Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Honda 4 vs Toyota 2 - September 1 - Japanese Industrial League Championship - Tokyo Dome

The Japanese Industrial League is the relatively unknown component of the Japanese baseball scene. It consists of dozens of teams that are sponsored by major companies such as Panasonic and Nissan. Each team also represents a city, which seems to be where the sponsor is based. I started looking into the league last week and although there is little information available in English, I did find out that their annual tournament was being held at the Tokyo Dome. Yesterday was the championship game between Honda (representing Sayama City) against rival automaker Toyota (Toyota City) so I headed over to the Dome to catch the action.

The 80th Intercity Baseball Tournament

From what I can gather, the League is run under the auspices of the Japanese Amateur Baseball Association. However, I couldn't find a regular schedule, rather the teams play in a series of tournaments, so it's not a normal sports league that we're used to. The largest tournament is loosely translated as the Intercity Baseball Tournament and takes place in late August every year. For 2009, it was the 80th edition of the tournament.

Teams qualify through regional tournaments, much like for the summer high-school Koshien tournament. However in the industrial league, it's not based on each prefecture but region, and some regions are allowed multiple representatives so that the same city can see more than one club (Tokyo had 4 for example) . All together 36 teams make the single-elimination tournament, with all games played at the Tokyo Dome over 12 days. Teams are known by their company sponsors but are representing the cities as well, which is why it's called the Intercity Tournament.

I only found out about the tournament last Thursday and started following the results on-line. I noticed that most games were very low-scoring and quick, averaging under 2.5 hours. In fact, over the 34 games leading to the final, only once did a team reach double digits in runs scored, that being Toyota with a 17-2 victory in an early-round game. Toyota managed to win their next two games to make the final, where they would take on Honda, who had won 4 low-scoring games, never scoring more than 6 or giving up more than 4. So it seemed to be a battle of Honda's pitching against Toyota's offense.

Ex-Yakult catcher Atsuya Furuta after throwing out the first pitch

The Cheering Sections

When I got to the dome, I noticed large signs for Honda and Toyota employees. If you work for one of these firms, you get free entry, but you must sit with your teams cheering section. For those of us without any affiliation to either company, we have to pay our way in. Because so many seats are reserved for the company employees, there were relatively few seats actually on sale. The lower deck between the bases were available for 2,400 yen while you could sit in the 2nd deck balcony seats down the line for 1,500 yen. There were also outfield seats for 900 yen. I wanted to be close, so forked over 2,400 yen and walked in. I was there about 45 minutes before game time, so I had no problem making my way to a seat 4 rows from the field, just above the Toyota dugout. As I used to drive a Toyota regularly, I had decided to root for them, so I needed to sit on the first-base side. In Japan, each team takes one side of the stadium and fans must sit on their team's designated side. This allows for more co-ordinated cheering, as I'll explain below.

As the stadium filled up, I noticed that the Honda side of the field had far more fans. This is because Sayama City, which Honda was representing, is much closer to Tokyo than Toyota's hometown of Toyoda. So Honda was able to get their fans out in droves. I watched in fascination as they filled up section after section. Once they had filled up their outfield seats, they moved into the upper deck. Once they finished filing in (by the middle of the 4th inning!), I estimated 20,000 people in their cheering section. Turns out that one of them was Takanobu Ito, President of Honda, which just shows you how important these games are (Toyota's president Akio Toyoda was also there).

A quick explanation of the concept of cheering sections. In pro baseball here, each team has a few thousand dedicated fans who comprise the oendan, or cheering section. They sit in the outfield bleachers and mindlessly recite chants and songs for each player while their team is batting, from first pitch until after the game ends. Each team's oendan is rather similar, and the cheers don't differ that much from player to player. It's cute at first, but as with so many things in Japan, becomes tiresomely predictable and robotic after a while.

Well, the pro league oendan have nothing on these industrial league groups. First, each team has official cheerleaders (both male and female) that wear white gloves, bow to the other team's cheerleaders, and perform throughout the game. These cheerleaders and band members are just normal company workers who do this as a hobby. It is their job to lead the fans in cheers and they take it very seriously. Accompanied by a large band, the cheerleaders jump up and down, wave flags, and dance while the band plays a variety of different songs. All of this is to lead the fans in co-ordinated cheering for the entire game. Unlike the pro game, both sections are cheering on both offense AND defense. When you have about 25,000 people continually singing and yelling in an enclosed stadium, it is incredible. And loud. Very loud. No wonder these games are so quick, the players might go deaf if they went on any longer. It was so loud that I couldn't hear the announcer when there were lineup changes - I even missed a pinch runner entering the game!

Toyota's cheerleaders before the game

These groups also make for great visuals as each employee holds a plastic fan that they use in their cheers. I took some pictures, but from my seat near the field, it was difficult to capture (see the picture below) just how incredible it is to see so many people acting in unison. Very much like European soccer I would think. Definitely something worth seeing if you ever have a chance.

Each team also has a "mascot", which in this case is a young, comely woman who stands next to the dugout during the game. Not sure if she has any other purpose, but in the game, the Honda mascot was asked to move her position as the Toyota first baseman was distracted by her. Very funny and even the umpire was laughing as the player apologized to the rather befuddled young lady.

The Players

I've seen some people compare the quality of the Industrial League to AA ball. But that's not quite accurate - the players here are usually a bit older, and each team includes a few more experienced players. For example, the Toyota team featured at least 3 starters over 30, which you won't see in AA.

Now I'm not exactly sure how these teams are formed. I guess that each company has scouts who sign these players out of university or high school, because they are far too good to just be regular company employees who tried out. That's not to say they don't work for the firms for which they play - they do. But their main job is baseball player and although they may have other titles (one Toyota player works in the TQM department) and occasionally do actual work for the firm, I think that they spend a great deal of time practicing.

Toyota's players with a between-innings conference

I suppose with the pro leagues only allowing around 72 new players (12 teams draft for 6 rounds) per season, the Industrial Leagues act as a minor league of sorts. Last season, Junichi Tazawa pitched for ENEOS, leading them to the Intercity title. He avoided the Japanese pro leagues and signed with Boston, where he has had an up-and-down debut this season. And many of these industrial league players do end up being signed by the pro teams in Japan.

I don't follow the Japanese amateur scene at all, but according to those more knowledgeable than myself, there are several future pro players on both teams. Honda rightfielder Hisayoshi Chono (who won the tournament's leading hitter award) has been drafted twice already, but really wants to play for the Yomiuri Giants (ugh) and is expected to be drafted by them this year. Both starting pitchers (Tomohisa Ohtani of Toyota and Rikiya Chikugawa of Honda) have made Japan's World Cup Roster. So there was a lot of talent on display in this game, and I had a great seat to enjoy it.

The Game

This post is already far too long, so I won't recap the entire game. Both pitchers started well and we didn't have a baserunner through 2 innings. But in the top of the 3rd, Ohtani walked the 9th hitter Yoshinobu Kotegawa. After a single, Yohei Kawato doubled down the line (pictured below) to score the first run of the game. This brought Chono to the plate and he singled, driving in two more runs and Honda was up 3-0, much to the delight of their fans.

Kawato doubles scoring Kotegawa below

Toyota was still hitless in the 5th but a leadoff single by Yukinaga Tanaka was soon followed by a homer from Kohei Fujiwara - Toyota had closed within one. After 4 innings, Ohtani was replaced by Nakane who kept Honda off the board for 3 more frames. But Toyota couldn't get anything going off Chikugawa or his two relievers and we reached the 9th with Honda holding on to their 1-run lead. Yuichi Tabata quickly doubled the lead with a solid homer to left and that looked to be enough. Toyota did manage to get two singles in the bottom of the 9th and had the tying run at the plate, but Hiroto Sano flew out to center and Honda had won!

Sano swings

The players ran onto the field and celebrated while the Toyota players watched morosely. The Honda manager gave a speech, and there was a trophy presentation and awards given to the best players in the tourney, but I left midway through as it looked like it could take a while.

Honda celebrates!

Overall, this was a great game to watch. The pitchers could hit around 88 mph but had some good breaking stuff that kept hitters off-balance. They had good control (there were only 4 walks the entire game) and the defense was flawless. I thought the pitchers did tire quickly, but this is probably because of the nature of the tournament - Honda had played 4 games in a row and Chikugawa had pitched just the day before. I did think that some hitters were overmatched, rarely making good contact on the fastballs, but in general, these players are very good. The teams play fundamental baseball and keep things moving, which I really appreciate. Being able to sit so close is a treat, and I'm looking forward to going to the next tournament in Tokyo.

Baseball on Speed

Midway through the game, I realized that these Industrial League games are like baseball on speed. Unlike the plodding NPB game, pitchers don't fart around, they throw the ball, often taking less than 10 seconds between pitches. And batters swing more often, not trying to eke out walks. This makes sense: if you want to be noticed by pro scouts, you need to hit the ball. So the game moves fast - it's like fast forwarding a regular game. Coupled with the cheering sections going non-stop, it is really an amazing sensory experience. But I did leave with a small headache, no doubt the result of 2.5 hours of constant noise. I'll bring earplugs next time.

Next Up

I've finalized the schedule for the rest of the baseball season. I'm going to check out one more game at Yakult Toda field next Monday and then another one at Lotte Urawa on Tuesday. Then I'm off to Hawaii for 10 days, upon my return I'll return to Giants Stadium for a game and then see the Futures play Shonan in a Baystars Stadium, which I've yet to visit. Finally, I'll take in two university games at Jingu, followed by the Swallows and Baystars in an NPB game - it's a Tokyo tripleheader which is the best way to end the regular season.

Once the playoffs are set, I'll decide if I'll go to any games. Until then, have fun everyone.



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