Wednesday, May 5, 2010

#17: Take Me Out to the Yakyu no Shiai

A lot has happened since I last put fingertip to keyboard. The biggest event was my moving from lovely Kichijoji to the heart (or one of the hearts) of Tokyo, in Meguro Ward. But more of that in a later blog. Today the subject is baseball. I'm still immersed in my research, but the day before I left Kichijoji, I took a break and visited a professional baseball game at (Meiji) Jingu Stadium, set in a beautiful park area filled with sports facilities. It was a simple ride on the Sobu line local from Kichijoji. Jingu Stadium is the home of those popular, low payroll, perpetual underdogs, the Yakult Swallows of Japan's Central League. Most Japanese teams have names affiliated with major corporations, not cities; thus, the Swallows are sponsored by a company that produces a very successful health drink called Yakult. On the other hand, the team the Swallows were playing was the Yokohama Bay Stars, named, of course, for the nearby city of Yokohama.

Jingu Stadium is a bit on the cheesy side, being rather old (built in 1926) and, though upgraded through the years, still much more like a dated minor league stadium than one hosting major (Japanese) league games. But it has the intimacy of places like Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, if nothing like their charm. This video, in which I find my seat, will give you a sense of the place.

The walk to the stadium takes about 10 minutes via an overpass from the station and past various sports facilities. Along the way you pass Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery, an imposing building containing images commemorating the reign of the Meiji emperor (1868-1912), who reigned when Japan began its journey into the modern world after being more or less closed off from international concourse for two and a half centuries. It looked especially impressive on the way back to the train, when it was beautifully lit.

Before dark.

After dark.

Other sights along the way to the game.

View from the overpass leading from the station to the ballpark.

Signpost pointing to all the local facilities, none of it in English. The second line from the top says "yakyu jo" (baseball field).

A resting place jampacked with Japan's ubiquitous vending machines.

The path is lined with vertical banners (nobori) of the Swallows' players, just like the traditional banners that used to advertise actors in kabuki, and still do in Kotohira, as per my recent blog.

The first of the long lines I encountered outside the stadium.

When I arrived at the ballpark, lots of people were already waiting in long lines, but the lines at the box offices were rather small. I asked for a good infield (naiya) seat, and for 4,500 yen (around $47.00), the top price, I got one a bit to the right of home plate, and had an excellent view of the field. Such seats at Citi Field or Yankee Stadium would be several hundred bucks. The area around me was sparsely populated, but by the time the game was underway, the outfield was pretty full. When I bought my tickets, the clerk asked me which team I supported, the home team or the visitors. For want of a better answer, I said the home team, so my ticket presumably placed me among other like-minded fans. When I entered the stadium, I was handed a bag of goodies, including stuff to help me root for the good old Swallows. Fans also brought or purchased tiny, colored, plastic umbrellas, which they bobbed up and down in unison at certain specified moments, such as during the seventh inning stretch, called "Lucky Seven," seen in this clip.

The game was called for 6:00, so I got there early. While the sun was out, it was quite comfortable, but as the evening darkened, I was glad to have brought along my jacket as the temperature dipped a bit and it became somewhat chilly. Getting there early allowed me to watch batting practice and to get the lay of the land.

The off the field antics were sometimes more fun than the game itself. The Bay Stars fans were packed into the left field bleachers, the Swallows' followers (say that ten times quickly) were in right. Throughout the game, whenever a batter went to the plate, his fans chanted or sang a ditty seemingly composed just for him and incorporating his name. The singing and chanting went on all night. Also, many fans throughout the place were equipped with small plastic bats that they rhythmically banged against each other in time to the music. On the first base side, facing the Swallows' infield patrons, a group of cheerleaders appeared several times to do choreographed routines, an especially catchy one being called "We Are the Swallows." And all night, the Swallows' personal announcer, a good-looking guy of mixed Asian-Caucasian heritage (I was unable to determine this precisely), wearing a baseball uniform, served as the team's most enthusiastic booster, speaking both Japanese and occasional English in a tone that sounded like Marv Alpert in his prime. You can hear a bit of this at the end of the video. I thought he was very impressive.

The crowd also got a kick out of "Bazooka Time," which, just as in American games is when the team mascots or other staff members shoot t-shirts into the crowd. You can see it in this video. Patrick Yu can be seen and heard on this clip. One other thing about projectiles: whenever a foul ball lofted into the stands over the protective fencing running down both sides of the infield (you can't get hurt by line drive fouls in Japanese parks), a female announcer's voice cautioned spectators to watch out for the flying object. Of course, by the time you heard her you either had caught the ball, avoided it, or suffered brain damage.

The fast food on sale was nothing like what you'd find at an American ballpark. The closest thing was thick franks on sticks. The only buns around were those you sit on. And the food was on sale only at the concessions under the stands. The vendors in the park proper were selling mainly beer, and they were everywhere, all of them cheerful young girls and boys who looked barely old enough to drink themselves. You could get Kirin, Yebisu, Asahi, and other brands, not just whatever big brand the team had a contract with. The closest thing to food was the ice cream being sold by a small number of vendors. The local citizenry hereabouts prefers to watch a game while slurping away at noodles in broth, or other popular Japanese confections. When I got hungry, I bought a box lunch of--guess what--sukiyaki!!

Here are some shots of the souvenir and food concessions, the field, and the fans.

The misspelling may appear quaintly amusing, but people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.  Look around you in the U.S. and you'll see even worse examples. A sign near my house in Queens warns people not to throw "liter" on the ground.

A box office.

Those famous hot dogs on a stick from the un-Nathan's.

For lunch, I focused on this group of box lunches (bento), and chose the following one.

What it looked like when opened. The meat was cold but quite tasty. The egg was raw, as usual with sukiyaki, since you dip your meat in it. But seeing nowhere to pour the egg's insides, other than directly on the meat, I chose to do without it.

Now let's venture up the steps and into the stands.

No escalators here. Anyway, except for an area directly behind home plate, the stands are on only one level.

The second deck of stands, behind home plate.

The scoreboard actually does a good job of showing digital videos during the game, but in only one inning during the game I attended did it show the scores for other games going on elsewhere.

Batting practice.

There was a small number of foreigners at the game, including this American couple some rows in front of me, who had been brought there by their son. The latter was clearly an ex-pat, and his attractive Japanese girlfriend joined them in mid-game. I was trying to put their story together and decided that the parents had come to Japan to see their son and that a baseball game provided the best way for them to spend a night together in the company of the son's beloved (who knows, maybe she was his wife).

An argument on the field. Having read that Japanese baseball is a game of "wa" or peaceful solutions to onfield issues, I was amazed when a runner came sliding into homeplate and, being called out in a close play, rose immediately to his feet and roughly shoved the umpire. He was ejected at once, but this led to an argument from his manager, and the game didn't resume for about 10 minutes.

I'm sure you never saw someone carrying a bowl of soup and noodles back to their seats at Citi Field.

The fans rhythmically bobbed their colorful little umbrellas as the music played on several occasions, especially during the "Lucky 7."

By the end of the seventh inning, with the Swallows ahead 5-2, and the temperature dropping, I bade farewell to Jingu Stadium and made my last trip home to Kichijoji, to which I would say sayonara in the morning.

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