Greetings, AN, from a contributor in AN’s prehistoric past, and from Tokyo, where I’m here to see the A’s and the Sox – I’ll be posting after the games on Tuesday and Wednesday – and even a little Japanese baseball.
Speaking of which, does this sound familiar: A team dominates in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Wins two different sets of three straight championships. Plays in the shadow of the more popular, better funded Giants. A series of near misses in the early part of the Oughts gives way to futility and serious questions about the desire of ownership to leverage income into payroll, in particular when it comes to established, front-line pitching.
And: the team has been given a brand new "regional" name.
I refer, of course, to the Saitama Seibu Lions, who play in one of Japan’s two major leagues, the Pacific. The Japanese season opened last Thursday and I took advantage of that to head out on Sunday afternoon to Tokorozawa in the western ‘burbs of Tokyo to see the Lions – the A’s of Japan! – play at their home Seibu Dome against the Orix Buffaloes.
The only serious way to get to the ballgame – to get anywhere in and around Tokyo – is the incomprehensibly efficient train system. I’ve been here a week already, taken trains dozens of times, I’ve never had to wait more than three minutes for a train, and I still haven’t seen one that’s even a minute late, and that includes the long-distance shinkansen. (Those are the bullet trains, the ones that go over 200 MPH and travel routes hundreds of miles long.)
When you get to the Seibu Dome, owned by Seibu Railway, home of the Lions, owned by Seibu Railway, it’s literally across the street from the last stop on the Ikebukoro commuter rail line, owned by Seibu Railway.
The Dome is a story in itself. The Lions had a large one-deck outdoor ballpark, reminiscent of Kauffman Stadium, set into a hill, a bit like Dodger Stadium, but decided in the late ‘90s to go state-of-the-art in Japanese baseball. That meant a dome.
Instead of blowing up the outdoor stadium and starting from scratch, Seibu built a dome on top of the existing ballpark, leaving a gap of between fifty and a hundred feet, depending on where you are in the stadium, between the rim of the stadium and the bottom of the new dome. A dome with a breeze, a little like Safeco in Seattle. It’s striking, more so later in the season, I’m guessing, when the trees ringing the stadium have leaves.
Anyway, the game:
I wanted to see it because I love the baseball, and seeing how others worship in the Church of Baseball is always informative – sometimes as much about your own church as it is about theirs. I’ll never forget going to see Los Aguilas de Mexicali play a couple of years ago. I ended up sitting next to the player wives and girlfriends. I don’t speak Spanish, but it didn’t matter. They were exactly the same women you see sitting behind the visitor’s dugout at the Coliseum. In Japan, it was the umpires; if you’d told me that the umpiring crew was visiting from the US, I would have believed you without hesitation. Their gestures, stances, demeanor – all of it exactly the same.
The game on the field is awfully similar to American baseball – perhaps more like the top colleges and the minors than MLB, for reasons I’ll get into later – but when you come to the fans, it’s like you’re watching a different sport altogether, in a way that might be familiar to A’s fans.
Imagine the Coliseum bleachers in the days before Mt. Davis. Now imagine that the drums and flags guys are there. But more of them. A lot more. In fact, everyone in the left field bleachers is a drums and flags guy, all in green and gold. And it’s not just drums and flags. There are guys with bullhorns leading cheers, whistles and a horn section made up of fans which has worked out arrangements to original songs for various players and occasions. Which every single person in the bleachers knows the words to and sings along to.
That was the scene at the Seibu Dome for an otherwise nondescript early-season game between the flagging Lions and the Orix Buffaloes, who are the Tampa Bay of Japan.
That’s not even the end of it, though: the Buffaloes, who are based in Osaka – think Oakland and Anaheim in terms of travel between Tokorozawa and Osaka – filled about a quarter of the rest of the bleachers with their own drums and flag guys, horn section and cheerleaders. The Buffaloes guys and the Lions guys cheered only when their boys were at bat and brought an excitement and spontaneity to the game you just don’t see in any American ballpark for anything but the most intense post-season games.
This was despite the fact that the game only drew 12,632, virtually all of them in the bleachers or in cheaper, general admission seats on the Seibu side of the field, between first base and the right field foul pole. The high dollar seats behind home plate were sparsely populated and the entire third base side of the field, where Orix supporters were encouraged to sit, was virtually deserted.
As to the play on the field, the thing that is most striking is the way the players look: they’re gifted athletes, fast, great hand-eye coordination, all the things you need to be a professional baseball player, but they look like ordinary people, not the hulks we’ve been seeing in MLB. (Although I’m not here to talk about the past.)
It makes the game different, if a little less spectacular. Most of the players in both line-ups were quick, which meant a profusion of big leads by baserunners – Japanese players love them some secondary leads – hit-and-runs and bunts. Orix CF Tomotaka Sakaguchi may be one of the fastest players I’ve ever seen. He hit a routine, line-drive, one-hop double to the wall in right-center. Seibu CF Kenta Matsusaka played the ball nicely, made a strong throw towards the infield, the relay was strong and spot on and – what the hell? – Sakaguchi was standing on third base. Standing. It was Ichiro-like. Or Chuck Carr-like, if you remember him.
Made the difference in the game, too, a 2-1 Orix win.
That’s not to say the game is without power. There were two solo home runs and a couple of deep fly balls, but pitchers were obviously not spending every AB wondering if the back-up catcher was going to take them into the upper deck in CF. (That’s a shoutout to you, Sal Fasano.)
Glovework was awfully slick, too, and obviously a priority, as you’d expect in a league where the ball is sprayed around a lot. Both teams took full infield before the game – when’s the last time you saw that in MLB? – and there are stars all over my scorebook, the ones I use to note a special fielding play. In particular, I don’t think it’d be an exaggeration to say that the Seibu DP combo of Hiroyuki Nakajima at short and Yasuyuki Kataoka at second is better than Crosby and Ellis (and I love Ellis).
Then there’s the pitching. Remember a few years back, before every team had someone, or even several guys who could bring it in the high 90s, when everybody was wondering what happened to the fastball? It was like that. The fastest pitch anyone threw in this game, by Seibu reliever Chikara Onodera, topped out at 145 km/h – 90 MPH. Saitama Seibu starter Matt Kinney – after bouncing around between the Twins, Brewers and Royals, he spent all of last year in the Giants’ system in Fresno, then signed with Seibu this off-season – topped out at 86, and most of his fastballs were 83, 84. One of the Orix relievers threw a pitch that was 61.
(Kinney, by the way, was making his first start in Japan and it might turn out that he’s one of those guys who has trouble making the mental adjustment required in the move from the U.S. to Japan. He was wild high and inside – and only high and inside – for all six innings he worked, he hit two Orix batters and narrowly missed three more. His body language was putrid.)
Other ballpark notes:
-- The scoreboard at the Seibu Dome is monstrous, stretching all the way from left-center to right-center. It is completely unhelpful to those of us keeping score who don’t speak Japanese; except for the team nicknames, there wasn’t a word of English up there, or even the Roman letter-version of the player names. I got lucky; a nice guy who saw the blank left side of my scorebook offered to fill it in for me. Of course, he had "Kablera" batting fifth for Orix; turns out to be "Cabrera," but our "l" and "r" correspond with only one phoneme in Japanese, which accounts for a lot of that kind of confusion.
-- The stadium organist knows the obscure country weeper "Once A Day," recently covered to great effect by Van Morrison. I still can’t believe she played it.
-- Hiram Bocachica can’t break into the starting line-up for Saitama Seibu, either.
-- Not only is beer vended in the stands at Japanese games, but so is whiskey, and all of it – at this game anyway – by cute young Japanese girls. Beers are 700 yen, $7 US.
-- The seventh-inning stretch was a trip. Everyone in the stadium spent the top of the seventh blowing up long, blue balloons, which they didn’t tie off; during the stretch, they sang a song, then at the end, everyone in the stadium let their balloons shoot up into the air and deflate.
-- The Bo Diddley beat – not a Japanese fan clapping skill.
-- The Japanese league has a reputation for abusing pitcher arms. I don’t know if it’s true, but I know this: Japanese pitchers who are in the game start playing catch in front of their dugout when their team is batting with two outs, and Seibu had six different guys throwing in the pen at different points, two per inning from pretty much the fourth inning on. Only two got into the game. (The new Orix manager, Terry Collins, by contrast warmed up only two pitchers, and brought both of them into the game in short order.)
-- The Seibu mascot is the famous Japanese anime character Kimba the White Lion, which brings back cartoon memories to those of us of a certain age.
-- The food at the Seibu Dome is great, especially the yakitori. You can get hot dogs if you insist, but I looked at them carefully and definitely wouldn’t recommend them.
-- The Japanese press has reported that the six billion yen ($51 million then; $60 million with the dollar’s recent collapse) the Lions received for "posting rights" to Daisuke Matsusaka will be enough to pay all of the team’s player salaries for at least two years and still net some extra cash for Seibu. Lions fans are bitter, the Japan Times reports, that none of the money is going into luring star players to Seibu.
-- Earlier in the week, I visited Hiroshima. The Hiroshima Carp play their games in an outdoor stadium across the street from the A-Bomb Dome, the shattered remnants of a building which was directly underneath the detonation point of the first nuclear weapon ever used against people. The dome and it’s accompanying museum are an incredibly moving and powerful experience, not to be missed, and the stadium where the Carp play is one of the few outdoor parks in the Japanese League.
The Seibu Dome, as viewed from the subway exit.
The Seibu Dome, looking across the outfield.
An Asahi girl pours a fan a cold one. Whiskey is available too. Note the knee sox: every girl in Japan under 25 is wearing them.
During the seventh-inning stretch...
<!-- TOKEN_1206396992967_TOKEN -->
...and the end of the seventh-inning stretch.
A view of the Seibu Dome infield, from right field.
More cheering from Lions bleacher die-hards.
A shot of the author.
<!-- TOKEN_1206394947105_TOKEN --><!-- TOKEN_1206394906774_TOKEN -->