Friday, August 2, 2013

Chunichi Dragons 6 at Hanshin Tigers 4 - August 1, 2013


In 2011, I reviewed the six Tokyo-area ballparks for Stadium Journey as they began covering international venues. The intention was to review all 12 NPB stadiums, but circumstances were not in my favour that year. In 2012, I moved to Singapore in May, but managed to get Sapporo, Sendai, Nagoya, and Fukuoka taken care of during the first month of the season. That left only the two stadiums in Osaka: venerable Koshien, which is home to the Hanshin Tigers and the Kyocera Dome, where the Orix Buffaloes play. There is a third stadium in the area, Kobe Green Stadium, that the Buffaloes use on occasion and I wanted to see all three on the same weekend. Naturally, there are few occasions when all three are in use over a three-day period, but the first week of August happened to be one. I booked my flights and hotels months in advance as I could not afford to let this opportunity slip away, and after an overnight flight from Singapore, I found myself in Nishinomiya city, where Koshien is based.

Koshien Stadium



Koshien is Japan's most famous stadium - not because the Tigers play here, but because it hosts two high school baseball tournaments every year. Both tournaments are known simply as Koshien and it is every Japanese boy's dream to play a game at the stadium. The spring invitational tournament takes place in late March and early April, just as the NPB season kicks off, while the summer competition, which features a team from each prefecture, is played through the middle two weeks in August. The high school games take priority, so the Tigers have to play on the road during the tournaments (although some home games are scheduled for the Osaka Dome). Can you imagine the Red Sox vacating Fenway for two weeks in August just so some high schoolers can play?



Opened in 1924, Koshien is the oldest ballpark in the NPB, beating Jingu Stadium by two years. By the 2000s though, it was in need of an overhaul. The last game I saw there around 2006 was painful since the seats were so cramped, having been designed for the average Japanese man in 1924. Thankfully, the powers that be recognized this and instituted a comprehensive renovation program between 2007 and 2010 that completely reshaped the inside of the park while leaving its iconic ivy and arches untouched. Capacity dropped from 53,000 in 2003 to 47,757 and the new seats were slightly bigger and more comfortable. This change vaulted Koshien to the top of my NPB stadium rankings, since the fans and the atmosphere were already the best in the country.



Koshien is easy to get to - the Hanshin (yes, the owner of the Tigers also owns a major railway) main line goes straight from Umeda station, which is right in the center of the city. Avoid the local train and take an express instead, the Koshien stop is just 12 minutes away. You can usually spot Tigers fans in their distinctive yellow and black paraphernalia and following them to the train is a good bet. When you get there, make sure to buy your return ticket as that can be very crowded after the game.



You might have a bit of trouble finding the stadium at first, because it is blocked by two highways that pass right in front of it. Only those distinctive arches are visible as you can see in the photo above. Once you walk under the overpasses though, you will see this beautiful ballpark.



Take the time to walk around and see what is on offer. You will of course notice the ivy, inspired by Wrigley Field. There are some small concession stands but avoid those as the food inside is an experience in itself. Around the back is the Koshien museum which costs 500 yen and provides a detailed history of the park, with much of the focus on the high school tournaments rather than the Tigers. There are numerous plaques such as the one below commemorating a Tigers championship.



There is also a concrete pillar marking 90 years of the summer and 80 years of the spring tournament.



There are just three types of seats available to the general public. The first are those located in the infield, known as Ivy Seats and costing 4,000 yen. These seats come with drink holders and seat backs and are a better option considering the average Japanese baseball game takes well over 3 hours. I was fortunate to get a seat in row 23 just past third base, which was high enough to avoid the fencing and give me a clear view of home plate.



The second group of seats is the Alps seats, so named for the steep incline. At 2,500 yen they are cheaper but the seats have no back and you are down in the corners. The picture below is taken from the Alps seats down the left field line.



Finally there are the outfield seats, which are 1,900 yen. The experience of sitting in the outfield cannot be described, you will be surrounded by Tigers fans cheering all game long. I prefer the relative comfort of the Ivy Seats which are closer to the action, but if you want a unique experience, try sitting in the outfield instead.



I did find some special box seats that seemed to be a good set up for four friends with a small table to put your food on but they were at the top of the seating area and a bit far away.



After entering the stadium, you will notice the concourses are rather narrow, but this didn't prove problematic because there are three levels and fans are guided to the best level for their seat.



Along each concourse are dozens of concessions and this was the biggest surprise for me. Not the number of concessions itself, but the variety and quality. In general, eating options at Japanese ballparks are much more diverse than what you get back home, and healthier as well, but often the food is not the greatest. Not so at Koshien. I started with a kushiage shumai - that's four Chinese dumplings fried and put on a skewer. With a touch of mustard, it was fantastic and a bargain at just 300 yen. I then had a large mango kakigori, which is shaved ice covered with mango juice and even a few pieces of the fruit. Perfect for such a hot and humid day and took me nearly half an hour to finish, well worth the 400 yen. My main meal was a beef and kimchi (spiced cabbage) combo with a cold draft beer that was just 1,000 yen and was surprisingly tasty. I usually don't write much about the food at ballparks, but recommend that you come hungry when you visit Koshien.



At your seat, you can quietly take in the ambiance of this stadium. The all-dirt infield and grass outfield are instantly recognizable for any Japanese baseball fan and the once colourful seats now are all Kelly green, making the park seem more professional than it used to. You can walk around the Alps and Ivy concourses without a problem but you cannot get to the outfield from there for vice versa. As well, you can only enter the seating area through the proper aisle shown on your ticket. My aisle was 3-L, which meant the 3rd floor, aisle L. It's not that hard to figure out.



As game time nears, fans begin to pour in so by 6:00 the stadium is full of 40,000 rabid Tigers supporters and a smattering of visiting team fans, relegated to a small section high in left field. Though on this night, it was they who would have the last laugh.

The Game



Starting for Chunichi was Masahiro Yamamoto (above), who turns 48 next week. His first game was in 1986, the same year as Jamie Moyer. Yamamoto has spent his entire 27-year career with the Dragons and is still bringing it with a 4-2 record and a 3.72 ERA. On this night though, he struggled somewhat, giving up 3 runs in 4 laborious innings. His mound opponent was Akira Iwamoto, a 2nd-year righty making his first appearance of the season. Iwamoto was slightly better, giving up just 2 runs in his 4 innings. The Central League allows pitchers to hit, and both managed to bunt into a double play in their only plate appearance of the night.



With the Tigers still up 3-2 in the 6th, manager Yutaka Wada brought in Ken Nishimura to replace Kazuya Tsutsui who had retired all four batters he had faced. The crowd was not happy with the move and they were right to be upset- Nishimura gave up a single and two walks (including one to former Padres prospect Matt Clark, pictured above) before being sent to the showers. In came Kosuke Kato who promptly gave up a grand slam to Shuhei Takahashi (below), who drove the ball deep over the center field fence to silence the home fans.



Although Hanshin got one back in the bottom of the 6th, the Chunichi bullpen of setup man Warner Madrigal (briefly with the Texas Rangers in 2008-09) and closer Hitoki Iwase shut the door for the 6-4 win, with Iwase getting his 23rd save.




Notes

The Wave is not allowed at Koshien. I hope this is a sign of things to come around the world.

The Dragons catcher was Motonobu Tanishige, no spring chicken at 43 himself. That means their battery was a combined 90 years old! I would guess that is some sort of record but have no way of confirming it.

If you used to read this blog while I lived in Japan, you will remember how I used to carp on about the length of Japanese baseball games, and this one was no different, lasting 3 hours and 50 minutes! The NPB has failed to reduce the average time over the past 5 years and in fact, the length of a typical game here has increased to 3:16. Given how quick high school, college, and industrial ballgames are here, I can't figure out why the pros take so long to get things done. Many fans have to leave by 9 pm in order to get their trains home and the league should really make a serious effort to speed things up.

Next Up

Heading to the Osaka Dome tonight for the Orix Buffaloes and Chiba Lotte Marines. The same two teams play tomorrow at Kobe's Green Stadium and I will see that one as well. Check back Monday for a recap of both games.

Best,

Sean



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