Teaching In Socks

There is crying in High School Baseball
August 18, 2009, 6:08 pm
Filed under: Japan | Tags: , , ,
this year's been berry berry good to me

this year's been berry berry good to me

For our one-year anniversary I dragged my girlfriend out the 91st Japan High School Baseball Championship at Koshien Stadium. This is all part of my secret, long-running plan to propose at halftime during a Rams- Browns game (at Cleveland, obviously) and then honeymoon in the romantic atmosphere of the NBA All-star game. I’m joking, but I’m sure people actually do these things.

The circumstances, were instead the result of an unfortunate scheduling conflict and my girlfriend being a really good sport (no pun intended).

During my year here, I’ve come to understand the Summer Koshien tournament (its nickname) as one of those unique Japanese experiences I had to take part in.Notably, this is because it optimizes all that can be good about baseball– It’s on Jim Caple’s Baseball Lover’s Bucket list for God’s sake.

Unfortunately, the only day I could go, maybe forever, happened to be the same day we planned to celebrate and had already made a dinner reservation in Kobe. However, the games take place during the day and Koshien is only fifteen minutes from Kobe, so my girlfriend suggested we go during the day and then track back to Kobe at night. I made some comment about being concerned about not being able to dress properly for both the game and the dinner and she justly laughed at me for being one of THOSE people (we were going to a pizza restaurant anyway).

The Summer Koshien tournament has the rare cachet of being one a baseball sacrament and a cannon Japanese tradition.  As I mentioned before, the tournament has the ability to display the purest form of baseball devoid of overpaid athletes, uninterested fans and $9 beers.You can see these kids trying. And not in the my next contract depends on this way,not on the I hate losing sort of way, but in the this is my life, and this could be the biggest moment in it sort of way and it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

$9 beers; No, $4 Beers and Beer Girls: Yes

$9 beers; No, $4 Beers and Beer Girls: Yes

In the tournament, which is held over the summer break, over 4,200 High Schools across Japan compete in a single elimination tournament to reach Koshien.  To do so they have to earn one of the 49 spots in the tournament–one for each Prefecture, and two for Tokyo and Hokkaido.

The reward for garnering one of those spots in the tournament is getting to play on national television at Koshien stadium in the hottest weather imaginable.

The tournament has been played at Koshien Stadium, home of the Hanshin Tigers, since 1924. The stadium itself is Japan’s most holy baseball ground–sort of a combination of Wrigley and Fenway. It’s known for it’s eccentric and passionate fans and as the bastion for an absolutely electric atmosphere.

However, it is also an old stadium and as so it’s devoid of the amenities modern stadiums spoil us with. During the day games, only a small percentage of the seats garner an shade. Also,the seats are less seats and more scathing hot backless compact bleachers.

We arrived in time for the start of the second game– at 11:00 A.M. high time if your looking to get absolutely scorched by the sun crammed between thousands of other like minded people. You pay 500 yen ($5) for a ticket -which allows you to sit, in a section for the entire day, or four games.

Aas we arrived the game between  Teikyu High School from Tokyo and a school from Fukui Prefecture was just getting started. Before the game the teams meet at home plate and bow to each other, the teams then go to their cheering section in the stands and bow before them as well.  It’s part of entire code of respect that is strictly followed throughout the tournament. The tournament has this elegant balance between passion and respect. It’s like the Texas High School Football Championship if all the players were Buddhists. zealotry and humanity, clear minds and full hearts…or something.

Teikyu High School was heavily favored; they are one of the few High schools to win the tournament multiple times before. They also had a highly rated pitcher on the mound, who threw in the low 90’s and went 8 2/3s despite the fact that the temperature was hotter than his fastball.  It really was one of those days where they were selling bags of ice for 200 Yen ($2) and I thought it was a steal.

No tournament is a tournament without flags.

No tournament is a tournament without flags.

The atmosphere in the stands was a combination of a European soccer match, a college football agem and a Mensa crowd. The schools bring their own cheering sections–including cheerleaders and college football style bands. The general admission fans are ultra attentive to the game, always applauding great plays by either team and  always encouraging.

The team from Fukui battled hard but was really over matched by the Teikyu pitcher. He had a one hit game going through seven innings before Fukui was able to finally string some hits together. In the end though, it only earned them one run, which wasn’t enough to match the five runs Teikyu grabbed in the first three innings.

The end of the games contains probably the most significant traditions of the tournament. The teams meet again and bow. The winning team then stands behind home plate while their school flag is raised and song is played. The teams then go thanks their fans again.  By this point most of the players on the losing team, especially the third year students (their final year) are in tears–this is their big moment, and they have battled hard to get here. They pack up their belongings and grab a handful of dirt from the infield of Koshien and place it in a bag to take home with them and keep as a memento.

It’s a rather moving thing to watch,  between the effort put into the game and the heat the kids are just absolutely spent. This is something I can sympathize with after the game my girlfriend and I were completely exhausted from just sitting out in the sun for three hours. We canceled our dinner reservation and instead took the train home to find an air conditioner to sit next to.

Hit Ball Hard
July 15, 2009, 4:03 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Even before I arrived in Japan, the mythology of Japanese Baseball and it’s fans made going to game here an item on my Bucket List.  However, since my arrival there have been a  number of setbacks (sold out games, my inability to read a schedule, the offseason) which have prevented this from happening.

However, a visit from a friend and a trip to Tokyo provided the proper inspiration and I finally found myself at the Tokyo Dome, taking in a game between the first place Yomiuri Giants and the second place, cross-town rivals (although not main rivals) Yakult Swallows.

* It should be noted here that with the exception of the Yokohama Baystars, teams take on the name of the corporation that owns/sponsors them, not the region or city they represent.

At the game, surprisingly (not at all surprisingly in Japan) the first thing I noticed was the cleanliness. Japan is a remarkably clean country–despite seemingly to be devoid of public trash cans- yet to maintain this standard in a stadium of all places is remarkable especially considering that in America stadiums are cultivating their own brand of military-grade grime and shirtless fat people.

It’s a little depressing that the twenty-year-old Tokyo Dome is noticeably cleaner then the three-year-old McStadium the my hometown Cardinals play in, but you have to appreciate a job well done. That’s not to say I would eat off the floors here, but it is to say that said floors weren’t cheetah-spotted with old gum, nor were they coated in the traditional stadium flooring treatment of spilled beers and a mystery film that is physics-defying slick and sticky at the same time.

We were able to bring food and beers into the stadium with us which may be one of the reasons was the Nippon Professional Baseball league has struggled financially at times. Still, this seemed like an appropriate throwback to the right way to conduct a baseball game.

The biggest difference, and  the thing foreigners are bound to be most curious about is the food. I did a thorough scan of the concession board and here’s what I can report; Yes, there were Hotdogs (although the Japanese variety tastes a little different), there were also pretzels, chicken wings, Baskin Robbins ice cream (no helmet cups though). However, all of this was placed right alongside BBQ Eel, onigiri, and mystery meats on sticks. The only absence I noted was nachos, but let’s be honest they are obviously the least cannon and most digestively suspicious of  standard American Ballpark fare.

Now as much as I’d like to tell you I went on some bold culinary baseball journey, I didn’t. I stuck to the safe picks and avoided mixing beer and dairy. I did knock down a foot-long (or 30 cm long…whatevs) dog, some chicken wings, a pretzel and few draft beers (I forgot to mention that sake and whiskey were options as well).

The conventional theory is that you can tell a lot about a Culture by how they support their sports team. And while I think this theory often lends itself to blanket generalizations; on the regional level it does provide an interesting colloquial snapshot from which to draw some shaky insights. Thus, I was somewhat interested to see what fans of the Giants are like.

For those unaware, the Giants are Japan’s equivalent of the Yankees. They are the oldest and most successful team. They play in the biggest city and their players are often the biggest names making the most money. I have to say, the crowd was were the comparisons ended; they were polite and fantastic.

There were the organized chants and synchronized towel waving, and inbetween it was a crowd that was paying attention with watching with a knowledgeable eye. While there was lots of energy, my friend and I were perhaps the most rambunctious of the people around us simply because of the instinctual  American custom express displeasure when the umpire makes a questionable call–oh and my friend was giving out high fives to strangers around us in the midst of a global pandemic scare, regardless, the people in our section were extremely friend and patient. It was a wonderful balance.

They weren’t comatose and clueless like Atlanta Braves fans nor did I have some yelled umcomfortably close in my ear at inappropriate moment like I was at Fenway. And unlike St. Louis, everyone kept their shirt on.  I guess my only complaint was that it wasn’t strange enough. I wanted something odd and colorful to happen and all I got is a bunch of nice people being happy and expressing it a sociallyly acceptable way. I suppose I’ll have to wait for a Hanshin Tiger’s game for the real eccentrics.

By far the most promising thing Japanese baseball offered was the beer girls. It’s amazing how the complexion of the spectator experience changes when you replace the sweaty, potentially a sexual predator beer guy with a potential target for the former; a peppy twenty year old girl with a pony keg back pack dressed in bright neon clothes. Also, instead of muttering swear words under their breath, these girls seemed to have an endless supply of pep and energy (and they aren’t even getting tipped). Even after eight innings of huffing a pony keg through the stadium aisles their enthusiasm seem unwavering. It was impressive and a bit scary. Who knows what else they are capable of.

In the words of my mother, we brought home a winner and it was a ncie way to ease into the water of Japanese baseball. I’m looking forward ot catching the local team, The Hanshin Togers in action soon. They are known for being the loud, wild and absurdly passionate fans–which basically means there are at leats two ballon launches per home game. Interpret that however you will.


I know. I’ve been here over a month and I’ve mentioned next to nothing regarding baseball or game shows. It’s poor form, I agree. I also figure at this point everyone in America except my grandparents are bit tired of hearing about me. Thus, it’s time to start the amelioration process and provide you with the some SUPER EXCITING JAPANESE BASEBALL MEGACONTENT.

I figure the finest method to approach and convey the Japanese baseball experience is to watch an entire game on television, with the trusty aid of a Kirin’s lager, and write about it. Okay maybe it’s not the best way, but I promise it will be fun.

Today’s action between Hanshin Tigers and the Hiroshima Carp is brought to you live on TSS (which must stand for Total Super Sports) and is sponsored by Mos Burger, Kirin’s, Mizuno, Ryobi, Samurai baseball players, Pachinko, the Color Magenta, and the letter L.

This one goes out to you Dan, consider this your engagement present.

23:05 No surprises here. Japan takes the first pitch a bit more seriously than we do in America. The pomp and circumstance are escalated.  First, the responsibilty for the pitch is designated to a little leaguer. This is a call move, and a motion that might be supported by a few weak-armed American dignitaries that in retrospect, perhaps wish this was the American custom.

There is also large intimidating mascot standing right behind the catcher. I no realize that neither the Japan nor America are getting the full potential of the umpire outfit. Why all balck? It’s so depressing and un-entertaining. Seriously, we could make those guys wear anything. I understand why America has had trouble of grasping and developing  this great concept, but Japan, this is your wheelhouse…shame on you.

Final difference; they actually have a batter from the other team stand in the box, and guess what, he takes a swing! (It was a half cut, but still). The pitch from the 12 year-old was just a bit outside, so it will go down in the score books as a strike. One can only imagine what psychological impact this will have on the lead off man for the rest of the game.

11:06: First Legitimate pitch by professional pitcher wearing his official Japanese pitcher weird plastic twisty necklace that they all wear. Ball one–low and away, The little leaguer had a better arm.

11:07: Five pitch, walk. Things look ominous for the Carp. Do they even have a chance? on team insignia alone…Tigers vs Carp? I think not. The name “Carp” lends itself to some dangerous manipulations if you’re a struggling baseball team.

11:09  It takes seven pitches but the second batter in the lineup finally gets a successful sacrifice bunt down. One out, runner on second. It appears they have a strategy of always moving the runner into scoring position.

11:14: Ripped to left field by Kahemoto, the cleanup hitter. Tigers 1, Carp 0. Sacrifice strategy seems to be be paying off… (insert your own Kamikaze joke here)

11:15: Slow roller to second, inning over. Tigers 1 – Carp 0, Bottom 1st.

11:16: Real Commercial on Jsports: Be sure to check in tomorrow night at 11pm for the NHL preview show!!!– I’m sure families are fighting over the remote to catch that one.

11:17 Hanshin (pronounced han-SHeen) pitcher, Andoh fires in a strike. He has no necklace, but is wearing a large yellow hospital bracelet. Intimidating. Three pitches and he induces a pop out to second base.

11:18: The crowd shot you have all been waiting for: not only are there Thunder sticks, there are super thunder sticks. They are shaped like baseball bats.  Also, when approaching the batters box, the player does not get a chosen pop song pumped through the stadium sound system. Instead, sections of the crowd are equipped with trumpets, or perhaps kazoos. I think the fans are into this.

11:19: Pop up in foul territory, The catcher and the first baseman run into each other and drop the ball. So much for fundamentals. E-both of you idiots. Customary seppuku to follow between innings

11:20: The camera shows the stadium flags to confirm that there is no wind, and that it was an error of judgment on the player’s part.  Japan is into this shame thing.

11:21: The pardoned batter grounds out to second. The catcher and the first baseman will be spared. No harm no foul. (get it?)

11:24: The pageantry is in high gear. There are heavily coordinated cheers in the crowd. There is alternating standing and sitting. This isn’t “the wave” folks, this is a new species of “super-wave”.

11:25: There’s a great grab by the third baseman on a ground ball hit sharply towards the line. He makes the throw and the inning is over. After 1, Tigers 1 – Carp 0.

11:26: From our Sponsors: Tune in this week to experience the excitement and action of JAPAN NATIONAL RUGBY LEAGUE! (Rugby and baseball? together? this is highly unnatural, my head might explode, pick one Japan! You’re either English or American, you can’t cherry pick the best sports, you either get cricket or football, now go make some decisions).

11:27: Seikimoto swings at the pitch and says, “I am different than you!” Katsubashi! Tigers 2, Carp 0.

11:28: Replays confirm that in any language that was a hanging curve ball. Let the replays of shame continue.

11:30: Stellar defense as the Hiroshima Shortstop fumbles an easy grounder. E6, there’s a reason he’s not on the Yankees I suppose. Runner on first, one out.

11:31: The sacrifice is on.

11:37: The sacrifice was a rouse all along, The batter takes a big cut, but grounds to the shortstop 4-6-3 double play. The surprise attack fails….ahhh, awkward…inning over.

11:51: Bottom of the second, nothing of interest happens. Top of the third, Tigers at bat. Runners on first and second, full count.

11:52: Ball four, low in the dirt. Somebody get on whatever fancy communication device or robot they have that contacts the bullpen (or perhaps it is a space-pen/space-dome here) and get someone warming up. We are on the cusp of a blow-out.

11:54: Starting pitcher, Saito, gets himself out of his own jam with a ground ball double play. Tigers 2 – Carp 0 after two and a half.

11:57: Single for the Carp. We have a runner on first. Do I smell a sacrifice?

11:58: Bunt sacrifice.

11:59: Multiple replays of said sacrifice. I can’t understand what the announcers are saying, but I can hear them drooling over the technique.

11:59: Routine fly-out to center, aggressive base running as the runner advances to third. Ankiel would have nailed him.

12:00: It all pays dividends! The ball is ripped down the first base line and the Carp are on the board. Tigers 2- Carp 1. That’s why you sacrifice folks, it’s all about tactical advancement from base to base until reaching home.

12:01: SURPRISE BUNT! not a sacrifice situation with 2 outs, but he lays one down anyway. No one saw this coming and he is safe at first. Runners on first and second, 2 outs.

12:04: The Tigers meet on the field to discuss how they could not see such a surprise attack coming. The Hanshin manager is either giving signals to the players or his armpit really itches.

12:10: Strong grounder to the American third baseman, who fires a strike to first base. Inning over. Tigers 2- Carp 1.

12:16: Carps pitcher, Saito, strikes out the side. His necklace power must be at full beam right now.

12:23: One out, runner on first for the Carp, and the batter the forgoes the sacrifice bunt. He immediately fouls one of his toe. Instant karma is gonna get you; that looks painful.

12:24: Now he tries the bunt but it is too late to repent. He pops it up to the pitcher and offers the customary baseball player grimace as he walks back to the dugout.

12:27: The Tigers get out of the inning with no damage. We go to the Fifth, Tigers 2 – Carp 1.

12:32: After an incident free half-inning, the game is half over and I’m half done with my Kirin’s tall boy.

12:37: Bloop single for the Carp. The thunder sticks rejoice!

12:38: No bunt again! the Carp are playing desperate ball here.

12:39: Single in the gap, two on, one out.

12:46: Single the left field and an error by the left fielder. Two runs score the Thunder sticks rejoice again! Tigers 2 – Carp 3.

1:05: The Tigers strike back, and group together a couple of singles, a fielder’s choice and stolen third base (no bunts!) to tie the game. Tigers 3 – Carp 3.

1:06: It appears Mike Scioscia is managing the Carp. That man is talented, he angles and the Carp at the same time! Also, he brings in the third pitcher of the night for the Carp as the Tigers are threatening (as Tigers are known to do).

1:20: TSS is showing some highlights of past Carp teams and playing, “The Long and Winding Road”. Brilliant, what I wouldn’t give to be change this for the the Nickleback soundtrack Fox pumps through for every replay montage.

1:34: Seventh inning stre…………nope. No stretch. Instead they have a balloon launch. Large, untied, highly phallic balloons are rocketed into the air simultaneously by the crowd. This is followed by much rejoicing. I can only imagine that telephone call that started this trend:

America: Yeah, and in the seventh inning we all get up and…

Japan: Launch Balloons?

America: No, we just stand up and sing “Take Me Out….

Japan: This balloon launch is going to be great! We’ll make ours look like…

President Taft is spinning in his humongous gave somewhere.

1:50: I should note, there doesn’t appear to be any beer in the stands. They are doing this out of joy for the game. How honorable and goofy. Also, we’re headed for some free baseball. EXTRA INNINGS.

2:08: My beer is done and the game continues. Of course I picked the longest game to watch. Mid Tenth, still 3-3.

2:14: Sometimes, even in Japan, baseball is boring to watch.

2:30: The trumpeters look exhausted. no hits to mention and it is still 3-3 heading to the 12th.

2:45: Two on for the Tigers, HIT! men are rounding bases, the end is in sight. Tigers 5 – Carp 3. It looks like after a 5-game losing streak the Tigers might pull this one out and extend their division lead back to 4.5 games. A half-inning left.

2:52: Down to their final out, with no men on, the Carp do not bunt and are punished by the gods with a slow ground out to second base. Game over and all (including me) are exhausted. We now join the Kelly Slater mini-surf documentary “Into the Pipeline”, already in progress…