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General : : General
Japanese Baseball Experience
Jason Piddington        
Published: Wednesday, May 09, 2012

I have witnessed the Sausage Race and took part in tailgating at Milwaukee’s Miller Park. I participated in the tomahawk chop at Atlanta’s Turner Field and have sat on the roof tops outside Wrigley Field in Chicago. I made friends in Boston by joining in a “Yankees Suck” chant in Fenway Park as the Red Sox took on the Angels in 2002.

On May 1, I got to experience something in baseball I never thought I would ever get to do: I attended a Nippon Professional Baseball (NBP) Game (Japan’s MLB) in Tokyo, where I was just one of 38,305 to watch the Yomiuri (Tokyo) Giants take on the Hiroshima (Toyo) Carp. The experience was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me and I am thankful that I was able to see the game played in a different country and see how the NBP customs compare to what I was use to in MLB.

The league and the rules of the Japanese game have similarities to MLB. The NBP has two different leagues, one which uses the DH (Pacific League) and one which does not (Central League). Both the Giants and Carp are members of the Central League.

The bases and mound are the same distances, and the outfield fences are similar to American parks. The biggest difference in dimensions would be that there is more foul territory in the Tokyo Dome compared to most MLB parks, where only the Oakland A’s stadium is comparable.

There are also some minor differences: NBP plays a 144 game schedule while MLB plays 162 and NBP teams have one minor league affiliate while MLB organizations have six to eight minor league affiliates.

Then there are some big differences. There is a 12 inning limit for regular season games; after 12 innings the game is declared a tie. In postseason play the limit is extended to 15 innings, and if after 15 innings the game is still tied, the game will be replayed from the first inning. So if you attend a game, don’t plan on seeing a position player like Chris Davis coming in relief for the win.

There is also a time limit of 3 1/2 hours from first pitch, and the scoreboard actually starts the clock for everyone to see. The inning limit and time limit is put in place for the fans that need to catch a train from the stadium to their home; the last train is normally scheduled for shortly after midnight.

Game Day

We ordered tickets online from Japan’s version of StubHub and received two vouchers that needed to be redeemed at the ticket office outside of the stadium. The ticket office opened at 2 p.m.  and we arrived about 2:10 p.m. because the earlier you are, the better seat you will get. By my rough estimation there were 3,000 people standing in line to redeem a voucher for a ticket, and with a theme park located next to the stadium, it felt like I was waiting in line to ride a roller coaster. The line did move quickly as we received our tickets around 3 p.m., and we ended up sitting on the first baseline in the upper deck; not bad seats at all.

After we got the tickets we walked around the stadium to take in the sights. Vendors were setting up portable stands to sell souvenirs and the team had its own store that you can enter from outside the stadium. Again, more things American fans are accustomed to seeing at MLB parks. One noticeable difference for this Brewers fan was no tailgating, but it would be tough to tailgate when a majority of fans take the train to the game.

With the gates opening at 4 p.m., we walked to our gate and waited for the doors to open. Similar to entering MLB stadiums we had to have our bags checked by security. On the table next to the checkpoint, there was a huge sign written in Japanese. I asked my brother, who is Japanese, what it said and it basically said that the Tokyo Dome is built to withstand an earthquake so don’t panic if it happens. Thankfully, there was no earthquake that night because I would have panicked regardless of the sign's request.

I was getting pretty excited as we went through the gates, and was a little shocked to see fans bringing in their own beverages into the stadium, and not just water, but bottles and cans of beer. All you need to do when you get inside is pour the beer into a plastic cup, which would have been nice to know; I could of saved some Yen if I brought a few beers in with me. I couldn’t imagine what Brewers fans would try if this was allowed at Miller Park (Roll in the Barrel?).

Batting Practice

The Carp were taking batting practice when we arrived so we walked to the right field stands and watched from the first row. If you've ever attended a MLB game and went in for batting practice, you know that the pitchers are shagging fly balls after finishing their daily workouts before the gates open. In Japan, the pitchers were doing their daily work in center field, using protective screens to protect them, and they also worked on PFP’s (Pitcher Fielding Practice).

Team managers and trainers did most of the shagging during batting practice. If the ball was hit to the outfield they put it into the cart next to them and there was no bucket behind second base. I was hoping to catch a home run ball going into the game, and I was thrilled that I did, but security doesn’t allow you to keep BP home run balls. I had to give it to the security guard who dropped the ball to the trainer shagging closest to us. I was kind of bummed out on that, but did get a nice ovation from the fans in the seats.

As part of MLB workouts you will see two fungo hitters hitting to the infield, while Japanese teams had five or six going at a time, hitting fly balls to the outfield at the same time multiple guys were hitting to the infielders. They were working on everything including fielding the ball. Outfielders would work on hitting cut-offs, infielders would work on turning two and first basemen would work on feeds as if a pitcher was covering. MLB players work on all these things too, but normally behind closed gates.

One thing I noticed was how hard the players worked to become better during BP.

After I caught and gave the home run ball back, we went to our seats to watch the rest of batting practice. I noticed not only do players take a ton of cuts on the field, but also behind the cage off tees and during soft toss.

As BP ended about 5:10 and the field was cleared, the Giants returned to the field and began stretching in front of the dugout. I assumed they were getting ready to start the game, but both teams took a full infield/outfield drills before the game, like you would see at a high school or college game.

Pre-Game

As in some MLB stadiums, the Giants had mascots and cheerleaders on the field getting the crowd fired up, and then a short ceremony for a Giant pitcher, Tetsuya Utsumi, who was honored for his 1000th strikeout and received gifts from eight different people in suits. Pre-game ceremonies are typical in MLB, and while I have not been to a game where one has been performed, in Japan the Carp team stood in front of the dugout for the ceremony. Utsumi acknowledged the Carp with a bow before and after receiving his gifts.

Unlike MLB, the Giants did not play or sing the National Anthem before first pitch.

Game

The game was played in a quick 2 hours, 38 minutes - within the 3:30 time limit - and teams are in and out of the dugout a little quicker than their MLB counterparts. Of all the years I have watched MLB, I have never seen a team sacrifice bunt in the first inning of the game, but both the Carp and Giants' No. 2 hitters tried to execute sacrifice bunts in the opening frame.

With two outs in each half inning, the Japanese-born pitchers would come out and play catch in front of the dugout. Both teams had American-born pitchers on the roster, though I did not get to see any of them pitch. I wish I could have, just to see if they would take to the same Japanese tradition of coming out of the dugout with two outs and throwing on the side before the third out. The following day, two Americans started for both teams and on TV it looked like they only came out to do some light stretching but no throwing.

Besides the bunting early and pitchers throwing on the side during the game, it isn’t any different from MLB. Giants pitcher Ryosuke Miyaguni, all of 20 years old, threw a complete game shutout striking out seven, walking none and hitting one batter, using 109 pitches in the process. His velocity was 134-142 kilometers per hour that would convert to 84-86 mph.

The talent in general would be that of career AAA or 23rd-to-25th men on MLB rosters, with a few guys who could play every day. The Carp’s player that caught my eye was center fielder Yoshihiro Maru, who has great speed and would be considered a plus defensive player. He saved four runs with his outstanding defensive skills, but was 0-for-3 at the plate.

The Giants' best player was shortstop Hayato Sakamoto, who is a very lean, athletic player with smooth defensive skills and a nice swing at the plate. Sakamoto went 1-for-3 with a run scored and two walks, and I figured out quickly he is a favorite of the Giants' fans as the cheers were a little louder when he came to the plate.

Every fan seemed to be into the game, paying attention to every pitch and play that happened, but that didn’t stop the ushers and security officers from blowing their whistles anytime a foul ball made its way to the stands, just to warn people of the approaching danger. What made me upset is that the fans didn’t have to return those balls, but I had to give up the BP home run ball I caught; if my catch would have been caught on film it surely would of made SportsCenter’s top 10 plays.

Like MLB parks there are vendors, but in MLB parks you can buy peanuts, popcorn, hot dogs, pretzels and other assorted foods along with the standard array of beverages. If you are hungry, you need to head to the concession stands to get something to eat; they only sell beer and pop in the stands. The vendors, all of which were young college-aged girls, would start at the bottom of the stairs and work their way up. They weren’t carrying a tray of cans with them; they were lugging around small kegs of beer on their back and pouring beer into plastic cups. Since I wanted to experience the whole Japanese game, I bought a few beers from the vendors and went to the concession stands for a hot dog, which tasted nothing like an American-style hot dog (if I attend another game, I will definitely be picking a different item on the menu).

Crowd

The biggest difference in the game and experience would be the atmosphere. To me it felt like I was at a college football game, and some people have even compared it to a European soccer game with the organized chants and claps happening. Every time the Giants scored a run a chant would fill the dome and everyone waved their orange towels in the air.

The crowd was majority Giants fans, but the Carp did bring a good amount of fans to the game and they filled up two sections in the left field seats. They cheered loudly throughout the game, and even louder when the Carps did something well (which on that night wasn’t a lot).

As the game wound down, nobody left their seats for the exit, even though it was a 5-0 ballgame. Once the final out was made, the Giants made their way onto the field and did the traditional bow to thank the fans. They only bow after wins, and it brought the loudest cheer from the crowd that night. At that time, the starting pitcher Miyaguni was honored for being chosen the player of the game for his complete game win.

The experience is one that I will never forget. Even though I couldn’t understand the language I could understand the game and see the differences between MLB and NPB. If you ever find yourself in Japan during the months of April through September, I highly recommend attending a game. It is something you too will never forget.

Box score from May 1, 2012

Author's note: My family hosted a Japanese Foreign Exchange student in 1993 who became a part of our family over the years, and I consider him my brother. Mitsuru had lived in Chicago for the past seven years before moving back to Japan with his family, and I would like to thank him and his family for the hospitality during my seven-day trip to Japan.