A Trip to Tokyo Dome

Trip Start Jul 04, 2006
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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Tokyo Dome, aka The Big Egg, is where I watched my first baseball game in Japan. This country's top league is called Nippon Professional Baseball, but most people simply call it yakyu (which means field ball) or besuboru.

My friend Rie and I went to watch the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, the home team, face the Chiba Lotte Mariners, the reigning Japan Series champs who are coached by ex-N.Y. Mets skipper Bobby Valentine.

The Ham Fighters actually play most of their home games in Sapporo on Japan's northernmost main island, but like other NPB squads, they play several other games at venues across the nation. For instance, Bobby V's squad plays games vs. Rakuten in Akita in August and played games vs. Yokohoma in Hiratsuka earlier this season. Not a bad way to showcase the league's games to fans across the land. Y'know, maybe Major League Baseball could stage a few games in say, Wyoming or W. Virginia during the regular season. OK, but back to Wednesday's festivities. ...

If you've ever been to a Major League Baseball contest in the States (or Canada), you've probably seen or heard the animated antics of several fans, but you've not seen several thousand chanting the same things over and over throughout the game. This is commonplace at NPB ballgames.

Example: When the Ham Fighters were batting Wednesday, several thousand (well most of them) of their fans are clapping in unison, chanting one of the team's well-known chants; conversely, after a strike or an out (when Nippon Ham was hitting), the Marines fans roared and clapped and voiced their approval.

Like their batters, each team's fans took turns on the center stage.

When the Ham Fighters were in the field, the Mariners fans (including me on this night) were saying things like, "Let's go Lotte," "Matty, Matty," (when American Matt Franco was at the plate); also, "Imae, Imae -- and some words I don't know what they mean" -- when third baseman Toshiaki Imae [E-mah-eh], stepped into the batter's box. Others expressions, of course, were entirely in Japanese.

On this night, the Fighters, who recently won 11 straight games, withstood two comebacks by the reigning champions. It was 1-1 and 3-3, but the big difference on this night was a pair of homers by Michihiro Ogasawara, a 33-year-old infielder who slugged 37 homers last season. He was selected Player of the Game (I think by the network that broadcast the game) and was thus interviewed on the field and his message shown on the big screen TVs around the park while replays of his two round-trippers to right field were also shown.

But during the game, before during and after every pitch was something to see, especially in the stands.

The Ham Fighters' supporters, mostly sitting along the first-base side and right field stands (the home side of the field), had several horn blowers and flag wavers and scores of gung-ho fans pumping their fight fist simultaneously. Their roars carried the most decibels after a hit or a run. Nothing surprising about that.

The same was true for the Marines. While Chiba rallied to tied it up both times, fans jumped up and down in rhythm. Arms waved back and forth above people's heads, some organized cheers called for five claps, others were six, and a few were just three.

Before a pitch was thrown, a long, drawn out, oooooooooooo-hhhhhhhhhhh was often blurted out by the batting team's fans. The last part of the 'h' was kind of a like a short note on a piano, not a full smack-the-key note, but a slight tap.

Rie and I sat in the last row in left field, basically down the line. The outfield seats were pretty filled up when we walked to the "Chiba side" of the ballpark just before first pitch at 6 p.m.

After the fifth inning, the ground's crew touched up on the infield. Then, cheerleaders came out onto the field to lead the crowd into signing and signing "YMCA." Some traditions die slowly, eh?

As in, "Who Let The Dogs Out?" is still a staple of ballpark tunes overseas -- or at least on this night. Oh, wait. I can't claim I'm an expert just yet on this incredibly important subject.

***

A few more things:

Strikes are called before balls in Japan, as in the batter has a 2-0 count when there are 2 strikes and 0 balls.

Names are listed in Japanese characters on the scoreboard, even for the American players. But for some reason, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, the ex-Met and San Francisco Giant, is listed as Shinjo in English letters. Does anyone know why? I'd like to solve this mystery. (This is also the case in the team's pocket schedule. Maybe he got his contract to have this special distinction.)

Coaches and managers here often have uniform numbers in the 70s, 80s or 90s. Not sure why. Back in the States, as many of you know, those numbers are generally associated with a player who's a long shot to make the club coming out of spring training.

"Take Me Out To The Ballgame" was also played over the load speakers. (And on a completely unrelated topic, AM radio station played a Jennifer Lopez club-esque dance tune this afternoon followed by the theme song for "Sesame Street.")

The train station's about a 3-minute walk to the Tokyo Dome.

The Japanese baseball hall of fame is also located at the Big Egg, which opened in 1988.

About 5 hours after the last pitch, I can still hear the clapping and cheering and support-the-team-like-it's-the-last-game-ever mentality of the Ham Fighters and Mariners' fans.

And that's what I realize makes this a special place to see baseball.
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