JapanBall Guest / Former Sportswriter Carter Cromwell Reflects on His JapanBall Trip
By Carter Cromwell (September 30, 2019)
Early this year, I found out about a baseball-themed tour of Japan and realized that it should be a key addition to my bucket list. I signed up six months in advance and began counting down the days until the trip. When it happened in September, I wasn’t disappointed.
I actually combined three tours – what they call a Pre-Tour, Main Tour and Post-Tour – through an organization called JapanBall into one. – Those covered all but one of the big-league ballparks in Japan over 2.5 weeks – getting to Sapporo took some extra days that I didn’t have.
The group ranged from a dozen to about 25 people, as people came and went, depending on which tours they had booked. There were some first-timers, as well as some who had done the tour multiple times, and the group dynamics worked out very well – which doesn’t always happen. A friend from my days as a newspaper sportswriter went on the trip, too.
Following are various observations, comments, etc., about a terrific trip. The items are not listed in any particular order, and this is not a comprehensive report – just random thoughts.
JapanBall has coordinated these tours for 20 years, so it has the details and logistics down well. The only snafu was simply due to circumstance – a strong typhoon hit Tokyo with rain and high winds late in the evening of the second day I was there. The tour leader said he’d experienced typhoons on most trips but had never had one result in so much disruption. The typhoon caused the postponement of a game at the Yakult Swallows’ home stadium (which, unfortunately, will be replaced next year by one of the facilities to be used for the Summer Olympics) and then really snarled the transportation system the next morning. Taxis were impossible to find, so we walked to the Tokyo train station in heat and humidity that few of us were used to. We often use the phrase “wall-to-wall people”, but it truly was at the station. So many people were waiting for delayed trains or trying to reschedule that everyone was really pressed together. One literally had to barge through knots of people to get anywhere. I got clobbered several times by other people’s bags and backpacks. We weren’t sure when our scheduled train to Osaka would actually leave; we eventually took a chance by getting into the non-reserved seating cars of another train bound for Osaka, and that worked fine. Interestingly, while conductors came through the cars fairly regularly, none asked to see our tickets or rail passes.
The game at Yokohama later in the tour was rained out.
I came down with a fairly bad cold several days into the tour. It slowed me some, but I didn’t miss anything.
Of the dozen ballparks, several are domed stadiums, and they’re what you would expect – a bit gray and dim, but clean and well-appointed. They felt more like football stadiums than baseball facilities.
Tokyo Dome (Yomiuri Giants)
Kyocera Dome (Orix Buffaloes)
Fukuoka Dome (Softbank Hawks)
MetLife Dome (Seibu Lions)
Sapporo Dome (Nippon Ham Fighters)o Nagoya Dome (Chunichi Dragons)
Hanshin Stadium (Hanshin Tigers
ZoZo Marine Stadium (Chiba Lotte Marines)
Mazda ZoomZoom Stadium (Hiroshima Carp)
Miyagi Park (Rakuten Golden Eagles)
Yokohama Stadium (Yokohama Bay Stars)
Meiji Jingu Stadium (Yakult Swallows)
Only the stadiums in Hiroshima, Lotte and Hanshin have natural grass.
Hanshin has an all-dirt infield.
Like many things in Japan, the ballpark seats were smaller and closer together than we’re used to in the U.S. I didn’t have much trouble, but some of the tall people in the group had to get up and stand or walk around a lot.
The official seating capacities of the stadiums range from 35,000 to 46,000.
The crowds were large at every game, even on weekdays and for the teams that were low in the standings.
The Japanese definitely are into baseball … it’s a big deal. There are actual cheering sections in which cheerleaders direct. One team’s section is in the right field bleachers, and the others’ is in left field. They take turns, depending on which team is bat. They chant certain cheers constantly – over and over and over – all the while beating rally sticks together. It’s a lot of fun to sit in the bleachers with them and see how into the games they are. On the other hand, after several games, the monotony starts to wear, and I found myself wishing they would stop for an inning or two …
Interestingly, I noticed that while the fans in the other parts of the stadiums were definitely into the games, they were more like U.S. crowds – they would react when something happened on the field and be relatively quiet otherwise.
The overall experience was different than that at games in Latin America. Fans in both places get excited, but the Japanese cheering is very controlled and orchestrated while the Latin Americans are much more spontaneous.
There is an interesting tradition at Japanese games. In the middle of the seventh inning, people inflate very large balloons but don’t tie them off. On cue, they release them and they float upward until losing their air. I asked several people the origin of this, and the best answer I got was “It’s a tradition.” But it has to be a mess to clean up.
Speaking of cleanliness, most people at games are very diligent about picking up their trash and disposing of it.
The game itself is pretty much what you’ve heard – more disciplined than the U.S. game. The players aren’t necessarily as talented individually, but they play well together and are usually more fundamentally sound. They are often better at executing basics such as the sacrifice bunt and hitting the cutoff man, and they always back up bases. Most of the pitchers throw in the high ‘80s to low ‘90s. I only saw one Japanese pitcher get to 95mph. The only others I saw getting to that level were a few of the U.S. or Latin American imports, such as Pierce Johnson of Hanshin, who played for the San Francisco Giants in 2018. But the Japanese pitchers showed once again the importance of good command over simple raw “stuff”.
A number of the foreign players were Cubans or Dominicans. We were told that they sometimes adapt easier to the Japanese environment because they’ve already had to make the transition to playing in the U.S. or some other country, while the U.S. players might be going through the process for the first time.
Still, there were some recognizable names among the U.S. players – Jabari Blash (formerly of the Padres), Dayan Viciedo (White Sox), Mike Bolsinger (Dodgers) and Rick Van Den Hurk (Orioles), to name a few.
After each game, the home team honors a player and pitcher of the game. They come back out on the field, accept awards and do interviews. Many of the fans stay for this.
In the regular season, games don’t go longer than 12 innings. At that point, a tie goes on each team’s record.
For the ceremonial first pitch, the home team has a batter stand at home plate and swing and miss.
In one game at the Rakuten stadium in Sendai, the manager making a pitching change gave a new ball to the reliever while the previous pitcher took the old ball.
There is a lot more politeness during Japanese games. Players and coaches rarely argue ball/strike calls. If a batter gets a base on balls, he waits for the bat boy to come out and then hands him his armor, gloves, etc. In the U.S., the batter usually just dumps his stuff on the ground.
They do have video replay of disputed calls.
We were told that use of Saber Metrics is growing in Japan but is not at the level it is in the United States.
You may have heard about the “beer girls” that hawk beer at Japanese games. We were told many are aspiring models or actresses hoping to get noticed. They start at the bottom of a row, bow and then start up the steps – always with smiles on their faces. These women work really hard. The containers of beer weigh 40 pounds when full, and they strap them on like backpacks. The women go up and down the ramps constantly and quickly – and for 4-5 hours, depending on how long the games last. It’s hard work, especially at an outdoor stadium on a hot day. It was 93 degrees and very humid at an afternoon game in Hiroshima, and our seats were not covered. The women working our section of the stands looked exhausted after just two innings. Here is a link to a video showing how quickly they change – like a NASCAR pit crew.
All the teams are heavily into marketing, with all manner of logoed gear and souvenirs. Hiroshima, whose nickname is the “Carp”, even offers “Carp Curry” in microwaveable bags.
We had time to visit the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame, which is in the Tokyo Dome, and Hanshin had its own HoF. Both were interesting, though, like most museums in Japan, had most of the captions and explanations in Japanese. The Japanese HoF did, however, provide a hard copy that explained in English each display.
Speaking of Halls of Fame, I, Ken and six others were inducted into the JapanBall Hall of Fame for doing all three tours at once.
Near the end of the trip, we had a chance to visit with two people associated with the Rakuten ball club – Marty Kuehnert and Jeff Liebengood. We could have talked all afternoon. Marty is an American who has lived in Japan for most of the last 40 years. He was the first foreign-born general manager of a Japanese team and is now a special advisor for Rakuten. He also was part-owner of the Birmingham Barons when Michael Jordan tried his hand at baseball in the mid-1990s. He had many stories and insights – too numerous to go into here. Jeff is the strength and conditioning director for the Rakuten team, and he and Marty both had a lot of insights into the differences between the Japanese and American approaches to the game and their styles of play.
The Japanese, as is their custom, are extremely polite. In many venues, there are even people who turn the revolving doors for people going through.
In Japan, everything is smaller than we’re used to. We more or less expect the hotel rooms to be smaller in many parts of the world, but in Japan even the bathtubs were shorter and I found that the counters/sinks in the bathrooms were perhaps six inches lower than usual. Towels tended to be thinner, and there were fewer of them. But this can be very instructive by helping you realize that you don’t need as much of many things as you think you do.
Interestingly, on weekdays, there are women-only cars on the subways. The idea is to prevent the groping that can often occur on crowded trains.
We noticed a restaurant in Osaka that was designated as “smoking only.”
In many parts of Japan, manhole covers are customized with interesting, colorful designs.
Craft brewing is a relative latecomer to Japan, but there are some good offerings now. Many places still serve Sapporo, Asahi and Kirin, but more and more seem to be offering craft brews. A group of us tried these and liked them … The Watering Hole (Tokyo) and Baird Taproom (Yokohama).
The Osaka Castle is interesting for a fairly quick visit.
Several of us went to the Robot Show one evening. Most came away feeling that it was OK, but not great, but it was certainly something different to do. There are three shows, and the total running time is 90 minutes. There are two intermissions, so you can leave if you want. I did after two shows because it was getting very hot and smoky. It’s located in the Shinjuku district, which has a lot of nightlife, so it’s interesting to explore.
The Robot Restaurant is also a short walk to the Godzilla head on top of the Toho Building. That’s worth a visit.
In Hiroshima, of course, you can visit Peace Park and the A-Bomb Museum – well worth experiencing.