Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Take Me Out to the Yakyu Game

Scratching out a combination of remedial Japanese and English, Omiyada students arranged to meet me at 17:30 at Shinanomachi station’s turnstiles. In a rush and taking an unfamiliar route, by the time I realized that Suidobashi was not the same as Shinanomachi, I was stuck on a Sobu line train in the wrong direction.

It wasn’t my first Japanese baseball game, or even first at Jingu Stadium. In early July I visited the Tokyo Dome, home to the famous Yomiuri Giants, to see the Chiba Lotte Marines take on Hokkaido’s Nippon Ham Fighters. Which was the home team? Last year the Ham Fighters (sponsored by a meat packing company) moved to Japan’s northern island, but still play token home games in Tokyo to please fans that didn’t migrate.

Loyalty divides the two $14 bleacher seat sections. Having no attachment to either team, but finding myself in a sea of Marines’ supporters, I cheered for Chiba. I didn’t want to stand out like a big white thumb more than I already did.

The Dome’s drab interior is peppered with ads for all of your favorite Japanese companies: Casio, Canon, Nissan, Kirin, Fuji Film, and Showa Gas. The Ham Fighters struck for three runs while I was in the subway en route. The crowd’s flag waving and tomahawk chops initially proved more interesting than the game itself, which featured what had to be a record for double plays and only one extra base hit until the 9th inning.

Down 3-1 with two outs in the top of the 9th, Chiba’s tying run stepped to the plate. The crowd chanted “home run” in English. Down to his last strike, Lee Seung Yeop harnessed the cheers and smacked the ball into the bleachers filled with stunned Fighters fans. Trumpets blared. (Yes, fans bring musical instruments to games). Chiba completed the dramatic comeback with three runs in the 10th. Final score: Marines 6, Fighters 3.

A month later I watched the Hiroshima Carp battle my now favorite Yakult (“Yak-a-loot-o”) Swallows at Jingu Stadium. The Carp seem to have stolen a page out of the Cincinnati Reds fashion playbook. These imposters struck for four runs while I was still in the subway. Minutes after I settled into my front row bleacher seat, the Carp doubled their 4-0 advantage with a single swing. Greg Larocca’s (not a Japanese) grand slam was Hiroshima’s second in as many innings. This one was over before it started. Final score: Carp 10, Swallows 0.

Despite the Swallows’ anemic performance, I enjoyed Japan’s most historic ballpark, its brick walls dating from 1926. On a pre-WWII exhibition tour, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth played here. Although room for 48,000, Jingu’s humble confines felt more minor league. Absent were luxury boxes, extravagant concession stands, and corporate promotions that are staples of Major League parks.

To be sure, Yakult Honsha Co., manufacturer of a fermented milk drink, owns the team. Uniformed “Yakult Ladies” peddle these probiotics on bicycles throughout Japan. So, why Yakult? Well, as someone who swallows such a supplement daily, my affinity truly comes from the gut. Furthermore, the Swallows are avian kin to my favorite MLB team, the Blue Jays. They’re also Tokyo’s underdogs, overshadowed by the Yankee-like Giants with their bloated payroll, aging players, high expectations, and huge fan base. Case in point: Swallows games are only televised when playing the Giants.

This brings me to my most recent game, in the shared company of two Omiyada baseball pals as our team hosted cross-town rivals the Kyojin (Giants). We spoke a little Japanese, filling the silences with mouthfuls of squid jerky. No Cracker Jack or peanut vendors in these here parts. Their jaws dropped when I jokingly tried to order three drafts beers from the Asahi lady with a keg strapped to her back.

Although forecasted typhoon remnants threatened to disrupt play, the clouds parted for a brilliant sunset. But Swallows fans tote kasa to the ballpark even on sunny days. For every Swallow who crosses home plate, fans recite a team cheer and pop open their umbrellas as a not so subtle gesture to the opposing pitcher that he should hit the showers.

Even though the rain held off, our umbrellas were in constant motion, starting with the first pitch of the game that Norichika Aoki sent into the Giants’ bleachers. Team cheers, and those personalized for each player, build community for a common cause. Unity, loyalty, and sacrifice are the Japanese way. Male cheerleaders stand on plastic crates armed with whistles and flags. Some grow hoarse before the balloon release during the 7th inning stretch.

When American Adam Riggs (“Rig-a-sue”) is announced, Old Glory appears. A Venezuelan bandera is similarly flown for Alex Ramirez (“Rami-chan”), formerly a Cleveland Indian and Pittsburgh Pirate.

Riggs homered in the second, and the Swallows scored in all but one inning to topple the mighty Giants. The game became such a farce that benches emptied. Swallows fans fell silent when one seldom-used player stepped to the plate. Everyone looked at the cheerleaders for direction. Did a chant exist for this guy? It hardly mattered. Final score [with pictures]: Swallows 14, Giants 3.


allison said...

that sky is RIDICULOUS.

Adam said...

Did you take that picture? that is a hot dusk shot