A Whirlwind Tour of Japanese Baseball

For the third year in a row, I joined JapanBall, run by Bob Bavasi and Mayumi Smith, on a weeklong tour to watch baseball games in Japan. It was a whirlwind event, covering a lot of ground to see five baseball games in six cities over the course of seven days.

The JapanBall group at Tokyo Station

If the name Bavasi sounds familiar, it should. Bob’s father is the late Buzzie Bavasi, an MLB front office icon who was the general manager of the Brooklyn/LA Dodgers, San Diego Padres, and California Angels. Each year Bob and Mayumi, the program director of the Nippon Business Institute at Everett Community College in Washington state, guide a motley crew of baseball fans to see what America’s pastime is like on the other side of the world. Here’s a taste of what this year’s trip, which took place during the first week of September, was like.

Day 1 – Arrive in Tokyo

Inside the Kleenex Miyagi Stadium

Twenty-one people traveled from places such as New York, California, and Canada to experience Japanese baseball. We had dinner together at a tiny noodle shop, Café Noodle Roje, dubbed the JapanBall Hall of Fame.

Day 2 – Bullet Train to Sendai, Miyagi, for Game 1: Seibu Lions vs Rakuten Golden Eagles

outside Kleenex Miyagi Stadium in Sendai, home of the Rakuten Golden Eagles

Not nearly as big as Tokyo, Sendai is a charming city, and going there is a nice way to ease into Japan if you’re a first-timer. Since we left Tokyo early in the morning, we had a few hours to explore the town before the game. The game itself was a bit of a stinker ­– a 14-4 blowout by the Lions – but the stadium has great atmosphere. It’s the ideal place for a night of family entertainment, even though the baseball team isn’t doing well. We were treated to a grand slam, courtesy of hefty visiting team DH Takeya Nakamura, whose nickname, Okawari-kun, means, “May I have seconds?”

Day 3 – Bullet Train to Yokohama for Game 2

Former major leaguer Tomo Ohka was the starting pitcher for Yokohama

Up and at ‘em early in the morning to head south to see the Yakult Swallows take on the Yokohama BayStars, the only team in Nippon Professional Baseball without a corporate sponsor in its name. Again, our arrival early in the day gave us time to explore the environs. Yokohama is an easy walking city with interesting Western-style architecture and a lively waterfront.

Yokohama fans go nuts after Seiichi Uchikawa hits a grand slam

The stadium isn’t as sleek as the one in Sendai, but there were plenty of pregame activities – a rock band, a swimming pool, and a bouncy castle – to entertain the fans. The starting pitcher for Yokohama was Tomo Ohka, who pitched 10 seasons in MLB, mainly with the Montreal Expos. We saw another grand slam, this one from Yokohama right fielder Seiichi Uchikawa, as Ohka and the BayStars defeated Yakult 9-4.

Day 4 – Short turnaround day to Hiroshima

The bullet train speeds by Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium

By now the group was fully appreciative of the ease of Japan’s bullet trains. The longest trip on the high-speed Shinkansen took us from Yokohama to Hiroshima for an afternoon game at the fantastic Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium to see the Toyo Hiroshima Carp host the Hanshin Tigers. Our hotel was walking distance to the stadium, so we had the opportunity to follow the crowd and see street vendors selling food and drink along the way. Opened last year, Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium is a gem and my personal favorite. The wide concourse and openness of the stands make this stadium more like those of MLB.

The crowd files into Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium to see the Hiroshima Carp

Another former MLBer, Kenji Johjima, was the starting catcher for Hanshin. His Tigers jumped all over Hiroshima starter Yuki Saitoh, scoring 5 runs in the 3rd inning. Down 7-0, the Carp came back in the bottom of the 7th to cut the lead to 7-5. The crowd went nuts and was almost as loud as the notoriously crazy Tigers fan club. The fierce rally was for naught; the Tigers tacked on more runs and won 11-5.

There were no grand slams this time, but there were three home runs, including one from Craig Brazell, who had brief stints with the Mets in 2004 and the Royals in 2007. He is coming into his own this season with the Hanshin Tigers. The first baseman’s home run was his 41st of the season, 2nd in the Central League at that time.

Day 5 – Sightseeing

Kyocera Dome in Osaka, home of the Orix Buffaloes

Trip co-organizer and Hiroshima native Mayumi Smith likes to inject history and culture into the baseball tour, so the JapanBallers went on an excursion to nearby Iwakuni and Miyajima. Having done this the previous two years, I opted out of the sightseeing, and my husband and I hung out in Hiroshima. That’s the beauty of JapanBall: Outside of catching trains, you’re not bound by the schedule. We joined the other members that evening for a wonderful group dinner at a barbecue place and topped off the night with karaoke.

Day 6 – The Other Team in Osaka

Inside the Kyocera Dome

As Typhoon #9 approached and brought rain to mainland Japan, we were thankful our fourth game, which pitted the Chiba Lotte Marines against the Orix Buffaloes, was in the protective confines of the Kyocera Dome. The Buffaloes, the result of a merger between the Kintetsu Buffaloes and Ichiro Suzuki’s former team, the Orix Blue Wave, are the under-appreciated team in Osaka, as the city has had an ongoing love affair with the more popular and successful Hanshin Tigers.

We saw two more former major leaguers in this contest: Tadahito Iguchi, the 2nd baseman for the Marines, and So Taguchi, who hit a pinch-hit, 2-run home run to give the Buffaloes a 4-3 lead. Orix escaped comeback drama in the top of the 9th and held on for a 5-4 win. It was the closest and most exciting game of the tour.

Day 7 – Last game: Nippon Ham Fighters vs Seibu Lions

Rain outside the Seibu Dome for the Lions game

After riding our last bullet train from Osaka, we found ourselves back in Tokyo, where the tour began. The tour ended on a rainy night in Saitama, an hour-long ride from Tokyo on the Seibu train line. Kazuhisa Ishii, who played for the Dodgers and Mets, took the mound for Seibu. He pitched 6 serviceable innings for the win over the Fighters. Much to my dismay, Yu Darvish did not pitch for Nippon Ham. It would’ve been nice to see a good pitching matchup, but we saw three home runs instead. Japanese baseball is generally known for execution of the fundamentals of small ball, so it was surprising to see so much power on this tour.

JapanBaller Vinny Zito flies the flag of the Seibu Lions

The Tour Flies By . . .

Five games, 6 cities, 7 days, more than 1,200 miles. Whew! I can’t wait until next year.

For more information about JapanBall and to see the tour schedules for April and September 2011, visit Bob Bavasi’s website.

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