Monday, November 29, 2010

Top League Rugby Doubleheader - November 27, 2010

I'm going to stop posting detailed recaps of games I see where there is nothing new to report. For example, this past weekend I went to a Top League Rugby doubleheader which was completely uneventful.

I saw a couple of games in this league last year, and had found it somewhat entertaining, so was looking to make a return visit. A friend of mine had expressed interest as well, so I invited him along last weekend to attend what would be my final sporting event in Japan this year.

The league had been on a month-long respite, perhaps due to the recently completed Asian Games, and it showed. In the first match between Toyota Verblitz and Ricoh Black Rams, dropped passes and missed chances were the name of the game. It was not particularly good rugby, although the game was close at least, with Toyota pulling out a 29-26 win on a Stephen Yates try with 8 minutes to go. Despite the tight score, it was simply not that compelling as there were so many stoppages and penalties that the game never developed a good flow.

Below is Toyota's Orene Aii of New Zealand dodging several Black Rams.

The final score with Shinjuku behind

Before the second game between Suntory Sungoliath and NEC Communications Shining Arcs, I checked the standings and saw that Suntory led the league in scoring while NEC had only notched 12 tries in their 7 games. I expected a blowout and that's what we got. Suntory took the kickoff and systematically marched to a try in just 90 seconds. Five minutes later they did the same and the rout was one, with the final score being 50-14. Fortunately the weather was beautiful but that was about the only positive on the afternoon. Below is Suntory in yellow, #20 is one-time Australian captain George Gregan who was a reserve on this day.

The upshot is I probably won't see too many more games in the Top League. It is a bargain at 1,500 yen but the quality isn't good enough to keep me coming back.

Next Up

I'm off to Canada in two days. After a night in Toronto, I fly to Minneapolis where I'll see three games all featuring cellar dwellers. Then I fly to Cleveland where I do a LeBron James special - rent a car and drive it one way to Miami. Along the way, my sports-viewing talents will stop in Columbus, Morgantown WV, Pittsburgh, Washington, Charlotte, and Jacksonville. It should be a strange trip but a lot of fun, so check back regularly over the next couple of weeks.



Sunday, November 28, 2010

Okinawa Options

Okinawa is the resort island of Japan, located about 1,000 miles south of Tokyo, or a 2.5 hour flight from Haneda Airport. The main island, known as Okinawa Island, is where most of the sights are, but there are plenty of smaller islands further south that are used as resorts and are excellent for scuba diving and other water pursuits.
Okinawa was once called Ryukyu and was a completely separate entity from Japan, which allows it to retain some significant differences from the mainland, particularly in terms of food and drink and customs. One of the most prevalent decorations is the shisa, a guard dog that is often displayed in pairs outside a house to prevent evil spirits from entering and to keep good spirits inside. These little guys are everywhere: above is a paper Shisa dressed in Hiroshima Carp garb that was on sale at the car rental place; below is a more traditional shisa atop a roof.
Food can also be quite different, with goya (bitter gourd) and shikuwasa (a sour citrus fruit) being the most obvious examples. There are hundreds of Okinawan restaurants all over Tokyo so you don't have to travel to enjoy the island fare. I was told that the food elsewhere does not compare to that available locally, although I didn't notice a significant difference, it's all good (except the pig's feet).
Awamori is a special type of alcohol that is extremely popular throughout the islands and should be sampled if you are visiting. These days it is often served with fruit juice, although I recommend it with just ice.
Getting There
Most likely you'll be flying to Naha Airport from Tokyo. I usually use Skymark Airlines as it is the cheapest option and the lack of amenities on board is not a problem for such a short flight, but both JAL and ANA have regular service too. Below is the plane after arrival in sunny Okinawa. A bit of bad news though as Skymark no longer sells Orion beer (the Okinawan brand) on board. When I flew to Okinawa before, a full can was only 100 yen but this deal has been replaced by the small Kirin cans for the exorbitant sum of 200 yen. Highly disappointing.
Once in Naha you will need to rent a car if you want to get anywhere. There is a monorail that begins at the airport takes you all around the city but a day or two is all you need to see everything there and the more interesting attractions are well outside the city. Buses are available but are expensive and inconvenient. There are plenty of rental car options right at the airport but you might want to shop around before hand as prices were quite variable.
Naha is the capital city of Okinawa and is more or less like any other big Japanese city. The same chain restaurants and stores are there, the architecture is rather dull, and you can easily get around by transit. There are several attractions here, I'll mention a couple below.
Located near the last stop of the monorail, Shuri Castle is a modern reconstruction of the old Ryukyu palace that was destroyed in World War II. You can walk through the outer gates and see some of the ground for free (with some English explanations), but it costs 800 yen to get to the main castle. It was under renovation when we visited so we didn't bother to go in, but it is considered to be the highlight of Naha so perhaps I'll return when they've got it all fixed up. Below are a couple of pictures from the outer area.
Kankaimon, the first front gate
Okinawa Prefectural History Museum
Located just a few minutes from the Omoromachi monorail station is a complex that houses the prefectural art and history museums. Separate admission is required and as I was short on time, I only saw the history portion, which was quite impressive and well worth the 400 yen. Having spent a few days on the island beforehand gave me a good understanding of the unique nature of Okinawa, but the museum really elucidates its overall development from the independent Ryukyu Kingdom to a part of Japan to an American occupied territory and finally reversion to Japan in 1972. There are thousands of artifacts, and a great display of Minatogawa Man, which are among the oldest complete skeletons found in East Asia. Definitely worth a visit if you are a history buff, and there is an audio guide as well as plenty of English descriptions.
An example of a crophouse next to the entrance
Minatogawa man chasing a deer
War Memorials
Okinawa was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of WWII and there are numerous sites scattered about that serve as reminders of this oft-forgotten fact. The underground tunnels where the Japanese Army maintained their headquarters are a short drive from Naha and are somewhat interesting, although it is difficult to imagine hundreds of soldiers living there as it is now well-lit and filled with yammering tourists. The picture below shows the entrance, the tunnels are obviously underneath. The most grim sight are the walls filled with pockmarks caused by grenades that were used as suicide weapons.
A more moving display is the Himeyuri Monument and Museum. It tells the story of 227 schoolgirls and 13 of their teachers who were conscripted into the Japanese army near the end of the war. They acted as nurses in medical units hidden in caves on the southern part of the island. As the Japanese realized the futility of their situation, they released the nurses, but they had no place to go as the island was overrun by advancing Americans. Many of them were forced to commit suicide while others were killed as they hid in the caves. Only eleven students and two teachers survived in what is sadly just one of many tales of civilians suffering at the hands of not only the enemy but their own army as well. There is a monument outside the museum which stands above one of the caves where several girls were killed, but the real story is told in great detail inside. A must-see if you are in the area.
Okinawa has lots of beaches, as you would expect from an island chain. Below is sunset near Chatan, which is where the U.S. first landed back in 1945. There were a lot of scuba divers here during the day, but it is really rocky and not a true sandy beach; you need to get away from the cities to find something better for relaxation.
American Village
One last "attraction" is the American Village shopping complex in Chatan. Easy to spot with its giant ferris wheel, this may be the tackiest area in all of Japan. Pastel storefronts and a wide open plan must be how the designers pictured the USA, but the only American thing I found here was A&W, an island staple. That's it on the left of this shot, taken from a viewpoint in Urasoe City about 5 miles away.
There are two teams that play regularly in Okinawa, the Ryukyu Golden Kings of the bj League and FC Ryukyu of the JFL, who I saw on my first day here. There is also a handball team, but they don't play very often or at a regular venue.
The best time to visit Okinawa if you want to see sports is early spring, when several of the NPB teams hold their spring training camps here. I've seen the Dragons and Carp in the past and the Giants will be holding their spring training at the new Onoyama Stadium next year. This venue opened this season and is just a few minutes from Naha's airport. It held a couple of regular season NPB games back in June and will likely hold some more this coming season, so is certainly on my radar for an upcoming road trip.
Finally, Konan High School of Naha won both the spring and summer national tournaments this year. It was the first time an Okinawa school won the summer tourney and it certainly made an impact as I saw commemorative collectibles in several places around the island.
All-in-all, Okinawa is one of Japan's best destinations. The rest of the country can often seem to be all-too-similar in many respects so having a region that actually developed separately really makes for an interesting experience. I've been at least 5 times now and I can't wait to get back.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Honda FC 2 at FC Ryukyu 2 (JFL) - November 21, 2010

I'm in Okinawa, the southernmost island chain in Japan, famous for great food and warm weather. As Tokyo begins its descent into another dreary and depressing winter, I decided on a few days here to visit with friends and take a break from sports. Or so I thought.

Before leaving, I did a cursory check to see if the bj League's team in Okinawa, the Ryukyu Golden Kings, had a home game while I was here. They did not. So I figured I wouldn't bother with watching sports on this trip. That's when the sporting gods decided to remind me that there's always something to see.

Serendipitous Soccer

I took an early morning flight from Haneda, arriving at Naha airport at 9:30. From there, a friend rented a car and drove me to nearby Chatan Town where we met another friend for lunch. After a delicious meal of omutaco, we were leaving the restaurant when I spotted a poster for a local soccer team. Intrigued, I checked the schedule and was surprised to find there was a game that very day, starting at 1:00, or just about 45 minutes from then. Even more surprising, the game was actually in Chatan, and the most surprising fact was that the stadium was a mere 10 minute bike ride from where we were. I'm not one to quibble with the sporting gods, and my friend Jake said he would join me, so after dropping off my luggage, we rented some bikes and headed over to Chatan Park Stadium.

Turns out the local team is FC Ryukyu (Ryukyu is the old name for Okinawa) and they play in the Japan Football League (JFL), which is equivalent to the 3rd division here, underneath the two divisions that comprise the J League. In what was the last home game of the season, Ryukyu were hosting Honda FC of Hamamatsu, a city that is relatively close to Tokyo. As an aside, both teams lost in the second round of the Emperor's Cup this year, having qualified as their prefectural champions.

Chatan Park Stadium

Located right next to the Chatan Park Baseball Stadium, spring home of the Chunichi Dragons which I visited back in 1998, Chatan Park Stadium is a small facility with seats on only one side of the venue. However, you can sit on the grass surrounding the field and many people chose to do that as it was quite crowded in the stands, which are just benches anyway. The field itself is surrounded by a running track but the seats are still reasonably close. There is only one entrance and the stands are difficult to maneuver in once full, so I'd suggest getting there early if possible.

There's not much here otherwise, a few drink machines and food vendors just outside, but having just eaten, I didn't sample the cuisine here. Tickets were 1,500 yen and all seats are unreserved.

You'll need a car to get here and there was parking available but you can also park at the nearby American Village complex, which is perhaps the tackiest shopping mall I have ever seen. There are a couple of US bases close by and the area has been designed to appeal to Americans as well as Japanese. Worth checking out for the amusement value if nothing else.

Local solution to shading the camera

One interesting feature of the stadium is the large wind turbine standing at one end. It's rather surreal and I'm not sure why it's there.

The Game

I'll avoid any detailed descriptions at this point as I know so little about the teams or their players. There was a small program handed out that had the standings and showed Honda lying 4th in the 18-team table with 55 points from 32 games, while Ryukyu was 9th with 47. But that's about all the useful info I could glean.

By the time we had bought tickets and entered the stadium, it was already about 20 minutes into a scoreless first half. We found some seats down low as fans left room at the end of the benches, which we quickly usurped.

FC Honda attacking

It took a while to get into the game, but it became clear that Honda FC was the better team, with most of the game being played in the Ryukyu half. On the half-hour mark, Honda's Nozomi Nishi took what looked to be an easy shot from 30 yards out but Ryukyu keeper Yuma Morimoto was caught napping off his line and the ball sailed over his outstretched hand to give the visitors a shock 1-0 lead, which lasted until halftime.

I didn't think that Ryukyu had a chance after being dominated so thoroughly in the 25 minutes I saw, but as usual I was completely wrong. Within a minute of the restart, Ryukyu attacked and ex-J Leaguer Yoshiteru Yamashita tied the game. I was at the other end of the field and didn't see the goal clearly, so I'll be looking for some highlights later.

The teams had a more even second half, but Morimoto made a grievous error in the 77th minute, palming a Nishi header into the net that restored Honda's one-goal lead. Below are two shots: the first is Morimoto grabbing the ball; the second is the ball about to enter the net.

It looked grim for the home team but with just seven minutes left, Honda's Ryuta Hosokai made a foolish challenge that had him going over the top of a Ryukyu defender and landing on his head. The referee immediately showed a yellow card and then a red! Hosokai had committed another foul before we had arrived and now he was out of the game. Ryukyu had a chance!

Sure enough, just as the game entered lost time, Ryukyu's Kohei Tanaka (another one-time J Leaguer) drove a shot that deflected twice and somehow found the back of the net to tie the game. A stunning finish to the home season!

There were 4 minutes of lost time during which Honda had their keeper on offense (in pink above) during set pieces as they seemed desperate for the three points. But it was not to be and the game finished 2-2 in what was an entirely unexpected but exciting afternoon affair.


The general manager of FC Ryukyu is Philippe Trousier, who guided Japan at the 2002 World Cup. Seems like they are trying to gain promotion to J2 and having Troussier here adds an element of seriousness to their effort. Promotion requires a top-4 finish however, so it won't be happening this year.

There was a small cheering section for the home team but nobody on hand for the visitors, which suggests that the JFL is not worth a road trip. I heartily disagree and suggest that sports fans traveling to Okinawa try to time a visit to see FC Ryukyu in action.



Thursday, November 18, 2010

Staples Center Sports Spectacular

Sports roadtrips are fun but can be tiring. When I'm alone, the goal is to see a game a day which means that I rarely spend more than two days in the same city, moving from hotel to hotel, packing and unpacking, and getting very little time to relax. I've always wanted to spend an extended period of time in one city watching games - it can be done during the baseball season where teams often have 10-game homestands, but is much more difficult during the winter where hockey and basketball teams rarely play back-to-back home games.

However, sometimes an arena is shared by multiple franchises, usually one from the NHL and one from the NBA. But the Staples Center in Los Angeles is unique in that it hosts three teams, the Lakers and Clippers of the NBA and the NHL's Kings. So I got to wondering if all three teams had extended homestands around the same time and surprisingly, they do. Check out this sports non-roadtrip with 15 games in 12 days all in the same venue.
March 16 Sixers at Clippers
March 17 Blues at Kings
March 18 Timberwolves at Lakers
March 19 Cavaliers at Clippers/Ducks at Kings
March 20 Suns at Clippers/Trailblazers at Lakers
March 21 Flames at Kings
March 22 Suns at Lakers
March 23 Wizards at Clippers
March 24 Sharks at Kings
March 25 Clippers at Lakers
March 26 Avalanche at Kings/Raptors at Clippers
March 27 Hornets at Lakers
Three doubleheaders, each team with 5 games, eight different NBA squads visiting - it would be an amazing time to be in LA for a sports fan. I do feel for the guys who have to change the arena from basketball to hockey and back though; they are going to be very, very busy.

BTW, I'm not planning to make this trip, it's merely for informational purposes. But the last 5 days are very interesting. Potential rookie-of-the-year decider when John Wall and Blake Griffin face off on the 23rd, the Kings hosting two strong teams in the playoff push, an LA basketball battle, and the Raptors on the road. Hmmm. With the baseball season starting on March 31st (the Dodgers open against the Giants on April 1st), it it might be a great time to travel after all. I'll have to wait until my December trip is done before I can seriously consider another extended journey, but this one is now at the top of the list.



Sunday, November 14, 2010

Asian Championship Doubleheader - November 13, 2010

In a rather interesting coincidence, two sports held their continental championship games in Tokyo on the same day. Suffering from a lack of live sports recently, I decided to check out both matches.

Game 1 - Chiba Lotte Marines 3 SK Wyverns 0 - Japan-Korea Club Championship

Between 2005 and 2008, the four Asian baseball federations (Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China) held a tournament in Tokyo to decide the Asian champion. It wasn't particularly exciting as the Japanese team won each year, while the Chinese teams managed nary a victory in the round-robin. The series was cancelled in 2008 and replaced by a single game between the Japanese and Korean champions, won by the Yomiuri Giants last year. This season, the game was moved from Nagasaki to Tokyo which turned out to be fortuitous as the Japanese champion came from nearby Chiba which certainly helped attendance.

Originally, I wasn't much interested in this game as I expected a fairly easy victory for Lotte against the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) champ SK Wyverns, who finished their season nearly a month ago. But my girlfriend's father is from Chiba and seemed interested in going, so I scored some brownie points and invited him along.

The game itself was one-sided as expected, although the final score was just 3-0 for Lotte. The Wyverns' starter was Ken Kadokura, who pitched 13 seasons in Japan for a number of teams and had a brief tryout with the Cubs last year. At 41, he is well past his prime and only lasted 2 2/3 innings, giving up 2 runs on a bases-loaded single to Ikuhiro Kiyota in the second.

Meanwhile, Lotte sent Yuki Karakawa to the hill and he was great, yielding just 2 singles and 2 hit batsmen in 5 innings. He retired the last 10 men he faced and the Marines followed with 4 relievers each recording a perfect inning. Which means the Wyverns had 22 in a row set down to end things.

PL top batter Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who may end up in the majors next year.

Japan Series MVP Toshiaki Imae added a monster homer for Lotte in the 5th to account for the final run in a game that lasted just 2:45, thanks to the Wyverns swinging at nearly everything. Only the last batter of the game went to a 3-ball count as the 5 Lotte hurlers needed just 102 pitches to dispense of the 31 Wyvern batters. In contrast, Lotte took 8 walks and saw 164 pitches for their 38 hitters - that's a full pitch more per batter (4.3 to 3.3) which is a substantial difference. I thought this might indicate that Korean baseball is faster than Japanese, but a look at the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) homepage shows an average game time of 3:08, which is still pretty long.

Interestingly, out of SK's 21 outs that came from batted balls, only one was hit to the left side of the field. The other 20 were either groundouts to first, second, or the pitcher (12), infield pops to the right side or the catcher (4), or flies to center or right (4). Maybe one or two balls were hit hard all day as they couldn't adjust to the Marines' quality pitching, particularly the off-speed stuff. It wasn't pretty to watch and you had to feel a bit for the Wyverns' fans who had made the trip only to see their team handcuffed all day long.

Coincidentally, Lotte is a Korean company that has a large presence in Japan. The KBO has a team called the Lotte Giants, so perhaps in the future both Lotte teams can battle it out for Asian baseball supremacy.

Before the last pitch.

For the Marines, it was their second Asian title as they won the inaugural Asia Series as well. What I find most interesting is that they didn't win the pennant in 2005 either, finishing second to Softbank, but taking the playoff series 3 games to 2 over the Hawks. In that respect they are like the Florida Marlins, a team that hasn't won a pennant but has two championships regardless. At least the Marines keep their team together after they win though.

Stupid Fan Award

One of the latest trends to hit Tokyo is for people to walk around dragging suitcases behind them. But they are not going to or coming from the airport, instead, they use these as clunky carry-alls. The sheer stupidity behind needing a big, heavy piece of luggage instead of a purse is incredible, especially in a space-deprived city such as Tokyo. Seriously, what do you need to carry around that requires a suitcase? They take up space on the train and slow you down as you meander the streets, which slows me down too when I'm stuck walking behind you. It is my newest pet peeve in a country where common sense seems increasingly rare.

Anyway, at the game yesterday, a nearby fan brought her suitcase into the dome! Seating there is cramped to begin with, and there is no leg room for something that large. Of course, you can put it in the aisle, but that just makes going up and down more difficult for everyone. So she wins the stupid fan award for this game.

Game 2 - Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma 3 Zob Ahan 1 - AFC Champions League Final

After a short dinner near the Tokyo Dome, I headed over to National Stadium to catch the Asian Champions League final. I'd normally write some background but the AFC provides a fantastic media packet which gives all the info you'll need.

Seongnam fans

The game was well-played by both teams, but the Korean side from Seongnam was a little better than their Iranian rivals, Zob Ahan from Isfahan. The Koreans had several more chances and the majority of the play was in the Zob Ahan end.

Zob Ahan defender clearing the ball

After a fairly quiet start, Seongnam got on the board in the 29th minute when tournament MVP and Australian national Sasa Ognenovski scored off a goalmouth scramble. The rest of the half saw the Iranians defending for the most part, but it wasn't until early in the second stanza that Seongnam added to their lead. A corner kick was headed to Byung Kuk Cho who headed home in the 52nd minute.

I thought that would do it, but Zob Ahan scored a brilliant goal on a rush just over 10 minutes later. A great crossing pass allowed Igor Castro to drive the ball at net, which Korean keeper Sung-Ryung Jong parried away. But it went straight to Mohammad Khalatbari who expertly lobbed a header over Jong and into the back of the net to make the final half-hour quite exciting.

The sideline is obscured by the advertising when you sit down low

Zob Ahan found life after that and had a few chances but couldn't manage an equalizer as Jong made a few key saves. Then with 7 minutes left, Seongnam's star Mauricio Molina (above taking a free kick) let go a hard shot that was saved by Shahabaldin Gordan but the rebound went to Cheol Ho Kim who slotted home the clincher.

Dejected Zob Ahan players before a late free kick

For Korea, it was their second straight title after Pohang Steelers won last year. Ultimately this day showed that Japan is easily the best baseball country in Asia while Korea still maintains soccer supremacy. It was certainly interesting seeing these two sports back-to-back. It's rare for me to say this but the soccer game was much more entertaining than the baseball game as the teams were more evenly matched and the pace was quite quick. As well, I was able to choose my seat and tried sitting near the field which offers a different perspective than I am used to.

Next Up

In just over two weeks, I depart for the big 5-week trip home, but before then I'm going to check out a J League game in west Tokyo next Saturday and then some Top League Rugby the following weekend. Check back for updates on those games and more.



Monday, November 8, 2010

Year-end Road Trip Schedule

Next month I'll be taking a five-week trip to Canada and the US to see 25 or so games. I originally had planned 7 weeks in North America, but the dollar-a-day rental car special added a wrinkle that changed things quite a bit. I also need to return to Japan in early January, so the week of AHL games and the Boston visit in the middle of the month was deleted from the plan. So here is the final schedule:
Dec  1   Washington Wizards at Toronto Raptors 7:00
Dec  3   Calgary Flames at Minnesota Wild 7:00
Dec  4   Cleveland Cavaliers at Minnesota Timberwolves 7:00
Dec  5   Buffalo Bills at Minnesota Vikings 12:00 (First Bills Game!)
Dec  6   Dallas Stars at Columbus Blue Jackets 7:00
Dec  7   Robert Morris Colonials at West Virginia Mountaineers 7:00 (NCAA Basketball)
Dec  8   Toronto Maple Leafs at Pittsburgh Penguins 7:00
Dec  9   Florida Panthers at Washington Capitals 7:00
Dec 10   Hershey Bears at Charlotte Checkers 7:00 (AHL)
Dec 11   Boston Celtics at Charlotte Bobcats 7:00
Dec 12   Oakland Raiders at Jacksonville Jaguars 1:00 (not a bad matchup after all)
Dec 13   New Orleans Hornets at Miami Heat 7:30
Dec 15   Montreal Junior at Gatineau Olympiques 7:30 (QMJHL)
Dec 16   Boston Bruins at Montreal Canadiens 7:00
Dec 19   Washington Capitals at Ottawa Senators 7:05
Dec 29   Peterborough Petes at Belleville Bulls 4:05 (OHL)
Dec 30   Lake Erie Monsters at Hamilton Bulldogs 7:00 (AHL)
Dec 31   Canada vs Sweden 4:00 (WJHC in Buffalo)
Jan  1   Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins 1:00 (Heinz Field, Winter Classic)
Jan  2   Dallas Mavericks at Cleveland Cavaliers 7:00
Jan  3   World Junior Hockey Championship Semi-finals in Buffalo
Jan  4   Rochester Americans at Lake Erie Monsters 7:00 (AHL)
Jan  5   World Junior Hockey Championship Finals in Buffalo
Jan  6   St. Louis Blues at Toronto Maple Leafs 7:00
Hotels and air tickets have been booked for the first half of the trip, so those games are set barring any travel difficulties. The end of the year and first week in January are still tentative and depend on family commitments and other issues. In particular, getting tickets to the World Juniors may be difficult as they are only sold in full packages, which is not good for road trippers as myself. So we'll see what happens there.

It's just over 3 weeks til I leave, and I can hardly wait. It will be cold, but it will be fun. If you are in town for any of those games, let me know, I'm always looking to meet local fans before or after the game.



Update: I originally planned to rent a car to see a game in Hamilton on December 1st but thought that the jet lag would make the return drive less than ideal. So I moved Hamilton to December 30th. Fortunately, the Raptors are in town with a stinker matchup against the Wizards that night so if I am lucid, I'll take transit downtown and check that out.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Why Ties Suck in Baseball - 2010 Postseason Edition

Regular readers know I don't particularly like a lot of things about Japanese baseball. The long games are the most annoying problem, but a close second is that ties are part of the game. I've posted how ties are ignored in the standings which is stupid because teams with more wins end up with worse records.

Well, I now have another reason to hate ties. Last night's Japan Series game went 15 innings and finished 2-2. The Chiba Lotte Marines led the series 3-2 over the Chunichi Dragons and both teams had their aces going, so it was expected to be a pitcher's duel. And it was.

I watched the first couple of innings in which each team scored a first-frame run before losing my TV rights for a couple of hours. When I regained them, it was 2-2 in the 9th, so I watched the rest, hoping for a result.

What I saw instead was some pretty bad baseball. In the 10th and 11th, Lotte had the leadoff batter reach and attempted a sacrifice bunt. Both times the bunt was popped up and resulted in a double play. Chunichi was no better, popping up one bunt and having another sacrifice attempt result in the lead runner being thrown out at second. So much for fundamental baseball. Chunichi's clutch hitting was also abysmal, with runners left in scoring position in innings 10 through 14. All-in-all, not a classic championship game.

I feel for the fans who spent 5:43 watching for nothing. Even worse are the fans who bought game 7 tickets expecting to see a championship. They might still if Lotte prevails tonight, but if Chunichi wins, then there will be a game 8 on Monday night. Roadtrippers who traveled to Nagoya and have to return Monday are out of luck if that happens. It's even possible that tonight's game could end in a draw, but from game 8 onward, there are no ties.

Having a set ending also reduces the strategy required for an extra-inning game. Knowing that the game will end after 15 innings allows managers to bring in their closer in the 14th without worrying about using him up. A game with no fixed end forces managers to really use all their strategic smarts to ensure proper use of the remaining pitchers.

Finally, having a championship series game (un)decided in this manner is just stupid. If the NHL ever goes to a shootout in the playoffs, you can bet I'll be complaining about that too.



Update: Lotte won game 7 in 12 innings to take the series 4-2-1. So the tie the night before didn't have a real impact on the series. But a 3rd place team winning the Japan Series still leaves me disillusioned. What's the point of a baseball season again?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Jublio Iwata 5 Sanfrecce Hiroshima 3 (Nabisco Cup Final) - November 3, 2010

This past Wednesday was Culture Day in Japan which meant it was time for the final of the Nabisco Cup, the J League's equivalent to the Carling Cup. I watched it last year so won't write about the tournament structure this time, interested readers can check out last year's post.

The Teams

Although the game is played in Tokyo, the teams are labeled as visitor and home so the fans buy the right tickets. The visitors were Sanfrecce Hiroshima. I actually watched their first game in the tournament back on September 1st, when they lost 1-0 to Gamba Osaka. But they managed to win the second leg 2-1 and then beat Shimizu S Pulse in the semi-finals to make it here. They have never won the Nabsico Cup, nor taken a full season title in the J League, so this was a great chance for them to gain some real silverware (they have one Super Cup but that is just a one-game trophy which they qualified for by losing the Emperor's Cup the previous year). In the J League this season they lie 9th with 11 wins and 9 draws out of 28 matches.

They were facing Jublio Iwata, a one-time dynasty based in Shizuoka Prefecture, which is just southwest of Tokyo. Between 1997 and 2002, the club won 3 league titles , a Nabisco Cup, an Emperor's Cup and an Asian title, but they've fallen into the mid-table the past few years. This season they sit two spots below Hiroshima with a 10-9-9 record. Their goalkeeper is Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, who backstopped the Japanese in the 2002 World Cup, but who is nearing retirement.

I should mention that Hiroshima didn't participate in the round-robin portion of the tournament as they were playing in the AFC Champions League. So this was only their 5th Nabisco Cup game, while Iwata had played 11.

The Fans

Both teams had thousands of supporters at each end of the stadium. I expected Jublio (above) to have a few more fans simply because they are closer, and outside the stadium there were dozens of buses with Iwata banners. But the Hiroshima faithful (below) had made the journey in great numbers as well and both sides presented their colours and songs before the game. What I found interesting is that there were less Sanfrecce fans at the game I saw in Hiroshima; glad to see that they are embracing the idea of the road trip!

The Game

I'm going to refrain from detailed descriptions of all the goals in this game, because there were eight of them! That's right, 8 goals in a soccer game. What's even more amazing is that there were only three goals at the 88 minute mark. After that, things got pretty wild. Before proceeding, I suggest you check out a YouTube Video that shows them all.

With the video, it's difficult to understand how quickly those goals came though. The first 25 minutes of the match were rather dull, with neither team able to generate any offense. Iwata came closest when a free kick from Kota Ueda (directly below) missed the top corner (below that).

The first goal was scored in the 36th minute when Keisuke Funatani ran onto a perfect cross from Ryoichi Maeda, heading the ball through Shusaku Nishikawa's legs.

But Hiroshima were not fazed, and Croatian Mihael Mikic made a spectacular run down the right flank, shaking two defenders, running into the box, and crossing to Tadanari Lee, who mishit the ball moving backwards but caught Kawaguchi going the wrong way and the ball dribbled into the net.

If you watched the video above, you would have seen Sanfrecce holding a big team celebration, as all 11 players on the field, including the keeper, gathered near the Iwata net, went to one knee, and made a motion as if drawing a bow. I'm not sure of the meaning, but it was a bit over the top.

Jublio's Norihiro Nishi

Hiroshima's second goal came just 3 minutes into the second half when a long ball from Koji Morisaki eluded two Iwata defenders and found itself on the foot of Satoru Yamagishi who calmly slotted past Kawaguchi. Yamagishi then ran to the Sanfreece supporters and took quite a while getting back to the field, but the referee didn't warn him which I found surprising. Two goals and two excessive celebrations; would the soccer gods take offense?

The answer would be yes. In the 88th minute, Nishikawa couldn't handle a strong header off a corner kick and the ball went straight to Maeda (last year's J League scoring champ) who tapped home to tie the match and send it to overtime. The picture above shows Maeda's outstretched leg touching the ball, which is hidden by a lunging Nishikawa.

The extra time started slowly, although Sanfrecce hit the crossbar midway through. But it was another corner kick that led to the goal as Iwata's Minoru Suganuma volleyed home a headed pass 12 minutes in. That seemed to crush Hiroshima, who promptly made a defensive blunder that allowed Ryohei Yamazaki to score two minutes later. But no, Sanfrecce had a free kick that was expertly taken by Tomoaki Makino, beating a diving Kawaguchi to make it 4-3 at the extra time interval. That's 3 goals in 3 minutes, a rather unusual occurrence in soccer, and it looked like Hiroshima had hope.

But just four minutes into the second half of OT, Maeda added his second, chesting down a long free kick and racing into the box, where he chipped over Nishikawa to seal the game. Sanfrecce had a penalty at the final whistle, but Kawaguchi made a diving stop to send the Iwata fans into a frenzy.

Jublio wins the Nabisco Cup 5-3! What an amazing game! Not particularly well played by either side, particular the Hiroshima defense who were constantly giving up chances, but a lot of fun to watch. Neither goalkeeper will be writing home about this one either, but the fans certainly enjoyed it. Below is a list of the goals.

The Free Stuff

The other great thing about the Nabisco Cup is getting free junk food. This year was Oreo chocolate cream cookies and Chip Star, a rather bland Pringles imitation. There was also a double-sided trading card with Hisato Sato of Hiroshima on one side and Iwata's Maeda on the other. There is also the pamphlet with the history of the tournament and detailed descriptions of both teams.

Next Up

November 13th is the AFC Champions League final. Before that there is a baseball game between the Korean champion SK Wyverns and the NPB champion, which I may go to. After that I'm in Okinawa for a few days and then there's some Top League Rugby on the 27th. Then the roadtrip portion of the blog gets restarted as I'm off US and Canada for a month of hockey, football, and basketball. I'll post the final trip schedule next week as it has been decided and tickets have been booked.



Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Watering Down the Playoffs

Well, the baseball season is over and the San Francisco Giants have won the World Series. Fortunately, they are a deserving team, having won their division. Their 92-70 record wasn't spectacular, but it was good. That makes sense as they are a good team, and it showed in the playoffs as they won 3 series in convincing fashion.

Now comes word that Bud Selig is pushing for an extra wild card team in each league starting in 2012. As a Blue Jay fan, I should be happy with this idea as it gives them an increased chance at the playoffs. But instead, I am opposed to the idea because it makes the long season that much more meaningless and admits poorer teams into the post-season, where anything can happen. I suggested a fix to the wild-card a month or so ago, but obviously Mr. Selig is not a reader of this blog.

Quoting from the ESPN article linked above, Selig asks "Is eight out of 30 enough? Is that fair?" and then when asked what he thought of 10 playoff teams, answered "It's more fair than eight".

Fairness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. What Selig is missing is that inviting two weaker teams to the dance is not fair to those better teams who won their division. This year Minnesota was defeated by the Yankees, who took the Wild Card. Granted, New York had a better record than Minnesota, but they weren't good enough to beat Tampa over 162 games. Division play and unbalanced schedules will always be inherently unfair and teams with better records will often miss the post-season while weak teams will get hot and take a championship (see the 2006 Cardinals who finished 83-78), but watering down the playoffs with more teams is not the answer.

Baseball is a sport where anything can happen in a short series. That is why a long season is required to eliminate all but the best teams in each division. Allowing a second or third-place finisher to beat a division champion in a short series is really what is unfair here. (The NHL does the same thing; I'll address that separately).

I've gone back through the major-league standings since 1996, the first full season under the current divisional structure, to find the record of the team that would have finished 5th overall in each league. The average in both leagues is about 89 wins, with the range from 84 to 96. I just don't think that we are missing quality teams in the playoffs if the average 5th place finisher is coming in at 89 wins. There's also the problem of reduced playoff races - just look at this year in the NL, where San Diego, San Francisco, and Atlanta were fighting for just two spots. Add a 5th team makes the playoff race meaningless. There were also three single-game playoffs over these 15 years that would have been lost if 5 teams were admitted to the post-season.

Another issue is the extended length of the playoffs. A three-game series would be necessary to eliminate one of the two wild-card teams, this adds at least 3 days to a schedule that is already too long. It's also unfair to the teams who clinched early and had a chance to set their rotation for the playoffs. If the top 3 teams all get a nice 4-day rest, they can set their starters as they see fit, so there is no advantage to an early celebration.

Summarizing: four teams is more than enough in the MLB playoffs! Fix the divisions and balance the schedule if you want to make things fair, Bud!

Look to Japan

For those who want to see how watered-down playoffs reward mediocrity, the Japanese leagues are a fine example. Where once there were just two pennant winners meeting in the Japan Series, there are now 3 teams (out of 6) making the playoffs in each league. The first round of the playoffs (inaccurately known as the Climax Series) sees the second-place squad host the third-place team in a best-of-3 series, with the winner traveling to the top team for a best-of-6 (the pennant winner is given a 1-game lead to start).

This season, the Chiba Lotte Marines finished 3rd in the Pacific League with a pedestrian winning percentage of .528, but after going 6-2 in the playoffs behind some admittedly stellar pitching, they are in the Japan Series (tied with Chunichi at 1 game apiece as I write this). To be fair, this season in Japan was strange, with no team finishing above .560, but a short winning streak after an average season should not be enough to earn a championship. I understand that the fans of all clubs want their teams to be involved in playoff races, but it has to be earned.

Fixing the NHL Playoffs

I'm not done ranting yet. The NHL is the poster boy for watered-down playoffs, a two-month marathon that lasts well into June. This is because NHL players are not paid after the regular season ends, so this is when the owners make their money. So there's no chance of reducing the length of series or the number of teams that make it.

Again though, there is no reward for finishing top of the heap, other than the meaningless President's Trophy. Quick, tell me who won that in 2000!

Each playoff series sees the higher-seeded team get an extra home game in a best-of-7. That's the measly reward and it's not enough, especially given how close these teams are. The system should be as follows:

1st place in the conference gets 6 home games (3-1-3)
2nd/3rd place in the conference each get 5 home games (3-2-2)
4th place in the conference gets 4 home games as usual (2-2-1-1-1)

This is only for the first round, after that the regular format returns. I'm not sure this will reduce the number of early upsets, but at least those teams that did well are rewarded financially.

Oh, it was St. Louis who won the President's Trophy back in 2000; they lost their 1st round series to San Jose in 7 games.

Next Up

Good news, the ranting is done for now. I'm going to the Nabisco Cup Championship tomorrow and then the AFC Champions League final next weekend, so there'll be some game posts shortly. I've also finalized the trip in December and January, so check back for the schedule in a few days.