Saturday, September 4, 2010

Hanshin Tigers 4 at Hiroshima Carp 5 - September 3, 2010


Hiroshima is the first team in my time in Japan to build an entirely new stadium to replace an existing one. Normally I would be pretty excited about going, but it took me nearly 2 years to find time and some other events to make it a real sports road trip. Shameful really, Hiroshima is one of Japan's best cities and now they have the best baseball stadium too.

Mazda Stadium


The official name is Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium Hiroshima but this is usually abbreviated to just Mazda Stadium, thankfully. It was opened last season to rave reviews and has been called an "American-style" ballpark. Which is true to a point.

It's a 10-minute walk from Hiroshima Station and well-signed. Or you can just follow everybody else, there's plenty of red-clad fans making the trek even two hours before game time. Just beside the station is a small street selling food items, including draft beer that you can bring into the stadium. It's half the price you'll pay inside, so worth it if you plan to imbibe.


As you draw near, you'll walk up a bridge (above) that leads to the main entrance. However, you'll need a ticket if you choose this approach, otherwise stay to the right of the bridge and walk over to the ticket window. When you enter the stadium, you must give up all cans and plastic bottles, so don't be carrying those with you.


There are 17 different seating options, which I won't list here. Some of them are very interesting though; the Coca-Cola Terrace seats (above) are sold in sets of 5 for 20,000 yen and allow you a table to enjoy your food while the Nesoberia Seats are large cushions in the outfield that are sold in pairs only for 7,000 yen. The Carp are a big draw here and most sections are sold out on game day, so if you want to sit in a certain section, make sure to buy tickets well in advance. Otherwise the best bet is the infield unreserved seats at 1,600 yen. These are in the second deck but if you get there early you can pick your spot and sit in the shade for the whole game, and it's not that far from the field.


The cheering groups each have their own special section called Carp Performance (above) and Visitor Performance, which sit as entirely separate areas from the other sections. Brilliant idea that opens the outfield seats to fans who prefer to sit there without the music blaring and also allows for a wider variety of seating options in general.


The infield concourse is not that wide, particularly when the crowds are meandering around before the game. There are other minor annoyances as well. To get to your seat, you have to enter the exact aisle that is printed on your ticket. But they don't have ticket checkers at every aisle, so they've added some fencing and created one entrance for every 3 aisles. This pushes the standing areas back quite a bit and reduces the amount of available space for standing as the pillars now block the view in many spots. As well, once you are in the main bowl, you can't move from section to section as there is no walkway. So taking pictures in a variety of areas can be difficult once fans are in their seats. Oh, and don't bother trying to get into a section for which you have no ticket, even well before the game. This is Japan and rules are rules.

The food options here are exceptionally varied and well worth trying. I considered the Philly Cheese Steak below until I saw the cheese they were using, which was the melted processed variety and not that appealing. I sampled a number of light options over the three days and enjoyed the Carp Udon for 500 yen. There are tables nearby the concession stand as it is difficult to eat noodles while holding the bowl; one poor lady dropped hers all over the floor and to add insult to injury, had her cell phone fall into the pile of noodles as she bent down to pick it up.


In the outfield concourse there are a couple of statues of Soichiro Amaya making great catches, complete with fence. I don't think these are related to Masato Akamatsu's wall-climbing catch or Amaya's similar play just a couple of weeks later but just an interesting coincidence. They've set it up so that you can pose on this side of the fence and act surprised. There's even a popcorn tub spilling its load or a soda pop with the contents in the air to complete the illusion. Very cool although I didn't see anyone taking advantage of it.


Below are just some more pictures from various spots on the main concourse.





There is no upper concourse to speak of, there's just a small walkway for getting between the sections. Again you need to know which aisle to use as you can't walk between sections. Since these are unreserved seats, make a note of your seat number and aisle and leave something on top of it should you wish to go touring. You get a nice view of the surrounding hills and can see the trains going by beyond the left field fence.


Overall though, this is a great place to watch a game. A beautiful setting, close to transit, excellent views that aren't ruined by protective netting, plenty of good eats, and a good choice for seats. Yeah, it'd be better if you had more freedom to explore before the game, but what can you do. Mazda Stadium definitely makes Hiroshima a key sports destination in Japan; now if they can only get a bj League team they'd be set.

The Teams

The Hanshin Tigers are the best team in Japan, sporting a .570 winning percentage and enjoying a 2-game lead atop the Central League. They are an offensive powerhouse with 5 players hitting above .300, led by Matt Murton who is on pace to break the all-time record for most hits in a season. Second baseman Keiichi Hirano leads the league with a .354 average while first baseman Craig Brazell has 40 homers and 100 RBIs to top the team in those categories.

The Hiroshima Toyo Carp, on the other hand, are a bit of a mess. Lying 5th, hovering around .400, and possessing the worst pitching staff and offense in the league, the Carp are only saved by some decent defense. Of course there are those famous catches, but in general, the Carp seem to be relatively good fielders from what I've seen.

The Ticket

As I was walking back to my hotel before the game, I chanced upon a kinken shop. These are stores that offer a variety of tickets that involve discounts on items such as shinkansen trips, movies, or drinks. They also have sports tickets on occasion so I decided to see if anything was available. Surprisingly, they had one seat in a section called the Royal Box for 5,000 yen. These tickets are usually not available to the general public, so I was intrigued, but the saleslady wouldn't show me the ticket itself, which I found peculiar. She pointed out the approximate location on a stadium map, and it seemed to be behind home plate in the first few rows, so I chanced it and forked over the money.

A fortunate decision as the ticket was the 3rd row almost directly behind the plate, which looks like this:


The only problem is that the first two rows are those that are shown on TV, so most of the evening I was surrounded by idiots who would come down, get on their cell phone, and then wave as the pitch was tossed. Then, having been spotted by their friend on the other end of the call, they'd leave satisfied with their fleeting fame. Morons.

The Game

Hanshin grabbed an early 3-0 lead on a Shunsuke Fujikawa 2-run single and Takashi Toritani homer, sending Ren Nakata to the showers after just three innings. Hiroshima got a run back in the 3rd when Shogo Kimura tripled home Eishin Soyogi who had doubled.


Carp reliever Keisuke Imai shut the Tigers down for the next three frames and his teammates finally tied the game when pinch hitter Takuro Ishii singled with the bases loaded (above) in the bottom of the 6th.


The carp brought in ex-Blue Jay Vinnie Chulk (below), recently signed and making only his 11th appearance. With one out he walked Hirano and then Takashi Toritani. In both cases, the umpire was squeezing him, missing what were obvious strikes. Sitting right behind the plate it was clear that the strike zone was not what Chulk was used to. Generally, the strike zone in Japan is smaller, and perhaps foreign pitchers need time to get used to it. But the umpire definitely missed a couple of calls. Chulk was visibly annoyed but struck out Takahiro Arai before giving up a run-scoring single to Brazell (grounding out in an earlier at-bat below).


Trailing 4-3, it looked like curtains for the Carp, but in the 7th, Tigers' reliever Ken Nishimura gave up singles to Amaya and Kenta Kurihara to bring a swift end to his evening. Tomoyuki Kubota was brought in and struck out Shigenobu Shima for the second out. Jun Hirose came to the plate and smacked a double down the left field line that got both runners home! The Carp fans went nuts - suddenly it was 5-4 Hiroshima and Chulk was in line for the win. And he got it thanks to some brilliant bullpen work. Hideki Kishimoto pitched a strong eighth while Ryuji Yokoyama picked up his 8th save with a 10-pitch ninth. The Carp hold on for a comeback win, 5-4.


This would have been a great game had it taken a normal 2:50. Instead it dragged on and on, partially because the umpire had a tiny strike zone, and partially because pitchers here just throw less often. So it's just a good game: the PPM was 1.46, yet again far too slow a pace. It's not the Japan Series guys, throw the freaking ball.

Notes

There were several excellent defensive plays in this game. The best was when Kurihara grounded hard up the middle. Hanshin starter Yasutomo Kubo got a piece of it, slowing it down enough so that Hirano could get to it behind second. He turned and made a leaping throw that forced Brazell to jump high. It looked like Kurihara would be safe but Brazell made a nice tag on his way down to get the out. Really a nice play to watch from close up.

One of the features I like here is that the scoreboard highlights the baserunners in green so you know who is on what base. Just a little thing but something I've not seen elsewhere.

I was planning to have one post for the entire weekend but will split it in two for readability. So look for another post on the two weekend games shortly.

Best,

Sean

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