We couldn’t get enough of Japanese baseball, so we decided to see three more games. Our sixth game was a matchup between the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and Bobby Valentine’s Chiba Lotte Marines.
The Marines play in a tile-covered stadium about a 30-minute train ride from Tokyo. The family-friendly ballpark has a play area for children, and there are benches and picnic tables situated around the perimeter near an aisle of food kiosks.
As with the other teams we’ve seen during our trip, the mascots were out in full force. A cat mascot made balloon animals for children. Several fans – mostly adults – sat on the ground in front of the stadium to watch Mar-kun, a seagull, provide pregame entertainment. Later, Mar-kun and three other birds joined the cheerleaders on the field for a lively pregame dance.
We had a great view of the field from our seats by third base. The section was populated mostly with Hawks fans, so we didn’t get the full effect of the Marines fan club, Team 26. Japanese teams have 25 players on their active rosters, so the fan club’s name is derived from the concept that collectively the fans are the Marines’ 26th player. As a result, no player on the Marines wears that jersey number. Team 26, sporting bright white shirts, had a tremendous presence in the right field stands and fashioned their cheers in the style of European soccer fans, bouncing up and down in unison.
The Marines won the game 4-2 behind the strength of starting pitcher Naoyuki Shimizu, who was named player of the game after going 7 2/3 innings, allowing 2 runs on 5 hits with no walks and 6 strikeouts. After his postgame, on-field interview, Shimizu and the mascots walked to right field, where together they bowed before Team 26.
Former Mets player Benny Agbayani started in right field for the Marines and went 1 for 3 with a single and a walk.
In a losing effort for the Hawks, pitcher Tsuyoshi Wada threw a staggering 141 pitches in 7 innings.
The best part of the day came before the game. In a touching ceremony, the Marines paid tribute to Hawks manager Sadarahu Oh, who announced his retirement on September 23 after fifty years in professional baseball. His 2006 battle with cancer led to the removal of his stomach, and health issues have forced him to leave the game at season’s end. The Marines played a video highlight of Oh’s illustrious career, and afterward he stepped out of the visitors’ dugout to acknowledge the crowd. Bobby Valentine emerged from his own dugout to present the retiring legend a bouquet of flowers. Oh-san shook the hand of each Marines player and received a bear hug from Julio Zuleta, whom he managed from 2003-2006.
Valentine is an icon in his own right, especially in Chiba. The city has embraced the outspoken American as one of their own, which was easy to do since he won the Japan Series in 2005. His likeness is everywhere, from the shrine dedicated to him in front of the stadium to his smiling face on food-court menus. He was on the field even before Oh’s tribute, shaking hands and throwing baseballs into the crowd.
Our next stop is to see another game with Oh’s Hawks, this time against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in Sendai, north of Tokyo. Waku waku suru! (I’m excited!)