Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Seibu Sweep! - June 2, 2009

The Saitama Seibu Lions of the Pacific League maintain their minor league facility right next door to the Seibu Dome (pictured above), where the big club plays. With the minor league games in the afternoon, this sets up a perfect day-night doubleheader when both teams are at home. I scoured the schedule and was pleased to find that when the Yakult Swallows, the team I've supported for over 10 years, would be visiting Seibu on June 2nd and 3rd, the minor league team would be hosting the Shonan Searex in the afternoon. It was a perfect excuse to see the Seibu Dome for the first time - when I previously visited back in 1998 it was still an open air stadium.

Getting There

The Seibu Dome is located in Tokorozawa, in Saitama Prefecture. It's 1h 30m from where I live, which is one of the reasons I have avoided it for so many years. The stadium area has it's own train station, called Seibu Kyujo-mae, which means "In front of Seibu Ballpark". To get to this station, you must take a decidated train from Nishi Tokorozawa - it just travels back and forth between these two stations, which are just 7 minutes apart, although there are special trains available after the game that go all the way to Tokyo. Naturally, all these trains are part of the Seibu line - you can see how they use synergy well here, you need to board a Seibu train to get to the Seibu Dome to watch the Seibu Lions.

Getting to Nishi Tokorozawa is not difficult, in fact, there are some subways in Tokyo that go straight there, although usually you will have to transfer. I left my apartment at 10:45 and two transfers and 90 minutes later, I was standing in front of the Seibu Dome.

The #2 Stadium

The afternoon game began at 1 pm at what is known as Seibu Dai-ni Kyujo, or the #2 Ballpark. It's just a few minutes up a hill to get to the stadium, and entry is free. The ballpark is much like the one that I visited last week at Lotte Urawa - an all dirt infield, a grass outfield, and a lot of fencing around the area. The picture below is taken from the outfield. The bullpens were on the field though, and easily visible. Seating options are limited. There are some benches on a concrete platform just behind home plate which offered a great view, but they were all taken by the time I arrived. There are also seats in the outfield, and you can watch the game through the fence there, which gives an interesting perspective. Most fans make do sitting on the grass behind home plate, or along a concrete gully down third base. It's not comfortable, but hey, it's free.

As you walk around, you will see players sitting on benches or walking back and forth to the clubhouse - they are easily accessible and will sign autographs if you ask politely. Otherwise, there's not much here, no food or drinks are for sale, so most people just bring their lunch from a nearby convenience store.

Shonan Searex players before the game

No Walks!

The game featured the visiting Shonan Searex against the Lions. Shonan is the minor league team of the Yokohama Bay Stars and the only team to have a completely different name and uniform. They really try marketing the team down in Yokosuka, so they've developed their own identity and uniform, which makes for a refreshing difference.

The game itself was likely the best game I have seen in Japan. Both starting pitchers were throwing strikes and keeping things moving. Searex slugger Yuuki Takamori launched a lead-off homer in the 2nd but that was all the scoring until the bottom of the 8th. Seibu had only managed 3 hits off starter Yasuhiro Oyamada and reliever Teruaki Yoshikawa through 7 innings, but a pinch-hit double by former Yomiuri Giant Takayuki Shimizu, followed by a Keisuke Mizuta triple and then a perfectly executed squeeze by Shogo Akada (pictured here) gave the Lions a 2-1 lead.

Tetsuya Iwasaki was brought in to close the game, but a 2-out double by Shigeru Morikasa tied things at 2 and extra innings loomed. However, Shonan reliever Shigetoshi Yamakita gave up a leadoff single to Hiroyuki Oshima and he was quickly replaced by wily veteran Takeharu Katoh. But Seibu was not to be denied, as DH Taketoshi Gotoh smoked a double down the right-field line sending Oshima home to win the game 3-2. A sayonara victory for the home team!

What was amazing about this game was that there were no walks! And the game time was an unbelievable 2:18 - it would have been faster but the grounds crew takes 5 minutes to clean the field after the 5th inning, probably to give the players a chance to use the facilities, as there is no clubhouse in the actual playing area. Anyway, it may be the fastest 9-inning game in the Japanese minors this year - I'll have to check on that later. But I enjoyed watching the great pitching and more aggressive hitting that results when strikes are being thrown.

The Dome

With the first game ending so early, I had some time before gates opened at the Seibu Dome. The word dome is a bit of a misnomer though - the stadium is built like an ampitheatre into the side of a hill and originally had no covering. After the 1998 season though, a large dome-like umbrella was built - but there is no pressurized inflation system like most domed ballparks. Instead, there is a large gap between the bottom of the dome and ground level, so you are not well-protected from a chilly night. Nonetheless, the roof does provide some difficulties for fielders while it is still daylight: before the game, infielders were taking pop-up practice, and during the game, Yakult left-fielder Kazuki Fukuchi lost a fly ball in the roof, leading to a triple. Have a look at the picture here and tell me if you'd like to catch a fly ball under this roof.

Two years ago, the Lions lost Daisuke Matsuzaka to the Boston Red Sox, who paid over $50 million just for the rights to negotiate with him. This money went straight to the Lions, who used some of it to renovate the stadium. This article from the New York Times details the improvements, and I concur - when I walked into the bathroom, I was momentarily blinded by the shining blue porcelain tiles. I'm glad to see that the Lions fans got something useful out of Matsuzaka's leaving.

You can see the gap between the roof and the seats

The new scoreboard is also the best in Japan, at least that I've seen. One of the things I liked about the scoreline was that they displayed the time of the game as it progressed, and between innings, they showed how much time was being used. This is part of the Green Project that I wrote about in an earlier post, and is something that should be adapted elsewhere.

Field View Seats

As this was my first Japanese major league game in over two years, I decided to splurge and get a Field View Seat. These are relatively new seating options which allow you to sit almost on the field, in a section that extends out into foul territory and which lacks the protective netting that characterizes so many Japanese stadiums. A clear view of the field - what a concept! At $40, they are a bit expensive, but well worth it if you are only going to one game.

In Japan, fans are ostensibly divided depending on which team they are cheering for. Seibu fans are to sit on the 3rd base side and in left field, while the visiting fans sit on 1st base side and in right field. As a Yakult supporter, I got a seat on the 1st base side, it was in the second row, about 25 yards down the line from first base. Definitely a different perspective.

As this is prime foul ball territory, the team takes precautions to protect fans. At each seat is a batting helmet, as well as a small paper hat to keep the inside of the helmet clean. You can also pick up a glove when you enter the seating area. A few people made use of the helmets, although we were so far away that you would have plenty of time to get out of the way of a screamer down the line. One problem sitting at field level is that your view is sometimes blocked by umpires, coaches, and players warming up. Still, the seats are great: players can hear you cheering and will acknowledge you, and you really get a feel for the game. Recommended to try once if you have the chance.

Yakult Loses Again

The game itself was OK. Last season's ERA leader Masanori Ishikawa started for Yakult against journeyman John Wasdin, now in his second tour in Japan. Yakult scored a run in each of the first two innings, but Seibu responded with 3 of their own in the 3rd, helped by a 2-run homer from Takumi Kuriyama. In the fifth, two singles and a fielders choice had loaded the bases for Takeya Nakamura (pictured above), the reigning home run king for the Pacific League. It was a dangerous situation and unfortunately, Ishikawa couldn't get it done as Nakamura knocked a 2-2 pitch over the right field fence for a grand slam. The Swallows managed a run in the 8th on Norichika Aoki's (a member of the WBC winning Japanese team) homer, but that was all for them and they lost 7-3. One interesting note is that veteran pitcher Fumiya Nishiguchi, in his 15th season with the club, pitched the 8th inning, striking out two but giving up the home run to Aoki.

Last week I saw Yakult's minor league team lose, this week the major league team suffers defeat. The jinx lives on!

Canadian Aaron Guiel rounds first after a single. When he bats, the Yakult cheering section plays O Canada!

Majors and Minors in Japan

One of the starters in the afternoon game, Kenta Matsusaka, was a late inning defensive replacement in the evening game. In Japan, many players move between the two teams without any real official notice. There is no concept of options, and with the minor league teams located close by in most cases, no logistical issues with having players shuttle back and forth. Two of the players that I saw last week playing for the Swallows in the minor leagues were on the bench for the game today, and one of them even pinch-hit.

It's amazing how different the major league and minor league stadiums are. In the US, AAA stadiums are usually 10,000 seat venues with all the fixings. But in Japan, the second team plays at a dirt field with no facilities for players or fans whatsoever. I think that the Japanese teams prefer this setup to maximize roster flexibility (i.e. minor league day games allow players to play in both the morning and afternoon), but they are missing out on a great chance to improve their product.

As the minor league team actually consists of many players who are of major league caliber, the games may be the best value in sports. You can see quality ball for free - just get there early to secure a decent seat. I'll probably spend the summer watching a few more minor league games for this reason and will report back on my experiences.

Next Up

I'm off to Singapore tomorrow, mainly to fly on the A380, but also to catch an S League Cup game. I'm planning to watch a game tomorrow, but the weather looks questionable, so it may be Friday after all. I'll be back here on Monday, have a good weekend all!



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