An edited version of this post appeared in Baseball Reflections.
Last month, as they have done for the past twenty years, Bob Bavasi and Mayumi Smith guided a group of tourists across Japan to discover the joys of the culture through baseball. Bavasi, the son of Buzzie Bavasi of Brooklyn/LA Dodgers, San Diego Padres, and California Angels fame, and Smith, the director of the Nippon Business Institute at Everett Community College in Washington state, operate JapanBall, a whirlwind tour that packs five baseball games in five different cities into seven days. This September I joined Bavasi, Smith, and twelve other baseball fans for a week of baseball, bullet trains, and beer.
JapanBall Hall of Fame
Each tour kicks off at a Café Roje, a tiny ramen shop in the Tokyo neighborhood of Ochanomizu. Dubbed the JapanBall Hall of Fame by Bavasi, the restaurant – which is run by the husband-and-wife team of Jun and Koko, who cheerfully serve ramen, gyoza (pan-fried dumplings), and chahan (fried rice) to this group of gaijin (foreigners) who sit around and talk baseball all night – houses the plaques of JapanBall Hall of Fame members. The criteria for achieving Hall-of-Fame status are completing three JapanBall tours or taking the see-it-all option in which the traveler attends games at all twelve Japanese professional baseball stadiums in a two-week period.
|Bob Bavasi (standing) gives us the scoop in Tokyo|
This year four people were inducted into the JapanBall Hall of Fame, including yours truly, as I was participating in my fourth tour.
|Don Robbs of Hawaii inducted into the JapanBall Hall of Fame|
This year a producer and a cameraman hired by an Australian TV company to do a program about Japanese baseball joined us at the ramen shop, recording footage of our Hall of Fame induction ceremony and listening in as we discussed why we go on this trip.
Game 1: Hiroshima Carp at Yomiuri Giants – Tokyo Dome, Tokyo
Fans who follow NPB were hoping for a glimpse of Carp pitcher Kenta Maeda, the reigning Sawamura (Japan’s Cy Young) Award winner. Instead, the start went to Giancarlo Alvarado, a 33-year-old right-hander from Puerto Rico with no MLB experience. He gave up seven hits and two runs in 6.2 innings as the Carp defeated the Giants 6-3. Giants manger Tatsunori Hara pulled starter Shun Tono after only one inning of work, in which he gave up three runs. Hara’s double-switch moved the shortstop into the pitcher’s spot, causing some angst among the JapanBall participants who keep score.
|Ultraman at Tokyo Dome|
|Giants players in posters outside Tokyo Dome|
The Japanese game is often described as small ball – leadoff batter gets on base, steals 2nd, is bunted to 3rd, scores on a sac fly – but on this night, we witnessed four home runs, including the 150th of Hiroshima first baseman Kenta Kurihara’s career. Although Kurihara is on the opposing team, the Giants mascots presented him with a bouquet of flowers as he crossed home plate.
|Hiroshima fans cheer|
The TV crew was also there for the first game, interviewing each of us about what we think of Japanese baseball. We all had praise for the oendan (fan clubs) who create an amazing atmosphere with their constant chants.
Game 2: Nippon-Ham Fighters vs Rakuten Golden Eagles – Kleenex Miyagi Stadium, Sendai
Sold-out trains meant the JapanBall crew had to take a super-early bullet train from Tokyo to Tohoku as we headed to Sendai, a city hit hard by the massive earthquake that struck northeastern Japan on March 11. On September 10, almost six months to the day of the most devastating natural disaster to hit Japan in 140 years, we joined a packed house and watched two gems by two young pitchers, Nippon-Ham’s Yuki Saito and Masahiro Tanaka of Rakuten.
|Good Luck Tohoku!|
This was a dream matchup of two rivals, both 23, who faced each other in an epic showdown at the National High School Baseball Championship in 2006. After the aces battled to a 1-1 tie in 15 innings, Saito started the rematch the following day, striking out Tanaka to end the game and win Waseda Jitsugyo’s first title.
Tanaka is now in his fifth season with the Eagles; Saito, who attended Waseda University, is a rookie with the Fighters. In their first professional head-to-head matchup, both Yu-chan and Ma-kun – as fans affectionately call them – were impressive, each throwing complete games, the ninth of the season for Tanaka and the first of Saito’s young and promising career. After giving up a run in the bottom of the 1st, Saito settled down until the 6th, when the Eagles scored three runs. He struck out only one batter, but walked only one.
Tanaka prevailed against his rival on this day, and he seemed to grow more confident and dominant as the game progressed. Carrying a shutout into the 9th, Tanaka allowed a run on a two-out, bases-loaded walk – the only one he issued – to pinch-hitter Tomohiro Nioka. It was the only blemish in his 12-strikeout performance. After the walk, Ma-kun was visibly upset on the mound; the run ended his personal 24-inning scoreless streak. (In my opinion, Tanaka technically struck out Nioka earlier in the at-bat on a strike that was called a ball.)
Fittingly, Tanaka struck out the last batter to win the game 4-1. Despite my initial disdain that I once again missed seeing Yu Darvish pitch – he would start, and lose, the next day – this was easily the best game I’ve seen in Japan. Since that outing, Tanaka has recorded five more complete games and leads the Pacific League in ERA.
|Ma-Kun addresses the crowd after his gem|
We also had the chance to see Kaz Matsui, who returned to NPB and signed with the Eagles after seven seasons in MLB. “It was just like watching a Mets game,” lamented JapanBall member and lifelong Mets fan Ken Schlapp. “Matsui went 0 for 4 with an error.”
|Balloon release during the 7th inning stretch|
After the game we were invited to a barbecue at the home of Marty Kuehnert, senior advisor to the Rakuten Golden Eagles. It’s rare to visit a private residence in Japan, and we appreciated this special opportunity.
In addition to sampling Marty’s new barbecue sauce recipe (excellent!), we met Luis Garcia, the Eagles first baseman who had a key RBI single and made a tremendous defensive play in the game. We also had the opportunity to talk to Darrell Rasner, a right-hander who played for both the Nationals and the Yankees.
|From left: Darrell Rasner, Marty Kuehnert, Luis Garcia|
Rasner praised Tanaka, saying his teammate will one day play in MLB. But he had higher praise for Darvish. “He’s the real deal,” Rasner said of the talented and popular 25-year-old. “Yu Darvish will go [to MLB] after this season for $50 million [as a posting fee]. And it’s going to be the Yankees.”
We’ll find out soon if Rasner’s prediction is correct. If it is, perhaps I’ll finally see Darvish play in person.
Game 3: Yokohama BayStars at Chunichi Dragons – Nagoya Dome, Nagoya
The 2011 JapanBall tour stumbled upon Milestone Week. This year the Chunichi Dragons are celebrating the 75th anniversary of the franchise. In this game Dragons leadoff batter Masahiro Araki went three for four en route to becoming only the eleventh player in NPB history with 1,500 career hits. His milestone came in the 33-year-old shortstop’s last at-bat. Araki also drove in the game’s only run, as Chunichi defeated the BayStars 1-0.
|Anniversary for Chunichi franchise|
Maximo Nelson, a Dominican in his fourth season with the Dragons, recorded only his seventh win of the season against 13 losses. He pitched seven strong innings, giving up four hits and striking out five.
The game wasn’t sold out, but the crowd was lively. The bento I had was amazing, too.
|Nagoya Dome bento|
Baseball Off Day in Kyoto
Since Mondays are off days for all NPB teams, the members of the JapanBall tour had time to explore Kyoto, a city renowned for its many temples. I have to admit that as a frequent traveler to Japan, I have a “been there, done that” attitude when it comes to Kyoto. Although I think Kyoto is a beautiful city, I wasn’t as eager as the rest of the group to see a bunch of temples on this hot afternoon. Instead, I tagged along with a few of the guys on the tour and explored the amazing food court in the basement of a department store near our hotel. After going to the top of Kyoto Tower, I broke down and walked to one temple, Higashi Honganji.
|View from Kyoto Tower|
I met up with everyone in the evening for our group dinner at a Korean barbecue place near Kyoto’s lively Gion district. It’s always fun to walk through the narrow streets and see all of the great restaurants in the area.
Game 4: Chunichi Dragons at Hanshin Tigers – Koshien Stadium, Nishinomiya
“Baseball fans in America have to see this” – Matt Zito, 2011 JapanBall tour member
With arguably the loudest and rowdiest oendan in all of Japan, a Hanshin Tigers game at Koshien Stadium outside of Osaka is an experience to behold. Every fan – EVERY fan – is into the game, faithfully reciting each cheer and hanging on every pitch from start to finish. We were as close to the oendan as we could get, and although we were cramped in the bleachers with no seatbacks or legroom, the majority of us delighted in the atmosphere.
The crowd was on fire, except in the first inning, when Alabama native Jason Standridge, who pitched in 80 MLB games over the course of seven seasons, gave up two runs to the Dragons.
Arizona Diamondbacks scouts were in attendance to watch Taiwanese lefty Chen Wei Yin in his start against the Tigers. They were most likely disappointed with his performance. After being given the aforementioned first-inning runs, Chen gave them right back in the bottom frame. Tigers fans were back in the game, and Chen wouldn’t make it out of the fourth inning.
It was a back-and-forth affair for the first four innings, with the Tigers answering almost every run scored by the Dragons. Almost wasn’t enough; the Dragons prevailed 6-4. Throughout it all, however, the stadium was rocking with the best fans in Japanese baseball.
|Hanshin Tigers oendan (fan club)|
|Ready to release balloons at Koshien|
Game 5: Yomiuri Giants at Yokohama BayStars – Yokohama Stadium, Yokohama
Yokohama Stadium may as well have been Tokyo Dome. The sparse crowd of fewer than 16,000 was dominated by Giants fans furiously twirling orange towels.
|Giants fans cheer in Yokohama|
In this game between the “Yankees of Japan” and the cellar-dwelling BayStars, we watched another strong pitching performance, this time by Giants rookie Hirokazu Sawamura. The right-hander was Yomiuri’s 2010 first-round pick out of Chuo University. Like his fellow 23-year-olds Saito and Tanaka, Sawamura showed us that some day he’ll win the award that bears his name.
Sawamura pitched seven shutout innings, surrendering five hits and striking out nine. The youngster also made a statement with the bat. He had an RBI double and scored a run in the Giants’ four-run fourth inning, redeeming himself for striking out while trying to bunt during a previous at-bat.
The Giants would go on to win 6-2, finally giving Sawamura some run support. Despite being among the top five in ERA in the Central League, Sawamura had a losing record at the time we saw him pitch. (As of this writing, Sawamura evened his record at 11-11.)
|Bob Bavasi (left) with sportswriter Wayne Graczyk|
After the game I went with Giants broadcaster and writer Wayne Graczyk at Benny’s Place, a sports bar in Yokohama. Wayne compiles JapanBall’s yearly Japan Pro Baseball Fan Handbook and Media Guide and writes a weekly column for the Japan Times.
Benny of Benny’s Place is a Midwesterner who was stationed in Japan during his stint in the Navy. He never left, opening an American sports bar and serving pizza and burgers.
Japan Entertainment Group’s Jeff Kusumoto, who does work in Japan for the Houston Astros, joined us as Wayne and I celebrated another outstanding JapanBall tour.
Five baseball games in seven days. Brilliant pitching performances by three young guns and milestones reached by two veterans. Bullet trains and sightseeing thrown in for good measure. Just another week on the JapanBall tour.