Tokyo Yakult Swallows

Founded in 1950, the Swallows have remained the Central League’s most overlooked team for nearly five decades. Because their cross-town rivals, the Yomiuri Giants, attract so many supporters, Yakult has a relatively small but loyal base of fans. Since Yakult games are seldom televised, the only way to see the team is to wait until they play against the Giants (all Yomiuri games are broadcast) or visit their home ballpark, Meiji-Jingu Stadium.

The second oldest professional ballpark still in use, Jingu’s brick walls date back to 1926. Before the Second World War, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig played in Jingu during an exhibition tour of Japan. Though renovated in 1982, no other stadium in Eastern Japan retains as much history and old-ballpark style.

Filling Jingu’s 48,000 seats are some of the liveliest fans you’ll ever encounter. Though most others look pretty much the same, Swallows fans have one of the most annoying (to opponents) ways to celebrate a run. When that happens, a sea of green and blue umbrellas blossom across the right field bleachers as Yakult fans discreetly tell the opposing pitcher it’s time he head for the showers.

Perpetual underdogs and typical of low-budget, small market team (though this market is really anything but small), the Swallows are rarely able to outbid other teams in the annual free-agent auction. Instead, cash-poor Yakult has had to develop its younger players and pick up low-price “has-beens” other teams have given up on.

No one may expect much from Yakult, but they have fun and they win games. With every season an uphill climb, there are few teams as fun to cheer for as the Swallows.

Acknowledgment: Dan Latham