Friday, August 28, 2009

Shikoku-Kyushu Island League All-Stars 4 at Eastern League Futures 5 - August 27, 2009

Independent baseball is a fixture in the US, but here in Japan, it's a relatively new concept. As you probably know, baseball is hugely popular but the pro leagues only have 12 teams in the largest cities, and there is no minor league system that could give smaller towns a regular chance to watch the game. There are industrial leagues that actually have talented players, but those teams are sponsored by companies and don't seem to have a strong local following as the teams usually compete in tournaments rather than a regular league. So it seems only natural that eventually someone would recognize the need for competitive baseball leagues with teams in these smaller cities.

That finally happened in 2005, when the Shikoku Island League was formed with 4 teams, one in each prefecture on the small island of Shikoku. Two years later, two teams from Kyushu were added, and the league was renamed the Shikoku-Kyushu Island League. The league gained a small amount of publicity overseas when one of the teams signed ex-Yankee Hideki Irabu.

The league generally plays 3-games series from Friday to Sunday, which means that the players have time off during the week. I guess the Eastern League saw a chance to get some competition for their Futures team and invited the all-stars from the SKIL up to Tokyo to play a 2-game series. The first game was on Wedneday, August 26th in Kamagaya, which I've been to twice so far, with the second game being played on August 27th in Omiya Stadium, which I had yet to visit. So it was a no-brainer to decide to head up there to watch the game and add another ballpark to my list.

Getting There

Omiya is a large district that's part of the new Saitama City, about 35 minutes by train from Tokyo. The stadium is a 20-minute walk from the station, located in Omiya Park. The park is situated just behind Hikawa Shrine, so much of the walk is along a tree-lined route as you approach the shrine. It's quite a nice walk, well shaded even on sunny days, and certainly the nicest walk to any stadium in the country. The ballpark is right next to NACK.5 Stadium, home of J League side Omiya Ardija, which looks to be a great place for soccer and may necessitate a return trip sometime.

The Stadium

Omiya Stadium is one of the oldest ballparks in the country, having been built in 1934. It was renovated in 1992 so it's difficult to recognize just how old it is. The best thing about this ballpark is the large awning that covers much of the infield seating, providing plenty of shade. Yes, glorious shade! All of the other stadiums I've seen this summer have almost no shaded seating, which means 3 or 4 hours baking in the heat and generous dollops of sunblock. So I was elated to see that I could spend the game relaxing without frying my delicate complexion.

The stadium seats over 20,000 and is occasionally used for Seibu Lions games and some high school games, it otherwise seems to lie empty for days on end, judging from the amount of pigeon poop I saw scattered around. There are three seating areas: between the bases are orange plastic seats with backs; down the lines are blue benches; green benches lie even further away. The stadium tapers as you move down the lines, somewhat similar to the upper deck in Kaufmann Stadium in Kansas City as you can see in the shot below. There's no outfield seating, beyond the fences is just a grassy area. As there were fewer than 200 people in attendance, they had closed off the bench seating so I couldn't take any pictures from there.

The infield is all dirt, with a grass outfield. Measurements are typical for Japan, about 325 feet down the lines and 400 to center. There is a typical large scoreboard that doubles as the batters eye and displays the lineups.

As this was not a typical game, there were not your usual assortment of concessions; instead there was just one guy selling kebab sandwiches and another offering pop and frozen ice treats. I did have a kebab, but it was rather small and a bit disappointing.

I believe that this is the sort of stadium where minor league games should be played regularly. It's large, plenty of good seats, fairly comfortable, and accessible. I guess when there's only 400 fans at a game though, it's a bit of a waste to use such a facility. But if the NPB ever gets its act straight and creates a viable minor league system, the park in Omiya would be a great place to see a game.

You can make out NACK5 stadium behind the scoreboard

The Game

I don't know any of the Island League players, so I wasn't sure what to expect from them. Having seen the Futures beat Nippon Ham 13-11 just a week before, I thought that we might have another walkfest, but that was not the case, thankfully.

Leadoff hitter Yamashin, who is leading the Island League in batting, slugged a homer to right to start the game. A walk, single, and double added two more runs and it was 3-0 quickly. But that was pretty much it for the Island League as the Futures pitchers retired 22 in a row from that point. Meanwhile, their offense couldn't get much started and the game moved quickly through 5 innings.

Daisuke Takada of the Ehime Mandarin Pirates

In the 6th, the Futures scored two runs on 3 consecutive single, helped by an error in left field, to make it a close game. Then in the 8th, a lead-off walk was followed by a double. With one out, the ball was grounded to short. The throw came home and the runner on third was in a rundown. Unfortunately for the Island League, the 3rd baseman Nakamura threw the ball away and both runners scored, with the batter making it all the way to third. He would later score on a single and it was 5-3 Futures.

Mineaki Suetsugu of the Nagasaki Saints

The Island League had a chance to tie the game after a leadoff triple (breaking the run of 22 straight outs) was followed by a double in the top of the 9th. But with the bases loaded, catcher Nishimori was called out on strikes and the Futures had held on for the 5-4 win.

This was a pretty good game. I was impressed that each Futures pitcher (7 pitchers were used) was throwing strikes and getting outs, although I understand that they should be a better team than the independent leaguers. The Futures managed to get their leadoff man on base in 7 out of 8 innings, but he was stranded 5 times, which kept the game close. Out of the Futures 5 runs, 3 scored on errors, and one scored in a rundown, so there was only 1 RBI.

The final score

One interesting thing about the all-star team is seeing the different uniforms of the Island League teams. Many of these teams have prominent advertising patches on their jerseys, which looks a bit weird. But given that the league needs all the revenue they can get, I don't think it's much of an issue. As well, the team came out both before and after the game to bow to the fans on both sides of the stadium - a nice gesture that more teams should take to heart.

Up Next

I was planning to see a game today in Lotte Urawa, but the real world intervened as I've started interviews for jobs. So I may not be able to see as many weekday games as I would like as the season winds down. I'll keep you all posted.



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