Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Chiba Lotte Marines 4 at Rakuten Golden Eagles 2 - April 1, 2012

The Rakuten Golden Eagles are the newest franchise in the NPB, having been formed in 2005 to replace the Kintetsu Buffaloes, who merged with the Orix Blue Wave. The irony of replacing the Blue Wave is unfortunately noted here as the Eagles are based in Tohoku, which was devastated by the double disasters from last year. Sendai is the base city for the team and it sustained heavy damage from the earthquake before its coastal areas and airport were inundated by the tsunami. Kleenex Stadium was not spared, suffering structural damage that was only recently completely repaired. Last season the team played their first few home series in the Kobe area before returning home, becoming a symbol of the area's rebuilding efforts in the process.

Kleenex Stadium Miyagi

Kleenex Stadium Miyagi was opened in 1950 and actually served as the home ground for the Lotte Orions (now the Chiba Lotte Marines) between 1973 and 1977. However, it was very dated when the Eagles were granted a franchise and much renovation was done to modernize it in time for their first game. In fact, when I first went I initially thought it was a new stadium, a testament to the great job done here.

The stadium is located about a 20-minute walk from the main train station but if you prefer you can take the JR Senseki line two stops to Miyaginohara (above), which is known as "Baseball Station" due to its proximity to the ballpark. From there, it is just a 5-minute stroll to the stadium, which lies next to a track and field facility.

Gates open two hours before game time, but there is so much going on outside the ballpark that getting there early is worthwhile. First, there are dozens of concessions that sit outside the actual stadium and offer everything from hot wine to the local delicacy, gyutan (cow's tongue). For those without a taste for the unusual, there was even a KFC stand. Take your time to walk around and see all the possibilities; you can easily have two meals here. There are even some seating areas where you can grab a table and relax with your lunch.

The information desk has a great brochure listing all the spots both inside and outside the gates. My recommendation is the steak don on level 3, it is crowded and takes a while to get the food, but was good value for the price. The Eagles Nest Sports Lounge was very popular as well, likely for providing some indoor warmth on this chilly April afternoon.

Fans also arrive early to participate in many special giveaways. I noticed 3 or 4 large lines, each one for a different promotion. Often one needs to be a member of a fan club or have a special type of ticket to participate. There is always a guy holding a sign indicating the end of the queue, if you are not sure, you can ask him what the line is for.

The mascots make their appearance signing autographs the kids, who also have the option of riding a small train around the stadium for a small fee. You can also find a home plate and bases buried beneath thick plastic windows; there doesn't seem to be any meaning behind them and the windows were covered with condensation so I couldn't read the plaque inside. The Eagles have a very active cheer squad known as the Angels consisting of about 16 young ladies who dance on the field during the game. Beforehand they have a couple of shows on a stage located near gate R2, where you can also find the usual hordes of perverts with their zoom lenses.

Tickets here vary widely in price as Rakuten has adopted the variable pricing method, with five categories of game, ranging from Platinum down to Value, with Gold, Silver, and Bronze rounding out the list. I don't know why they didn't use a cheap metal like copper for the Value category; this inconsistency is highly bothersome. Anyway, the most expensive ticket is called a Golden Seat (yet again with the metals) and costs 7,700 yen for the Platinum games and only 3,100 yen for the Value games. So go to the Value games if you can. There are 18 different seating options, so the ticket matrix lists 90 possibilities, which I will not detail here. My advice is to sit in the infield A seats or upper level seats on the 3rd base side. One good thing about Kleenex Stadium is that the screen doesn't extend all the way down the lines so if you are sitting high enough, you can have an unobstructed view of the field from these seats.

I bought a field level seat from where the view was poor (see picture above), so I moved to a better location after a few innings. The field level seats have their own gate and no concessions as well as no other way to access the rest of the stadium. Fortunately, you can move back and forth between the main stand and the field seats as long as you tell them that you are going to get some food. Once I found a seat I liked, I planted myself down. A few innings later, a staff member inquired about my ticket and I said I didn't have one for this area. She said that's fine, but please move if the seat holder returns. Well duh!

Getting around the main part of the stadium is a pain. The walkway has two gates that force you to go up some stairs and back down on the other side. These gates are easily moved and vendors are constantly passing through them, so it makes no sense that fans can't have the same access.

The inner concourses are quite small, particularly the third floor which is heavily crowded before the game as fans line up for food. Capacity here is a 23,000, about half that of the Tokyo Dome, but it certainly seems much more busy with the small floor space.

There are two scoreboards: the main one is the typical Japanese one with lineups and the linescore, but there is also a video screen that shows detailed stats as the game progresses. Definitely something I'd like to see at other parks.

Some fans who won a contest are allowed on the field before the game to play catch, and all fans are invited on the field afterwards, although you have to wait 30 minutes after the game finishes.

Just before the game starts, an eagle flies in from beyond the outfield fence to first base, a majestic sight that is somewhat ironic given the team rarely soars into the playoffs (only one playoff appearance in seven seasons).

When I first visited here in 2005, I thought it was the best ballpark in Japan, but upon reflection, I think I overstated things then. The food selection is great and there are lots of cool things around, but the location is not that good and once inside, moving around is a hassle. Even with these problems though, it is better than the average domed stadium and certainly worth a trip to Sendai to see the Golden Eagles.

The Game

A very interesting pitching matchup was the story here with 43-year-old Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi taking the hill for the Eagles against star rookie Takahiro Fujioka (below), who led his Toyo University team to the past two national championships. I saw him pitch one of the games during their 2010 run where he threw a complete game. Drafted 3rd overall, Fujioka was also coveted by the Eagles, but the Marines won the special lottery and were ecstatic to get him. (In Japan, the first round of the draft is governed by different rules: each team picks a player they want and if two or more clubs desire the same guy, a draw is held to decide which team gets him.) As this was only the third game of the season, this would be Fujioka's first pro start.

The Marines had won the first two games and started quickly here when Ikuhiro Kiyota led off with a double. Naturally, the next batter sacrificed and already I was annoyed with Japanese baseball. Why sacrifice when the first batter doubled? Challenge the pitcher! When former Chisox Tadahito Iguchi (below) popped out on a great over-the-shoulder catch by second baseman Kensuke Uchimura, it looked like the sacrifice would be for nought, but clean-up hitter Josh Whitesell singled and the Marines had the early lead.

Fujioka came on to much anticipation from the Lotte fans and promptly retired the first three batters, including two strikeouts. During the game, he showed a strong fastball touching 150km/h (93 mph) as well as a very good curve ball that had a couple of hitters missing badly. When the Marines added two more in the third including an RBI single by Iguchi, it looked like Fujioka had enough support. He yielded a run in the 5th on a walk, double, and Uchimura groundout, but Lotte got it right back in the 6th when Kiyota singled home Shota Ishimine who had doubled.

Fujioka continued unabated, retiring 10 in a row (that's Jose Fernandez making an out above) before giving up a single to lead-off batter Ryo Hijirisawa with two out in the 8th. After Ginji Akaminai (who follows Ichiro's annoying habit of going by his first name) got a lucky double that scored Hijirisawa, Fujioka was finally pulled. His scoreline was excellent, only 4 hits, 2 ER, and 6 K's while throwing 128 pitches. No rookie babysitting here; I was very impressed. Fellow rookie Naoya Masuda got out of the mini-jam and closer Yasuhiko Yabuta pitched a 1-2-3 ninth for his second save of the season to give the Marines the 4-2 win and the series sweep. It is the first time in 55 years that they have won three in a row to start the season.

A fairly entertaining game that will be remembered for the brilliant debut of Fujioka. No doubt Lotte fans have forgotten last year's last place finish and are dreaming of a return to the championship glory years of 2010, led by their new, prized rookie. Should be a fun summer in Chiba!


After the game I went to Yurtec Stadium to watch a women's soccer friendly between the US and Japan. I'll post about that tomorrow.



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