Monday, August 24, 2009

Koushien, Ashes, World Grand Prix all done


One of the benefits of living in Japan is meeting many sports fans from other countries and being introduced to a whole new set of sports that I had hardly heard of 15 years ago. Long gone are the days when I thought that MLB, the NFL, and the NHL were all that mattered to the sporting world (I am so old that when I started following sports, the NBA was still a second-tier league). Now I follow rugby, cricket, soccer, in addition to the big 4 North American sports. This keeps me busy checking up on all the leagues in which I have even the slightest interest, as well as following the dozens of tournaments around the world. In the past 24 hours, 3 major tournaments finished, so I thought I'd mention them as a sign of just how varied the sporting world is.

Koushien

I'd mentioned the Japanese National High School Baseball Tournament a couple of times before. I went to some regional games in Tokyo and although I wasn't that impressed watching live, the final tournament is something that any baseball fan would enjoy.

It started back on August 8, and lasted until today, August 24. It was a couple of days longer than scheduled due to some early rainouts. There were games every day, usually 4 in the first 10 days but then 2 for the quarter-finals and semi-finals, leading up to the final today.

And what a final it was. The team from Aichi prefecture, Chukyodai Chukyo based in Nagoya, is a well-known school who had won 6 championships, although their last was in 1966. Their opponent was from Niigata, a prefecture that had never even made it to the Best 4 in the 91 years the tournament has been held. Known as Nihon Bunri, they were the clear underdogs.

The game started quickly with Chukyo's pitcher, Doubayashi, belting a 2-run homer to give his team an early lead, but Bunri got 2 back and after 5 it was 2-2. In the bottom of the 6th, Chukyo exploded for 6 runs, all coming with two out and highlighted by a bases-loaded triple. The game looked lost for Nihon Bunri, who managed to add single runs in the 7th and 8th, but gave up 2 themselves during that span.

Which brought us to the 9th, with Chukyo crusing 10-4. Although Doubayashi had been replaced as the pitcher earlier in the game, he was brought back to close things out (he was playing the field while he wasn't pitching - a common tactic used in high school baseball to allow the ace to remain in the game in case he is required later on). He got two quick outs and it looked like the game was over. But a walk, wild pitch and single made it 10-5. Still no reason to worry, but a triple and a hit batsman made it 10-6 with runners on 1st and 3rd. Doubayashi was again replaced, much to his chagrin. Reliever Morimoto promptly walked the bases loaded, bringing the tying run to the plate. Incredible!

The batter was Bunri's ace Itou, who quickly singled in two runs! 10-8, and Chukyo is looking more like Choke-yo. A pinch-hitter singled to score another run and it was 10-9! It could not be any more wilder, the announcer was going crazy as were the Bunri fans. Catcher Wakabayashi, who had struck out to start the inning, was up with a chance to tie the game. He swung at the first pitch and lined it hard - had he tied the game? NO! Right to the third baseman, who gloved it and with that, ended a classic championship game. Wakabayashi fell to the ground in disbelief - he had stung that ball and likely thought himself a hero, but the baseball gods did not smile on him.

This was a great game, taking just over 2.5 hours with everything you could ask for. Congratulations to baseball fans in Aichi prefecture and to the team from Chukyodai Chukyo, who are the deserving winners. The tournament was fantastic, with a number of close games and several impressive performances on both offense and defense. I'm looking forward to next year's tournament already.

The Ashes

Meanwhile, halfway around the world, two nations fought for cricket surpemacy, at least between themselves. It was the Ashes, the biennial tournament between Australia and England, who were the hosts this year. Consisting of 5 test matches over a 6-week period, it's considered the most compelling cricket around (although some fans from India and Pakistan may disagree). Between 1989 and 2003 though, Australia had won each series, which had reduced excitement in England. But the Englishmen's stunning victory in 2005 returned the Ashes to prominence there, and despite being humiliated in 2006-07, England was looking forward to regaining the Ashes this summer.

I'm not going to recap the series here - it's far too complicated to explain all the nuances of the game, which I am still learning. After 4 tests, the series was tied 1-1 with two draws. All Australia needed was a draw in the 5th test to retain the trophy. But after 4 days, England had batted well, while Australia had not. So last night, England needed to get 10 wickets (outs) from the Aussies before they could score 466 runs over the following two days.

Although this sounds impossible, there was a very slight chance Australia could have pulled it off, so it made for some exciting cricket. Sadly, it's not televised here and although I found it streamed online, the quality was rather poor. So I settled for watching text updates at cricinfo.com. Although Australia battled valiantly, a couple of run-outs to their best batsmen snuffed any chance they might have had. England cruised to a comprehensive victory and have retaken the Ashes. Congratulations to their fans, who I know are celebrating now and looking forward to next winter when the next tourney takes place down under. If you've never seen cricket, I suggest you try to learn it and perhaps consider a trip to Australia for the series in 2010-11.

FIVB World Grand Prix

Back in Japan, a much less noticeable tournament was finishing up yesterday. It was the Women's World Volleyball Championship, known as the World Grand Prix. For several weeks, 12 countries had been playing an extensive round robin, in locations that included Rio De Janeiro, Poland, and Taiwan. The top 6 teams made the final round, which took place here in Tokyo.

Despite this being next door and relatively cheap to enter, I couldn't bring myself to attend this tournament. I really can't stand volleyball - there is little variety between points (serve, set, set, spike, point! or dig, set, set, spike, repeat until point is scored). And it drives me nuts that after every point, win or lose, all the players have to touch hands. There's over a hundred points a match! You don't have to touch after every freaking point!! Fans here also use Thunderstix, the worst invention for sports fans ever, another strong reason to stay home. It also annoys me that you get a point regardless of service - when I was young you could only score on serve, which seems a better way to play. So as you can see, volleyball is not my favourite sport.

Nonetheless, my dislike of volleyball will not prevent me from telling you that Brazil won the tournament with Russia taking second and Germany grabbing the bronze. As a sop to Japanese fans, the final game was Japan v Brazil, which was stupid scheduling, as Japan is not that good at volleyball and so the tournament result was known before the final game was played.

There you have it. Three completely different sports all finishing big tournaments around the same time. It just shows how exciting the sports world is, no matter the time of year or where you might be.

Next up

There's a few ball games this week I'd like to see - tomorrow there's a minor/major doubleheader in Chiba which I'm still considering. If I go, there'll be an update on Wednesday.

Best,

Sean

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