Thursday, May 28, 2009

Yakult Swallows 2 at Chiba Lotte Marines 7 (Eastern League) - May 27, 2009

I mentioned a while back that I was going to give Japanese baseball a second chance. After all, I like baseball and I live in Japan, so I should be going to some games. So what if the stadiums are usually terrible, and the games long - I've got nothing better to do, right?

The Minors in Japan

It was with this positive attitude that I headed to Musashi-Urawa, where the Chiba Lotte Marines have their minor league team. In Japan, each of the 12 baseball teams has only one minor league squad. There are two minor leagues: one in the Tokyo area, called the Eastern League, which has 7 teams; and the 5-team Western League, located mostly in Kansai. With one exception, these teams retain the same name and uniform as their parent club and no marketing is done to attract fans. Most games are in the afternoon, which limits the number of fans that can attend; and usually the parks are tiny and without any amenities. It's old-school minor league ball, where the game matters more than the event, so I was looking forward to the experience.

The teams don't separate their rosters between the majors and minors - here's the Marines 2009 roster, all the players who played in the game I saw are listed here. Lesser players often move between the two squads without the necessity of a call-up or demotion; there is no limit to the number of times they can be sent down. And with so many players on the roster, uniform numbers go into triple digits, a strange sight!

The Stadium

I took the train up to Musashi-Urawa - about a minute before the station you can see Lotte Urawa Kyujo from the train. After getting out of the station, it's about a 10-minute walk straight south to the ballpark (I use this word lightly, it's really just a field). Upon arriving, you are greeted by absolutely nothing - no ticket window as there are no tickets - it's just free entry and sit where you want. Even then, seating options are limited - I had arrived about 20 minutes before the game, and most of the seats were taken on the 3rd base side, so I moved over to the first base side (you have to leave the stadium ground to do this) and found a seat at the far end of the benches. It's free, so you can't complain much, but the benches on the first-base side, which are reserved for the visiting team's fans, are about 25 years old and in terrible shape, as you can see below. After 9 innings there, I needed a massage - very uncomfortable. Turns out I was lucky though, many people who arrived after me had to stand to watch the game. Next time, I'll get there a bit earlier and try to sit on Lotte's side.

The infield is entirely dirt, and the outfield is grass. There is netting around the entire field to protect nearby houses from foul balls. The train tracks run beyond left field and there is always a train rumbling by. There are no food stands or souvenir shops at all, and no seats behind home plate. There is a manual scoreboard which doesn't even show hits and errors, and there are two ball/strike/out displays that use the coloured lights prevalent in Japan. The visiting bullpen is just down the right field line, but is hidden from view by a large hedge, although you can hear the pitches hitting the catcher's glove just behind you, an interesting sensory experience. As is the case in Japanese ballparks, the fans are overprotected, with fencing all the way along the baseline. As well, there's one guy who stands next to the fans and blows a whistle whenever a foul ball heads in their direction. Very difficult to get hurt here I think. The fencing makes good pictures difficult with my crappy camera, unfortunately I could not find a spot where there was no fence to obstruct the view. If I gave up my seat to wander around and take more photos, I'd lose the seat, so I decided to just sit back and watch the game unfold, along with my fellow Yakult fans shown here.

The Game

Neither starting pitcher had any experience in the NPB. Kazunari Abe (warming up in the picture here) started for Lotte and pitched 5 scoreless innings, though he was not overpowering, he threw strikes and was helped out by some good defensive plays. Hitoshi Yamamoto was Yakult's starter, he also lasted 5 frames but gave up 4 runs in the second, 3 coming in on a bases-loaded double by Marines' second baseman Masato Watanabe, who has spent parts of each of the past 8 seasons with the big club, but is too weak a hitter to stick with them.

Yakult halved the deficit in the 6th when Toshihiro Nakao smacked a 2-out double to score 2 runs off rookie reliever Tetsuya Yamamoto. But Lotte's third pitcher, Kodai Matsumoto, shut Yakult down for 2 innings, and then Chiba first baseman Takumi Kohbe (pictured here) smacked a 3-run shot in the bottom of the 8th to close out the scoring. Tatsuya Uchi pitched a 1-2-3 ninth with 2 Ks to end the game and Lotte had an easy 7-2 win.
The game was not that exciting, but it was still interesting. It was so quiet you could hear the players cheering after every pitch, and the quality of play was quite good. Pitchers are not that strong, there were not that many strikeouts and a lot of foul balls, but they were able to keep batters off-balance, particularly the Chiba hurlers. A number of hits were of the protective swing variety, hit just hard enough to flare into the outfield for a single. There were exactly 300 pitches by my count, and at 2:47, the game was not overly long, although it did drag at times. Still, it was worth the trip and I'll probably head back for another game in the near future.

There's no easy way to compare the quality of this league to a minor league in the US - teams here are a mixture of young players with a limited future, taxi players who move up and down (such as Watanabe), and maybe a few players on their way down. I feel that you have a much better chance of seeing a future star in AA or AAA then you would here, as the good players are usually added to the big club's roster immediately. Still, the players are talented, and play a good fundamental game.

The scoreboard

Overall, I really enjoyed my day here. With no fans chanting for 9 innings, no blaring music, no between-inning promotions, it was pure baseball. Sure, the NPB is missing a potentially sizable revenue stream here, but I'm glad. By keeping the minor leagues low-key, the real fans can sit back, relax, and just enjoy a quiet afternoon at the ballpark.

Next Tuesday, I'm going to visit Seibu's minor-league ballpark, and then see their major league team in a night game next door. It's a baseball doubleheader - I can't wait!



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