By JEFF OGRISSEG
YOKOHAMA -- I'm still not sure how I heard him through all the noise and my foam rubber ear plugs. But without even with the slightest look around, I had to agree with him. "This is not baseball! This is a damn carnival! I cannot believe this!"
Of all the ways to spend a summer evening in Japan, coming out to the ballpark is my favorite. You may think you know what I'm talking about. But Japanese baseball, from the little leagues to the professional level, is, in a word, different.
My Navy Journalist friend Paul doesn't like baseball. He was visiting from an isolated base in the Aleutians, and had a short list of priorities. His vote this evening was to consume massive quantities of ice-cold refreshing beer to cut through the typically humid Japanese summer heat, preferably in a night club or bar. We compromised.
We ended up near the top of the right field bleacher section at Yokohama Stadium for a night game between the home BayStars and the Hiroshima Carp. It's not that we couldn't get better seats, but if you want to throw yourself into the thick of total fan zaniness, the bleacher section -- specifically the home team's bleacher section -- is the place. The fact that the tickets were about $20 less each (roughly four beers) didn't hurt either.
Pro baseball here has a very large fan base, especially the following of the Yomiuri Giants. Tickets for their home games at Tokyo Dome are such a hot item that even the "Standing Area" (note the distinction here from "Standing Room") ducats sell out an hour before game time. It's not quite as bad in other stadiums. My friend and I, for example, had arrived only an hour in advance to ensure we could get tickets. We were lucky the Giants weren't in town.
The popularity of the Giants is, I believe, the primary reason that pro baseball in Japan will never expand beyond the 12 teams it now has (Central and Pacific leagues, six teams per league). In the same note lies the reason you will never see interleague play during the regular season -- more teams, or interleague play will reduce the number of games each Central League club gets to play the Giants, and fill their stadiums to capacity. And if the Central League isn't expanding, then Pacific League expansion would ruin the harmony. Who said baseball wasn't a business?
I have also found out, the hard way, that going to the stadium is the
only proven method to ensure that you get to see the entire game. Instances
similar to the "Heidi Bowl" happen almost nightly on Japanese
television. Imagine for a moment that the game you are watching is tied,
top of the 9th, two outs, two on. The excitement is building,
the fans in the stands are screaming their throats hoarse. The pitcher
looks in for the sign, shakes it off until he gets one he likes and he
sets. . . and WHAM! La-la-la Nescafe Gold Blend, or the commercial of some
other "Grand Sponsor" is running, followed by about six others
in rapid succession. Mind-blowing? Guess what? When the time comes for
the game broadcast to be over, that baby is over! It doesn't matter if
it's that station's news update, you can kiss the game goodbye! Turn on
the radio (not recommended) or wait up for the late newscast and game highlights
if you dare, or just go to bed and read the paper in the morning. Because
no amount of screaming at the TV station's telephone receptionist is gonna'
make a damn bit of difference. But I can give you the phone numbers --
they are pasted on the back of my remote control.
It's difficult to put a definitive finger on the remaining quirks, but if you saw Tom Selleck in "Mr. Baseball," you at least have a starting point. That movie, by the way, got a strange set of reviews, as I recall. Mainstream Americans seemed to find the movie a bit shallow, and a poor attempt at cashing in on the ballpark genre. Some Asian-Americans expressed indignance over the way Japanese idiosyncracies were conveyed (the noodle-slurping scene comes to mind). The Japanese themselves, however, were simply appalled that the coach's daughter, Hiroko Uchiyama , played by Aya Takanashi, (a) started a relationship with a "foreign helper," (b) got intimate with Jack Elliot so early after they met, or (c) got intimate period. The depiction of Japanese baseball on the whole, however, seemed to raise barely an eyebrow here. And from my seat, it was pretty much dead on.
Anyway, let's start with rudimentary elements and move on from there.
One item that will always give me trouble, is that the count here is strike-ball, not ball-strike. Don't ask me why. I've heard two differing theories on this. One goes that after Japan copied the game, folks felt the need to make it unique. The other says baseball originally had a strike-ball count, but that the American pro baseball establishment reversed it. There's another story in this, and I'd like to hear it.
This may all be changing some day in Japan with the introduction of baseball into the Olympics, but it's going to take a generation. The national association for high school baseball said recently it would institute the change, presumably with the Olympics in mind, but because the national high school tournament games are played in a professional team's stadium, "confusion" will abound.
High school, you say? Don't be too quick to write this off -- the spring high school tournament gets some the highest TV ratings of any televised sport. Intense pressure is placed on these kids, fortunes have been won and lost, players on one team a few years back received death threats. This tournament seems to go on longer than the NBA playoffs, but some of the best of the best of these kids step right into pro uniforms.
Back in the stadium bleachers, it is now our turn to cheer. Yes, our turn. Japanese baseball is much more organized and regimented than the game Abner Doubleday invented. Players are made early on to bat, bunt, steal bases and field the same way, so why should the fans be left out.
There are "official" cheers. And if there is one way to stand out in this crowd, try to ad-lib your own refrains -- people will look at you funny. Yokohama right fielder Glenn Braggs, released after his 100-hit season in 1996, never could figure out what it was that I was screaming. Apparently, "Big D!" (for Defense, or Dawg, take your pick) isn't in the official list. It's too bad he's gone now, because the BayStars need his reach from the outfield.
Cheering while the other team is batting is a similar faux pas. Which is probably better, because it gives your eardrums a half-inning of relief. And if the drums, trumpets, trombones (all being abused by certified card-carrying members of The Supporter's Club) aren't enough, then there are usually extra guys wearing team uniforms of unknown origin stationed strategically around the bleachers who are armed with whistles to keep you in tune. Somehow in all this madness fit the Flag Wavers, who manage to carry vaulting poles (an easy 15 feet in length) on the public transportation system. The flags on these poles are large beach blanket size and create hurricane-strength winds when the wavers get them going in a figure-eight pattern. Amazingly, I've never seen one of these gargantuan banners, which could probably cover a small car, hit, scrape or brush the other fans. Not that anyone would notice in the heat of things.
The heat, that's right. Paul and I are keeping roughly a beer-per-inning pace, but the later it gets in the game, the harder that pace is to keep. It might be easier if we bought beer from any vendor who walked by, but I have a very specific philosophy about this. Paul and I learned early on that you should only buy your beer from the female vendors, and the reasoning behind this is practical: they take the stairs slower than the guys. In this stadium at least, the beer is poured from cans into large paper cups. So not only is the beer less shaken up when it reaches you, the girls tend to pour it out more slowly, producing less foam. This would not be a problem if we switched to whiskey and water, which is also readily available in Japanese ballparks, but it's a long way down the stairs to the exit, and I did promise to get Paul back home safely.
Amid all this aggressive observation, you might be wondering if I noticed
how the game was going. The BayStars, my new hometown team, took it 7-5
in a brilliant 7th inning comeback, and in doing so, stretched
my personal streak of never having seen them lose in Yokohama Stadium.
I'll be sure to let you know if that streak is ever broken.
"Yes, We Are BayStars!"
Author's note: As I was putting the finishing touches on this tale, a story broke that adds a new twist to the differences of Japanese baseball: the Mike DiMuro affair. So in my next installment, we'll leave the stands and head down to the field, and hopefully not get pushed around in the process!