Friday, April 6, 2012

Orix Buffaloes 1 at Nippon Ham Fighters 3 - April 5, 2012

The Nippon Ham Fighters were formed in 1948 and spent 55 years in Tokyo, where they were always a distant second in popularity to the Yomiuri Giants. Fighters games often saw the Tokyo Dome nearly empty and the team could never win anything, save a Nippon Series in 1962. The club was widely ridiculed and the corporate owners realized that their brand might be suffering as a result.

Fortunately, there was a savior. In 2001, the Sapporo Dome opened in the biggest city on the northern island of Hokkaido and promptly began seeking a pro team for the 2003 season. Having had enough of being second fiddle in the capital, Nippon Ham decided to move the Fighters up north, re-branding the club in the process, and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters were born. It was a brilliant move and the local fans were overjoyed to finally have a pro team to call their own. The players in turn responded, winning the Nippon Series in 2006 and making it back again in 2007 and 2009.

Sadly, I myself had never made the trip to Sapporo to watch a game here. It was always something that I would do "next year" but other trips ended up taking precedence. I also wanted to see the local J League team in action, but as both use the dome, it was tough to find a time when they would play within a 3-day span. With my departure from Japan growing closer, a couple of fortuitous events happened. First, Consadole was promoted back to J1 for this season, and second, the schedule maker had them at home just two days after the Fighters closed out a series against Orix.

So I finally headed up to Sapporo so I could once again say that I have been to every ballpark in the NPB.

Sapporo Dome

Built for the 2002 World Cup, the Sapporo Dome is a unique venue in Japan as it can host both baseball and soccer on two different surfaces. Baseball games are played on artificial turf, while soccer uses a grass pitch that slides into and out of the stadium. This in itself is not unknown elsewhere, the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale also features a sliding surface.

Conversion from baseball to football begins with the storage of the baseball field. Once complete, a set of lower bowl bleachers rotate from an angled position to a position parallel to the pitch. A set of seats on one end of the dome then retracts, and the football pitch is slid into the stadium before the entire lower bowl is rotated 90 degrees. Due to the retraction of seats, the dome has a capacity of only 40,476 for baseball games compared to 41,484 for soccer.

The stadium is located about 10 minutes south of Fukuzumi Station on the Toho Line subway. As you round a corner, you are greeted by what appears to be an alien spaceship with a protruding nose (that's the observation deck which costs 500 yen to enter, not open during the game though). There is nothing of note around here, and no vendors along the way as outside food is not permitted. There are three main gates at the north, west, and south sides of the facility and you should enter at the gate printed on your ticket.

Gates open only 90 minutes before game time, but there are a few things to see before entering. In particular, the west gate has a number of interesting displays on the history of the Dome, including memorabilia from the 2002 World Cup, the Fighters and Consadole, and other sporting events that have been held there.

On another wall is a display honouring MVPs for each year for both baseball and soccer, below is Yu Darvish from 2008.

The west gate is completely covered, so it makes sense to wait here for the gates to open as the north and south gates are outdoors and it can be cold in Sapporo in early April. If you bring gym clothes, you can work out at the Training Room, a full gym that costs only 500 yen per entry and is at one end of the west gate.

Once inside, you will find yourself on the main concourse (1F), which is spacious and very clean. Most of the concessions are located here. My recommendation is the Prince Hotel stand which had a good variety of smaller snacks that looked better than the KFC or Mos Burger next to it. The fried chicken with black vinegar sauce was very nice, although it won't come close to filling you up. As usual in Japan, it pays to walk around and check all the different options as there are dozens of stands. One had a cucumber on a stick for those on a health kick.

The second floor (2F) is where you enter the seating area, which are marked by 118 aisles starting from centerfield and going clockwise. Some of these aisles are only accessible by bridges which provide a view of the main concourse below.

This stadium is rare in Japan in that you can walk the entire way around without losing view of the field, but still you need to show your ticket before entering your particular aisle. Rows are numbered from field level to the top, with 76 being the highest.

The best thing about the Sapporo Dome for baseball is that there is no screen down the lines. I was sitting midway between home and first and had an unobstructed view of the game. Finally, a venue that understands that most fans prefer to see the game clearly and don't need unnecessary protection. I had an SS seat and was in row 9, but that was only 3 rows from the field in my area. For 3,500 yen, it was a bargain, especially without the screen. The only problem here is that this section is very moderately sloped, so my view was often blocked by some fans two rows in front who kept moving around to chat to each other. The rest of the seating is very steep and you don't have to worry about that sort of thing.

The Fighters have three game categories and I was fortunate to see a Value Game. The same seat would have been 5,000 yen for a Regular game and 6,500 for Platinum. In those cases, I would recommend the A seats which are quite a bit cheaper. The Field seats are the most expensive but well down the line and protected by a screen so should be avoided. Another seating area that is not for most is the Cinderella seats, as seen in pink below. These are for women only, the catch being that they buy two seats for just slightly more than the price of one, the second seat to be used for their oversized bag.

There is also a third floor above center field where the Kids Plaza is located. Anyone can walk up and take a look out, it is an impressive venue from this angle.

The scoreboard is average at best, and doesn't have the typical layout that you see at other parks. It's all electronic and rather cramped. I didn't snap a picture during the game and they immediately turned it to live TV when the game ended, so you'll have to trust me on this.

After the game, there is a rush back to the station, but I found that it moved well and the train wasn't that crowded. There are also shuttle buses to various other locations in the area, so if you are not staying downtown, you might want to check these out.

I really enjoyed the spaciousness and ease of moving around the dome, along with the food. The problem here turned out to be the fans. First, there were few of them (just over 15,000 spread around the place), so there was no atmosphere. Second, the people in my section were particularly annoying. Those chatting ladies, the parents with their terribly agitated child who couldn't sit still and kept kicking me, the dork with the tripod at the end of the row who forced people to climb over seats, and the old guy who came in the 5th inning and sat next to me before proceeding to suck on a toothpick for the rest of the evening. I know not all Fighters fans here are bad, but damn, people, watch the game!

The Game

Brian Wolfe (above) made his first start of the season for the Fighters against Alfredo Figaro (below), the Buffaloes' ace who had started on opening day, becoming the first foreigner to do so since 2004. Figaro got off to a rough start, giving up two singles to lead off the game. With Yoshio Itoi up, Orix catcher Hikaru Ito tried to fake a throw to second but the ball fell out of his hand and bounded slowly to short, allowing both runners to advanced. Itoi promptly doubled down the left field line to stake the Fighters to a 2-0 lead.

Figaro settled down, retiring 15 of the next 16, but his offense was no help, scratching out a run in the 6th on two singles and a groundout. Wolfe was replaced by Naoki Miyanishi and then Hirotoshi Masui, each of whom threw a scoreless frame.

Aarom Baldiris singles

In the bottom of the 8th, Sho Nakata came up with two out. He was 0-22 to start the season and the fans were on his case. Orix brought in righty reliever Ryota Katsuki, who grooved a 2-1 pitch that Nakata simply crushed to left field, to much cheer from the supporters. The 3-1 lead was enough for closer Hisashi Takeda, who retired the side in order in the 9th for his first save of the year.

A fairly pedestrian game with those initial two runs holding up for the Fighters, who salvaged a win in the three-game set. Despite the loss, Figaro shaved over 2 runs off his ERA with some great cut fastballs.


The Fighters have an interesting balloon operation running here. Fans are given both blue and gold balloons. The blue ones are released in the 7th inning as is tradition, while the gold ones are saved for when the team wins. With a 3-1 lead, I saw many fans inflating their balloons, which I thought was a bit of a jinx move, but the Fighters prevailed.

After the game, they even had a very brief display of fireworks in the outfield.

Next Up

Tomorrow sees defending J League champions Kashiwa Reysol here to take on Consadole. Check back for a report in a couple of days.



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