los Angeles. After a quick rest at the hotel, we were off for “Superhero Night” at LoanMart Field, home of the Quakes, who are the Dodgers’ Single-A affiliate. In their special Black-Panther style uniforms, the Quakes won in a tight one against the Inland Empire 66ers (Angels affiliate). LoanMart Field is known for its beautiful views of the San Gabriel Mountains beyond left field, which sparkled in the setting California sun. Once it was dark, the massive pines beyond the outfield wall were illuminated. Easily one of the most scenic ballparks in all of MiLB. And to top it off, we had fireworks to the soundtrack of Marvel theme songs! And these weren’t your typical minor league fireworks, but rather the 4th-of-July-quality fireworks. Great start to our SoCal tour!
Next up, on day five, were the big-league Dodgers, on a perfect, not-too-hot Father’s Day Sunday day game. Before entering the park, we checked out Walter O’Malley’s Japanese stone lantern in the Japanese garden near Lot 6 and were treated to a history lesson on the lantern by JapanBall friend and dedicated SABR member Kimi Ego. Kimi’s father was the keeper of the garden and lantern, and she shared some great photos and the history of this hidden gem of Dodger Stadium.
The first stop inside the park was to visit the brand-new Japanese American baseball exhibit in the Left Field Pavilion, curated by former “Chatter Up!” guests Kerry Yo Nakagawa and Bill Staples, Jr. They did a wonderful job mixing education with neat artifacts such as the wooden home plate from the Gila River Japanese internment camp, Hideo Nomo’s cleats, and vintage jerseys from Japanese American teams.
Next, I had to check out the brand-new Sandy Koufax statue at the centerfield entrance, right next to the Jackie Robinson statue. Iconic statues of a Jewish lefty from Brooklyn and a Black infielder from Pasadena welcome Dodger fans into the stadium – gotta love America’s game! Well done, Dodgers.
Finally making our way to our seats, I was impressed how the sold-out crowd seemed to be all decked out in white and blue – no corporate fans on this holiday weekend game (also, hardly any Cleveland fans…). I elected for our group’s seats to be in the shade with a great view of Chavez Ravine for this game, which was an ideal vantage point to see an exciting, late-inning win by the Guardians.
On day six we went to Angel Stadium. A second opportunity to see Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani in less than a week! What a treat. Ohtani reached base three times with a hit and two walks, but the scuffling Angels were done in by the long ball against the last-place Royals. No matter – our seats were terrific: second row and just past the Angels dugout. And we had a great crew again, as our tour guests were joined by a group of JapanBallers from our 2021 Dominican Republic Tour, Mike and Kevin from the Beer Baseball Blog, and Brandon Yano, who built JapanBall.com. Angel Stadium is the fourth-oldest in baseball (behind Wrigley, Fenway, and Dodger Stadium) and, like Dodger Stadium, it withstands the test of time; a great-looking park and good fan experience.
Our last day of the SoCal tour segment – day seven in all – was in San Diego. We took the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train down the coast and it was worth the hype – easily one of the most scenic train rides in America! Bob Bavasi met us upon arrival in San Diego and showed us a great walking tour along the coastline, passing by the home plate plaque for the Pacific Coast League’s old San Diego Stadium, a memorial of Bob Hope entertaining the troops, various Naval ships, and Kansas City BBQ, where multiple scenes from Top Gun were filmed.
Then, Bob Bavasi hosted us at his 23rd-floor condo with sweeping views of the San Diego Bay for a pregame happy hour. We enjoyed Mexican food while Bob showed us his collection of baseball artifacts and shared stories from the early days of the Padres when his dad Buzzie was the founding president and Bob was a high schooler doing whatever he could to help sell tickets.
The final game of the SoCal tour segment was a thriller between the Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks. We saw an inside-the-park home run and were treated to free baseball in the form of extra innings. Jorge Alfaro capped off a great night with a game-winning single in the 11th, sending the still-lively home crowd home happy and giving us our first MLB team home win on the tour.
Next up: our Northern California Tour segment, with a stop in Fresno to see the AAA Grizzlies on the way. Seven games over the past week down, four to go!
Segment 3: Northern California, June 22, 23, 24, 25
Our last tour segment started with a train ride on Wednesday (day eight) from San Diego to Fresno to catch a home game of the AAA Grizzlies. Living up to its reputation, Fresno was HOT, with the temperature in the 90s for a 6:50 PM first pitch (which, by the way, our group was invited to officially announce on the field before the game – see video on Instagram). Before the game started, we found some shade and met up with Kerry Yo Nakagawa, the leading historian on Japanese American baseball who curated the exhibit that our group saw at Dodger Stadium on Sunday. Kerry regaled us with stories of great Nisei baseball teams and players such as his Uncle Johnny Nakagawa, who was the Ohtani-like pitcher/outfielder of his time. Bob Fontaine, Jr. also joined for this game, so we had nine innings of fantastic storytelling! We also had a big home-team win, as Fresno clinched the first-half championship and a playoff spot! It was neat to see the players celebrating on the field, but we weren’t going to keep the party going as I’m sure they did, as we had an early morning drive to Oakland the next morning.
It wasn’t until day nine that we experienced our first hiccup. We departed Fresno in a stretch limousine, and we were excited to arrive at Oakland Coliseum in style. Alas, the limo broke down after traveling only about 10 miles north on Highway 99! A scramble ensued to find other options to make it to Oakland, and I couldn’t thank our guests enough for the patience they demonstrated as we figured things out. We decided that Uber would be the best route, so we all took what will almost certainly be the longest Uber ride of our lives: three hours to Oakland!
On day nine, for the second time in our tour, we saw a pitcher take a no-hitter into the 8th inning. And for the second time, we didn’t get to see history; A’s pitcher Frankie Montas allowed a base hit after recording two outs. The Mariners scored twice on the A’s in the top of the 9th and won 2-1. We were all just glad that we made it up from Fresno and didn’t miss this weekday day game.
Friday, day ten of the tour, was a picture-perfect day in beautiful San Francisco. We enjoyed a free morning before walking from our hotel to the Baseballism store across the street from Oracle Park. The Baseballism team offered our group 15% off out of respect for our squad of dedicated baseball fans.
Friday night is “Orange Friday” at Oracle Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, and it’s always a fun time out. With the best sight lines and the chilliest summer weather in MLB, I chose our seats carefully. We sat in the Club Level down the right-field line, just above McCovey Cove, and with a tremendous view of the SF Bay, the Bay Bridge, the Oakland Hills, and Oracle Park’s giant, retro Coke bottle and baseball mitt. Access to the enclosed Club Level also ensured we could watch the game from indoors if the wind and fog were too much to handle. Although the Giants lost 4-2 to the Reds, we had a fun group of 15 fans at the game who didn’t seem to mind!
That brings us to Saturday: day 11, game 11. We finished the tour off at a Pecos League game, watching the Martinez Sturgeon host the Santa Rosa Scuba Divers. The Sturgeon play at Joe DiMaggio Field because the man is known as “The Yankee Clipper” was born about a quarter-mile from the ballpark. Joe D. may be associated with the Yankees, but he was a Bay Area guy for his first 21 years. We visited his birthplace and the home where he held his first wedding reception before heading to the ballpark for our last hurrah.
I enlisted my mom and good friend, Vahe, to put on a pregame BBQ, and this super team did not disappoint. The barbecue chicken and pork, potato salad, chili, cornbread, and amazing homemade, baseball-themed cookies were all delicious. We had 30 people at the event – a perfect opportunity to renew and create baseball friendships.
The game was easily both the sloppiest and most fun of the tour. There were 12 errors and lots of hard-hit balls on both sides. To stop the bleeding, Martinez manager Manny Corpas – who pitched seven MLB seasons with the Rockies and Cubs – called to the bullpen for…Manny Corpas. At 39 years old and with limited mobility in his shoulder, Manny craftily handled the Santa Rosa hitters with a mix of arm angles and well-located pitches. But the best part was that he was a showman the whole time – commenting in English in Spanish to players on both sides, making jokes with the crowd, and providing entertaining at-bats too. In such a cozy ballpark, we could hear it all.
It was the perfect ending to our tour. JapanBallers don’t need big-league stadiums or superstar players; we are there for the love of the game, the camaraderie enjoyed with fellow fans that become friends, and the unexpected memories made along the way. Thank you to all who joined us and to those who followed along online!