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Big in Japan: The Yokohama Cubs

Over the past few weeks, I have become more and more interested in Japanese baseball. Partly, my interest stems from an inability to watch the Cubs play live. The other part of me needs to have some baseball to pass the summer months.

And let's face it, at some point it's about sitting around drinking beer and watching the grass grow for three hours on a hot day. However, it is important that this is done in the appropriate environment.

Lucky for me, there is a bounty of baseball on the Japanese islands. In the Tokyo area there are three teams, the Yakult Swallows, the Yomiuri Giants, and the Yokohama Baystars. So I was faced with a choice . . .but which one to pick?

I knew that I wanted a team that was like the Cubs, but not so much like them that they were a poor man's version. They had to be like the Cubs I grew up with, the teams that I grew to love. I needed a few good players, one Ryne Sandberg for say every 25 Tyler Houstons. And they had to stink. How else could I grow to love them? After all, half the fun of watching the old Cubs was debating which inning they would begin their customary meltdown.

Logic - and everyone at the office - told me I should become a fan of the Yomiuri Giants. After all, the newspaper I work for, the Daily Yomiuri, is owned by the same company. Similar to the way that the Tribune Company owns the Cubs, the Chicago Tribune and Wrigley Field, Yomiuri Co. owns the Giants, the Yomiuri Shimbun (Japan's biggest newspaper), and the Tokyo Dome, the Giants' home stadium.

But something about the Giants just wasn't right. I was bothered by the fact that they played in an indoor stadium, and that they were the most popular and biggest market team in Japan. They just weren't at all like the Cubbies. The Giants are 'Tokyo's team' and Tokyo is in many ways the New York of Asia. Even though they are having a disappointing season this year, the Giants still felt too corporate, too much like the Yankees. As any Cub fan knows, the last thing you want to be associated with is a New York sports franchise (even if the association is based on tenuous deductive reasoning).

So, unbeknownst to my boss, and to the chagrin of my coworkers, I decided that the Yomiuri Giants were not the team for me this summer.

The next option was another Tokyo ballclub, the Yakult Swallows. Early indicators suggested that they should be my pick. The swallows play in a small outdoor stadium called Meji-jingu (MAY-GEE-JINGU). It's located in western Tokyo nestled in a woodsy area that contains one of Japan's most visited shrines, also called Meji-Jingu. The shrine also owns the stadium. The park has a hometown feel, and is surrounded by trees and foliage, with a beautiful view of the skyline. It really provides the summertime baseball experience. There was just one problem: it felt too small. It was too much like a minor league stadium or a college field. I said I wanted a team that was like the Cubs, not the Iowa Cubs. So the Swallows were out too.

I only had one option left, the Yokohama Baystars. Yokohama, a city about 45 minutes by train from Tokyo, is the capital of the Kanagawa Prefecture in the Kanto region. There is a bit of a rivalry between Tokyoites and Yokohamans.

I hopped on a train and got myself to a game. This was it. Although strikingly different in so many ways, going to a Baystars game reminded me of the Cubs of my youth. The team plays in an outdoor stadium near the waterfront, and I was drenched by the humidity during the game. The fans are passionate and loyal, the beer flows like, well, beer, the bleachers are packed and, of course, they own a pitiful record (15-39-1 at the time). Who could be more like the Cubs of old without actually employing Jim Riggleman?

That balmy Sunday the matchup was the Yokohama Baystars versus the Nippon Ham Fighters. I know what you are thinking, and no, they do not actually fight ham. They are sponsored by the Nippon Ham company.

Japanese baseball has many similarities to the American game. It is really the game itself that is the most similar. Pitching changes, player confereneces and all the other nuances remain intact in Japan. Except strikes are first, then balls (i.e. 2 and 3 is a full count).

When it comes to the stands, things begin to change.

For example, the bleachers are the cheering section. At Yokohama stadium, they are full to the brim for the entire game, while the rest of the stadium has only scattered attendance. Not only are the bleachers packed, but they contain cheering sections, complete with plastic noisemakiers, bass drums, trumpets, trombones and decked-out cheer "leaders" (who I've been told are often yakuza) directing team songs, chants and the like.

They also have a dance team, the kind of thing you would expect at an NBA game.

Interestingly, the fans only get to their feet when their team is batting. The opposing team's fan section was seated in the left field bleachers, and they stood up when the Ham Fighters were at bat. It was like some sort of strange respect between fans.

I had arrived late, and to my dismay, the Baystars were down 9-2. It was the fourth inning and the home fans were drinking, cheering and having a grand old time. Over what, I could not tell. Their team made errors, swung at bad pitches and generally got outplayed for the next three innings. The one glimmer of hope, a home run by the Baystars' star Nishi, whipped the bleacher crowd into a frenzy. People were embracing each other, and high-fiving everyone in sight, including me.

One guy pulled me aside and said, "Yeah man, that was super awesome home run!"

What could I do? I slapped hands with the man, and ordered another 500 yen (about $4.60) beer.

That's another thing, the beer vendors are all young uniformed girls who wave and smile at you. You (read: me) are defenseless.


By the time I left, I had concluded that for the rest of the summer, I would carry a torch for the Baystars.

They had lost 9-3.

Previously in Big in Japan:
* Not Fukudome


Posted on June 24, 2008

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BOOKS - All About Poop.


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