Monday, July 18, 2011

Japan wins the Women's World Cup

Back in 2007, I went to see the Japanese women's national soccer team host Mexico in the first of a 2-game playoff for the final spot in that year's World Cup. There were just over 10,000 fans at National Stadium on that March afternoon, and they witnessed a solid performance as Japan shutout the Mexicans 2-0 behind goals from Homare Sawa and Aya Miyama. Though the Nadeshiko (the team's nickname comes from a pink carnation that symbolizes the mental strength of women) lost the second leg by a goal, they advanced to the main tournament on the 3-2 aggregate score.

At the time, I was surprised how little press the team received and how few fans showed up for such an important game. Japan certainly is not lacking when it comes to supporting their national sports heroes, but the ladies just didn't seem to court respect from the nation's broadcasters, despite having the makings of a team that could challenge the world leaders (they lost 2-0 to eventual champions Germany in the tournament, finishing a strong third in their group).

Well, that's all going to change now. In the unlikely event that you missed it, the Nadeshiko won a penalty kick shootout over the USA to claim the 2011 Women's World Cup! Miyama and Sawa were again the goal scorers in a 2-2 game that Japan took with a 3-1 advantage in the shootout, claiming the first ever World Cup title for an Asian nation. I cannot begin to describe how unexpectedly happy this has made me on so many levels. Wait. Actually I can.

First, I had been following the tournament on and Twitter and found the vast majority of Americans were simply bandwagon fans. Of course, ESPN had to promote the event since they were showing it daily, and kudos to them for getting it to the forefront of the American sports consciousness. But most fans are in it just for the reward; they don't follow women's soccer regularly but when there's a chance for some good old U-S-A chanting to be done, suddenly they are all there, decked out in the red, white, and blue.

Look, I understand the appeal behind being a bandwagon fan. Once the hard work is over (watching the ups and downs of several regular seasons for example, or perhaps a year of qualifying), you can show up at the final post, watch a few games, and maybe even celebrate a championship! And to be fair, these events, much like the Olympics, are ideal for bandwagon jumping, when everyone can easily fit in by cheering for their country. But still, reading online comments from these new fans about America's destiny or the incredible victory over Brazil made me yearn for them to fall short. When it turned out to be Japan in the final, this yearning became even stronger. It was gratifying to read the comments of those fans, who stated that America "choked" among other outrageous observations. Make no mistake, Japan won that game with grit and determination. Real fans recognized this and made appropriate comments. For those of you who think otherwise, remember that the US already has two championships, so you just have to respect a team that has beaten you.

Beyond that bit of schadenfreude though, was the joy of witnessing a truly magnificent athletic competition. After last year's shameful performance by the Dutch in the World Cup final it was invigorating to see two teams challenge each other within the rules, playing hard, and then harder, but always respecting their opponents. A last-minute sending off was not the result of a dirty foul, and didn't change the fact that both teams gave it their all within the bounds of fair play. Japan even won the Fair Play award!

The quality of soccer was spectacular at times with some beautiful passing and sublime strikes, as well as an amazing save by Japan's keeper Ayumi Kaihori in the shootout. To compare, the Brazil/Paraguay Copa America quarter-final was being played at the same time. I would occasionally flip over to that, only to see players cursing the referee or rolling around in pain. There was none of that in the women's final, it was pure sport.

Ultimately, the most satisfying aspect of this win was to see the Japanese team come together, work hard, play smart, beat three favoured opponents, and take a completely unexpected title without worrying about payrolls, labour stoppages, or any of the other issues that mar professional sports these days. Sure, FIFA is an old-boys organization and I cringed when they handed out the medals and some officials went in for an awkward hug. But their behaviour bears not a whit on the players themselves, who could not have been more humble. During the post-game interviews, I don't think they really understood what they had accomplished. They smiled and thanked the fans, but the concept of being World Champions had yet to fully sink in. It was charming to watch.

When Sawa finally lifted the trophy, I felt an emotion that surprised me - intense pride. This is what sports is all about. I'm not Japanese but after 15 years here, I'm as close as I'm ever going to get and I like to think that I was an infinitesimal part of their success by going to that single game 4 years ago. I also like to think that attending that game precludes me from being a bandwagon fan. Both these points are open for debate however.

A National Victory?

I've seen articles talking about how this was "more than a game" for Japan, and certainly this country could use a bit of good cheer. However, I feel that news items such as this are rather selective in their reporting. The team had little media coverage during the first round, partly because games were on overnight, but also because the team just didn't rate that highly. Even after playoff upsets over Germany and Sweden, news was relatively scarce, given the level of accomplishment. An American friend commented on the tournament while we were out on Saturday night, saying she couldn't find much about it on TV - among my friends, only foreigners seemed to be talking about it. The night before the final, the lead sports story on several stations was baseball rookie Yuki Saitoh, who had pitched that day.

Even when Saki Kumagai slotted home the winning penalty, the area where I live was quiet. It was around 6:30 am on a holiday Monday and I only heard one other individual cheering (or it might have been a dog barking). I jumped around a lot but quietly, so as to not disturb my girlfriend, who was sleeping through the biggest moment in Japanese sports history.

Other areas of town with sports bars no doubt experienced a surge of happy fans on the street, but regardless, this was not the all-encompassing national win that is being portrayed in the western media. The game was on from 3:45, and perhaps people expected them to lose so they didn't bother to stay up (see the above-mentioned girlfriend). It seems like the younger generation was more supportive, but that is merely an anecdotal observation.

I don't want to take anything away from what was accomplished, but it's not going to solve the problems that affect this country. Yes, people are happy for a while, but there's still a lot of work to be done . Still, seeing those 21 ladies work for their dreams over a month should be strong motivation for the people of Japan to recognize their abilities and again become a world champion in more than just athletics.



Saturday, July 16, 2011

Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame

While at the Tokyo Dome last week to write a review for Stadium Journey, I made a quick stop at the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame, which is located next to gate 21. It is only 500 yen to enter, with a 100 yen discount if you show a ticket to that day's game.

Inside you get a great collection of memorabilia, and not just for the Japanese pro game. There are plenty of interesting tidbits from MLB, college, and high school ball. There's even a section on women's baseball.

The museum is not large and can be seen inside an hour, although if you read Japanese, you might spend a bit longer taking in the explanations at each display. There are English translations beneath the plaque of each enshrined player, but the other displays come with only Japanese descriptions.

The HOF is really well maintained and although not as complete as Cooperstown, it doesn't treat baseball with the tiresome reverence that you see in America. If you are a baseball fan and in Tokyo, make sure to check this place out.

Below are a few pictures:

The two WBC championship trophies - if America ever won, would the trophy be in Cooperstown?

The Japan Series trophy

Some Central League teams

Rickey Henderson signed base to Japanese base-stealing king Yutaka Fukumoto. Henderson broke Fukumoto's record in 1993 just before being traded to Toronto, where he scored on Joe Carter's World Series home run, the last truly happy moment for Toronto sports fans.

A bat used by Jackie Robinson

Poster from a barnstorming tour. The Japanese is read right to left, that is Babe Ruth and not Suulu Buube.

Medals from the 2010 World University Baseball Championship, won by Cuba

National team uniforms

Plaque for Victor Starffin, the first foreigner inducted

College ball magazine with Tadahito Iguchi, who would win the World Series with the White Sox a mere 9 years later.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Home Advantage in the Big 4 Sports

During the recent NHL and NBA playoffs, I kept track of the scores each game. This enabled me to find a few meaningless stats that made for good Twitter fodder. The one that I found most interesting though was one of the simplest: the number of times the home team won. In the NBA playoffs, the home team win-loss record was 54-27 (.667) while in the NHL it was just 48-41 (.539).

That got me to thinking. It's usually obvious that the NBA has the largest home advantage, but just how different is it compared to the other leagues? So I took the regular season standings from the most recently completed seasons in all big 4 sports and calculated the home records across all teams, which are shown below:
NBA  743-487   .6041
MLB 1359-1071 .5592
NFL 143-113 .5586
NHL 638-592 .5187
First a note on the NHL numbers. The actual home records are 638-434-158 (.5829) but I've combined the regulation losses with overtime losses because that's what I'm concerned about - how often the home team wins. An overtime loss may net you a point in the standings but it is still a loss and the fans go home unhappy. (As an aside, home teams won only 139 of extra-time tilts, a surprisingly low 46.8%).

As expected, the NBA has the most obvious home advantage at just over 60%. Only six clubs had losing home records; naturally those were the six worst teams in the league. I wonder if this helps explain the NBA's popularity - home teams winning more often keeps fans coming back.

What surprised me was that baseball and football have similar winning percentages when playing in friendly confines; I would have expected NFL teams to enjoy playing at home much more with loud crowds hampering the opposition offense. NHL squads have the least advantage playing at home (again only looking at wins and losses), which is not surprising as it is the sport with the most parity at the moment.

So why is there such a discrepancy in basketball? Sixteen squads had winning records at home and losing records on the road. What is it that makes it so tough for these teams to win in visiting arenas?

Travel probably has something to do with it as road teams are often playing back-to-back games and arriving early in the morning before a game that night. Familiarity with the actual playing area might also contribute, in that it's simply easier to make baskets in an environment that you are used to. The crowd should also be a factor; basketball is a game that thrives on momentum and having your fans behind you helps you during a run. But overall, I don't think anybody has a convincing explanation to explain the home advantage in the NBA. I found a few studies on-line but none of them made any meaningful conclusions. Suffice to say that home teams win far more often in the NBA than they do elsewhere.

This distinct home advantage in the NBA is one reason that I find the league to be the least interesting. For me, it is the randomness and unpredictability of sports I find most intriguing. The Giants winning the World Series was foreseen by few, even during the playoffs. How many had Pittsburgh and Green Bay in the Super Bowl at the start of the season? But the NBA is somewhat more predictable (this year's playoffs being an enjoyable exception). Essentially, strong teams win at home and on the road, weak teams lose everywhere, and if the teams are evenly matched, the home team wins most of the time. I wonder if the new CBA will lead to more parity and a change in these statistics. We'll see in 2013!



Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Perfect NHL Road Trip

The NHL came out with their schedule last week and I quickly put together the usual roadtrip spreadsheet that shows each team's home games in roughly the same order that one would make a roundtrip journey. This way, you can quickly see when nearby teams play back-to-back and which teams are away for extended periods (the bane of the roadtrip planner), making it much easier to put together a plan.

There are countless possibilities for league-wide trips that take in all 30 arenas, it just depends on where and when you want to start. Rather than bore you with a randomly generated trip, I decided to see if I could create the "perfect" NHL roadtrip. A perfect roadtrip is one where not only each arena is seen, but each team is seen exactly twice - once at home and once on the road. This is trivial to do if you are flying, but if you want to stick to the road, it becomes quite difficult to find a sensible route. There are only 41 home games per season and finding a string of nearby games with different visiting teams is much harder than it sounds. But after a few hours of playing around, I came up with the following, starting with the new Jets visiting the old Jets in Phoenix:
Oct 15 Winnipeg Jets at Phoenix Coyotes 5:00
Oct 16 St. Louis Blues at Anaheim Ducks 5:00
Oct 17 Anaheim Ducks at San Jose Sharks 7:30
Oct 18 New York Rangers at Vancouver Canucks 7:00
Oct 20 Minnesota Wild at Edmonton Oilers 7:30
Oct 22 Carolina Hurricanes at Winnipeg Jets 6:00
Oct 28 San Jose Sharks at Detroit Red Wings 7:30
Oct 29 Detroit Red Wings at Minnesota Wild 7:00
Nov 10 Chicago Blackhawks at Columbus Blue Jackets 7:00
Nov 12 Buffalo Sabres at Boston Bruins 7:00
Nov 15 Colorado Avalanche at Pittsburgh Penguins 7:00
Nov 16 New Jersey Devils at Buffalo Sabres 7:30
Nov 23 Vancouver Canucks at Colorado Avalanche 7:00
Nov 29 Nashville Predators at Calgary Flames 7:00
Dec 2 New York Islanders at Chicago Blackhawks 7:30
Dec 5 Tampa Bay Lightning at Ottawa Senators 7:30
Dec 6 Columbus Blue Jackets at Montreal Canadiens 7:30
Dec 10 Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Islanders 7:00
Dec 11 Florida Panthers at New York Rangers 7:00
Dec 13 Philadelphia Flyers at Washington Capitals 7:00
Dec 16 Dallas Stars at New Jersey Devils 7:00
Dec 17 Boston Bruins at Philadelphia Flyers 1:00
Dec 19 Los Angeles Kings at Toronto Maple Leafs 7:00
Dec 23 Ottawa Senators at Carolina Hurricanes 7:00
Dec 27 Toronto Maple Leafs at Florida Panthers 7:30
Dec 29 Montreal Canadiens at Tampa Bay Lightning 7:30
Jan 1 Calgary Flames at Nashville Predators 5:00
Jan 3 Phoenix Coyotes at St. Louis Blues 7:00
Jan 7 Edmonton Oilers at Dallas Stars 1:00
Jan 9 Washington Capitals at Los Angeles Kings 7:30
The trip starts with a lot of driving, going from Phoenix to Winnipeg in just a week before a break. There are a few back-to-back games with drives exceeding 10 hours with San Jose to Vancouver being the longest at 16 hours. That would be extremely tough to make by oneself when you factor it time at the border, but it can be done if you get a few hours on the road after the game.

There are some interesting games as well. The Flames at Nashville is the only New Year's contest on the schedule and would be a rematch of the Predators visit to Calgary just over a month earlier. The Sharks/Red Wings and Bruins/Flyers are good rivalries stoked by the just-completed playoffs. Five of the last seven games would see Canadian teams on the road around the holidays, so there should be a lot of fellow roadtrippers at those tilts. You'd spend Christmas in Miami and watch the Leafs two days later.

There is a lot of backtracking on this trip, particularly those two trips from Alberta to the east coast. Overall, you'd be looking at about 20,000 miles of highway driving compared to around 12,500 for a trip that goes in one direction. The trip is 87 days long so you'd be averaging 225 miles per day, with a number of very long drives. You'd miss most of the bad weather by starting early in the season, but there'd be a few chilly days in December. There's also the general issue of snowstorms, this sort of trip has little room for weather problems.

I think you can play with the schedule a bit to make it more efficient but it would result in more days on the road. Whatever the case, it is always fun to think about these trips, even if they are pretty much impossible. When the AHL releases their schedule, I'll try the same for them.