After a few weeks in Japan, I finally decided to accomplish my mission of attending a baseball game. I have decided to adopt the Tokyo Yakult Swallows as my new favorite team, actually my first favorite team in Japan. Reason one is that I didn't want to go along with the masses who like the Yomiuri Giants, they are like the Yankees of Japan and I hate the Yankees. Plus, Meiji Jingu Stadium, where the Swallows play, is one of the few stadiums in Japan that is outside, where baseball is meant to be played. Add on to that fact that it is only about a 15 minute walk from Aoyama Gakuin to the stadium and we have ourselves a winning combination.
It happened to be student day at the ballpark and therefore I was able to sit a little outside first base and 14 rows up for only 2,000 yen! Which is a steal of a deal since it usually costs 1,500 yen to sit in the outfield bleachers.
Some interesting differences with American baseball became apparent once I stepped into the park. First off, there is a screen about five meters high or so that runs all the way down both foul lines. So, needless to say I spent most of the time looking through this screen to watch the game. It was also interesting that during batting practice there were stadium employees blowing whistles and waving red flags whenever a ball was hit into the seats, I guess it was a warning for those not paying attention. During BP, there was a catcher and all the homerun balls were gracefully returned to the outfield by the fans, no freebies here! It was also funny to watch them prepare the field for the game, there was a mat where the BP pitcher was throwing from, to protect the turf I guess, but to get rid of it a Hi-Jet truck came rumbling out onto the field and two workers threw the mat on the back, so much for preserving the turf!
It is very strange seeing baseball played on turf outdoors, with only small diamonds of dirt surrounding the bases. Before the game cheerleaders from Aoyama Gakuin and Tokyo University accompanied the three Swallow mascots (a big male one, one little male and one little female) in leading the pre-game festivity of shooting T-shirts out of a cannon. A girl from Aoyama Gakuin also threw out the first pitch. There was no national anthem nor a loud call of "play ball" to start the game, it just kind of started.
During the game beer girls came around with a mini-keg strapped to their back to pour "nama" or draft beer for $7. There were also vendors selling whiskey, shochu and sake, among the usual fare of popcorn and peanuts. I decided to venture back under the seats to the concession stand where I ordered some fried octopus balls. The seats never got more than a quarter full with the majority out in left and right field, in the cheering sections. Right field was for the Swallows fans and left field was taken over by the visiting Yokohama BayStars (currently basement dwellers in the Central Division). Each section only does chants while their team is at the plate, and most cheers consist of nothing more than the rhythmic chanting of a player's last name accompanied by some trumpets, drums and weird plastic hand clapper things.
The game got off to a great start after the BayStars got one run in the first inning, American Greg LaRocca stepped to the plate for the Swallows with one on, only to be beaned on the payoff pitch! He took a few quick steps to charge the mound and the pitcher threw off his hat in preparation, but LaRocca backed off and trotted down to first. A few players or coaches, it's hard to tell since the Swallows coach is their catcher, came running out of the dugouts, but nothing else materialized. However, the pitcher was immediately ejected, something that almost never happens after one seemingly accidental bean ball in America.
The next few innings were filled with another run by the BayStars before a LaRocca solo homerun. Meanwhile, the comfortable space of two to three empty seats around me had since been taken, and with no armrests separating the seats I am left to wrestle for position with the ten year old next to me. In the fifth inning, the BayStars pitcher was hit by a bouncing grounder in the lower abdomen and had to leave the game. That's two pitchers we knocked out! Then the Swallows proceed to try to give the game away with bonehead plays by the likes of fellow American Adam Riggs at first and one time Chicago Cub Alex Ramirez in left, who somehow forgot how to run the bases since he left the majors.
After a few BayStars hits and what I would call errors, but the Japanese scorekeeper called more hits (it seems some kind of overthrow or other obvious mistake must be made, a bobble doesn't count as obvious in the scorekeeper’s mind) the BayStars had a comfortable 4-1 lead heading into the eighth. Two quick outs later and some fans begin to file out, but to everyone's surprise the Swallows' bats come alive, kind of. Riggs doubled into the right field gap, then the SS bobbled a sure out (scorekeeper rules...hit!), a single deflected off the pitcher’s glove and it is 4-2. Another infield single and a walk and the bases are loaded with the lead trimmed to 4-3.
Keep in mind this is all happening against their star closer, Marc Kroon, who is blazing the radar gun at nearly 98 mph. Shockingly a pinch hitter is put in for the number two hitter, a solid .300 batter on the year. I begin to worry, but the other fans are too busy playing with their umbrellas to notice. (Side note, every time the Swallows score, fans open up greenish blue umbrellas and raise them up and down like they are Mary Poppins trying to catch an updraft, supposedly it has something to do with the opposing pitcher being ready for the shower or something, nevertheless it is entertaining and has put me on the lookout for a miniature greenish blue umbrella for less than the $5 they were selling for at the stadium). In the hole 1-2 (or 2-1 since the Japanese put strikes first), pinch hitter Dobashi wasn't looking that great. He fouls off a few pitches, and then somehow, magically, squirts a single to left field, scoring two runs and sending the crowd into an umbrella frenzy!
Former Met Kazuhisa Ishii retires the BayStars in order in the 9th and the Swallow comeback is completed. Immediately after the game Dobashi is interviewed over the loud speaker while holding a Swallow stuffed animal. Only the Japanese would end such an exciting game this way. I can't wait to go to my next game!!