Baseball in Japan

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Hello Kitty as Chunichi Dragons baseball player. Nagoya team in the Nippon Professional baseball league.
Hello Kitty as Chunichi Dragons baseball player. Nagoya's team in the Nippon Professional baseball league.
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Hello Kitty as Chunichi Dragons baseball player. Nagoya team in the Nippon Professional baseball league.
Hello Kitty as a Chunichi Dragon baseball player. Nagoya’s team in the Nippon Professional baseball league.

The American Baseball Player.

Japan loves baseball. The longer you live there the more you realize how crazy they are for the sport. Team logos are seen everywhere and the players endorse all sorts of products. Their advertisements can be seen everywhere from the insides of the trains I take, to the sides of the buildings I walk by. It’s part of the daily TV news, and on the back of every newspaper. The Nippon Professional Baseball League is the second most popular sports league in the world (based on yearly attendance). It has a higher per game attendance than both American hockey (NHL) and basketball (NBA). They have a high school baseball tournament in Japan that’s bigger than the NCAA college basketball tournament. This is not just a March madness thing either, this tournament actually happens twice a year. This is a country that dominates the World Baseball Classic and The Little League World Series. Japan loves baseball.

So Japan loves baseball, and I love Japan. But does Japan love me playing baseball?

Baseball to the casual observer is a game where you throw the ball, hit the ball, and catch the ball. But the people who are into it know that it’s like playing a chess game with athletes as your pieces. A slow moving strategic battle centered around the tracking of an 80 mile an hour ball that is hard as a rock. Jozwiak Park in my hometown of Niles Illinois rested just over the Northwest border of Chicago. It was one of the few baseball fields in Niles that had lights. Somebody came up with the genius idea of putting the park along a small area of the Chicago River; the area that produces ten zillion mosquitoes at mid baseball season. Then I would stand out in the outfield under said lights, just after dusk no less, as every one of those mosquitoes came out for my blood. It was like a Disneyland for mosquitoes. I could hear the mosquitoes talking among themselves. “Ya… there is this guy just standing out there. He doesn’t move no matter how many times we bite him.” “Ya…” says another mosquito, “he goes and sits down 9 times a night, but then gets up and runs back to stand in the same spot again… its awesome!” The trouble in Jozwiak Park was not catching long fly balls, it was trying to track the ball through the cloud of swarming blood suckers. I remember one of the cruel kid-like things we would do as we sat on the bench waiting to bat. We would flex our muscles just as the mosquitos would bite our bare arms. Thus making the mosquito explode or drown in OUR own blood. So the idea of being a pawn in a long dragged out chess match did not seem that glamorous to me as a 13 year old having my blood sucked out in center field year after year.

That’s about the time when my older brother introduced me to game of soccer. This is a sport where you can; A.) – Run with the ball for hours. B.) – If your teammate has the ball, you can run with him for hours. C.) – If the other team has the ball, you can just go and take it from them and thus start the whole thing over at “A” again. I put my bat and ball away and never turned back. It’s been about 30 years and I am still running with the ball for hours.

As much I’ve loved playing soccer for most of my life, I still have a soft spot for baseball and Jozwiak Park. It was the place where I got hit by a pitch and stole all three bases to score a run. The place where I jumped and reached over the left field foul fence to grab and steal an out. The fence stretched and then threw me back on my ass. As I laid on my back groaning in pain and held the ball up to show the umpire, I looked up to see my father who had been standing right on the other side of the fence. He simply said, “Nice catch!” But I knew by the look on his face it was one of his proudest moments of me. “Joz” (as we called it) was also the place where I had hit my one and only home run in a long turbulent switch-hitting career. Even more crazy is that the bases were loaded and we were down 2 runs late in the game. It was a game winning grand slam, quite a big deal for a kid who’s used to striking out and getting hit by pitches. Jozwiak Park had no home run fence so you just had to run your ass off until the guy came back with the ball. It was a huge shot past the bushes under the scoreboard in deep center. I was not taking any chances and was running so fast I caught up to the guy who was on first. He then started running his ass off and we both caught up to the guy who was on second. We all crossed home plate together in one big pack, like it was the end of the Tour De France. So here I am in Nagoya Japan, nowhere near Jozwiak Park in Niles Illinois, or the Tour De France for that matter. Yet, in this country of constant awkward cultural differences and daily psychological stress beatings, I run into an old friend. Baseball.

The Japanese teams, their colors, their cities, It just all made sense to me. I did not need guidebooks to understand it, or dictionaries to look it up. It was such a comforting feeling that I knew this specific part of their culture just as much as they did. I would go to games with Japanese friends and they would not have to explain what was happening. Japan is a country where you’re constantly riding a fine line between culturally fascinating, and I-want-to-go-home. There are so many similarities about this country that seem similar to my own culture, things that you’re somewhat familiar with.  But in every case there something about it that’s just a little bit off. People drive cars but they’re on the other side of the road. The stop signs are red but they are triangles not octagons. They all read books but they start from the back. All these little things slowly start to drive you crazy and push you over to the I-want-to-go-home side. So here is this world of Japanese baseball, which at its core, is fundamentally the same game I played for my entire childhood. It’s not “Japan Rules” baseball, It’s just baseball.

Koshien Stadium in Osaka Japan. Home of the National High School Baseball Tournament and the Osaka (Hanshin) Tigers.
Koshien Stadium in Osaka Japan. Home of the National High School Baseball Tournament and the Osaka (Hanshin) Tigers.

 

I would watch games on the TV after I came home from work at night, even though I had no idea what the announcers were saying. I still felt relaxed and comfortable with the game on. I soon picked up a perfectly pronounced, and broadcast level, “So desu ne” (an informal “yes that’s correct”), just from listening to the Nagoya Chunichi Dragons announcer night after night. One of the fun side effects of all this baseball craziness is that there are batting cages sprinkled all around the country. Nagoya was no exception.

While Japanese baseball was helping me mentally fit in, for physical therapy I thought I would turn to the batting cages. There were several batting centers, or Bah-tingu Cent-ahhhh… as they are pronounced here. Like most things in Japan they are high tech and very clean. There is a fun one in Kaneyama that is part of a game center. It’s a stop south out of Nagoya Station. My favorite one was between Nagoya Station and my apartment, conveniently located along the train tracks on my walk home, It was called MY Dome, and I would pop in after work, take my tie off, and start smashing baseballs all over the cage. The Japanese batting centers I went to all used the same style pitching machines to launch baseballs. They looked similar to the ones I’ve seen in America. Sixty feet or so from home plate was a protective net. Behind it was a boxy looking machine with a swinging arm that came over the top of the box and catapulted a league ball at you.

This is where the Japanese high-tech awesomeness comes in. Just behind the protective net but still in front of the machine, they have a giant human size video screen with a hole in it. Why would they do that you might ask? Why so you can put the video image of a full size professional pitcher going through his wind-up. It is timed to look like the video pitcher is throwing the real ball. The ball then flies out of the hole at the exact time the video pitcher releases it. It’s Japanese high-tech awesomeness at its best. I remember the first time I saw it. I walked by the open windows and saw that it was a batting cage. I walked in to see what it was like. I saw the video pitcher and froze, I was so amazed that I just stood and stared. It looked like the pitcher was actually throwing the ball. I was hooked and started going to the bating center every chance that I could.

It did not take long for me to realize the fact that I still sucked as a hitter. All my flaws and weaknesses began to surface in a hurry. I remember my father always giving me advice while I was hitting; I have a natural swing. I should keep my eye on the ball, and lastly, don’t play softball; it will throw off your timing. It never occurred to me to ask him; “What swing? What timing? and of course I’m looking at the ball, where the hell else would I be looking if somebody is throwing an 80-mile an hour rock at me?” I started playing when I was six years old, the only time I got on base is when I was hit by a pitch. I doubt the timing of a ball in a random softball game is going to keep me from the “bigs”. It’s now 25 years later, I’m a better-listening adult, and I’m on the other side of the planet when some of those things finally start sinking in.

After watching somebody else bat over and over you pick up the timing of the ball and its speed. There is also a huge confidence boost knowing that the ball is not being thrown AT you. Then it’s a matter of using my “natural swing” and making good contact with it. Here I was in the middle of Japan, as it all came together. I was smashing balls all over the place.

Here is another interesting thing about Japan. Their idea of what is wasted space is much different than my own. In Japan, where space is at an absolute premium, things you might not notice are things that disappear; Front lawns, sidewalks, and curbs, are the first to go. Unless these things are essential or cause a safety issue, they are removed. They keep things very small and tight to allow everyone to fit in. How does this relate to batting cages you might ask? Well, the batting center is no exception to the space rule. So what would be something that is NOT essential to a batting center? Something that can help make more money yet allow more people to hit baseballs. What can be sacrificed? The answer; left-handed hitters. MY Dome basically removes the side of the plate that left-handed hitters use for each batting cage. There is just enough room for a home plate and a right handed hitter to take a full swing. Thus allowing you to put almost twice the amount of batting cages in the same amount of space. They only put the full left/right batter box in a few cages; the ones with the fastest pitch. Since there are practically no left-handed people in Japan (for some unknown reason), everyone is a winner. Well… everyone except the lefties. Everyone except me. When my father told me I had a “natural swing” he was referring to my left-handed swing.

I was a switch hitter in Little League, but that was only because I was confused. I still think left-handed people are just confused right-handers. I was an awful hitter anyway, how bad could it be on the other side of the plate? At My Dome in Nagoya it was all or nothing. So I went with the nothing and started hitting right handed until I got up to speed.

One Saturday afternoon I went to My Dome to hits some balls. On the weekend I had the luxury of wearing more comfortable clothes instead of my usual suit and tie. A Chicago White Sox hat, a red baseball jersey, and high-top gym shoes was my uniform for the day. I had warmed up in the right-handed slow cage and was now ready for the fast pitch cage. This particular day I got a chance to watch somebody else in the normally empty fast cage. It really helped, as I was able to adjust to the 70-plus mile and hour pitch.

When I go into the fast cage I usually start right handed and then switch to the left about hallway through. I made great contact with one of the balls and launched it up and to the left of the dome roof. At My Dome they have two small circle targets hanging up in the air above the nets of the pitching machines. They are wired somehow and a red light goes on if you hit one directly. My ball went up and smacked the far left target. I smiled as the red light went on. I just hit a home run and I have not even switched to my good side yet. About half way through that set of balls I switched to the left side. Which you have to do in a hurry since the machine keeps throwing balls at you. I gave a quick glance back to see if anybody was waiting to get in next. I saw that one of the girls who worked there was standing behind the door to get in. I focused back on hitting and started getting in the grove on the left side of the plate. I was able to get perfect contact on another ball that rocketed straight out ahead of me. This ball glanced off the target directly in front of me. It shook the target back and forth on its ropes but the red light did not go on. I finished off the rest of the balls.

As usual, I got so into it that after the last ball was thrown and the light on the box turned off, I was still standing in the batters box with my bat held high waiting to crush the next ball that never came. Like I was in some kind of trance that I have not snapped out of yet. I always feel embarrassed at that moment where I am so focused that I don’t realize the pitching machine has run out of balls and has stooped. Yet It happens to me almost every time I go into a batting cage. I looked around to see if anybody saw me in my moment of “focus”. I remembered the girl who worked here. I thought she might have been waiting to clean up the cage. So I pulled myself together, got out of the cage, and went to get a drink from the vending machine.

I walked past the front counter and looked up on the wall. it was covered with posters of famous baseball players; Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Ichiro. As I glanced back down I saw the girl form the cage who was looking right at me. She was standing in a back doorway talking to a guy who looked like a Manager or owner. He was also looking at me. She then waved her hand at me and yelled “Sumimasen” (excuse me). I see her, and comically look the opposite way to see who she is talking to. I do that a lot in Japan. The Japanese are so incredibly adept at ignoring the people in their immediate vicinity that you can walk through a train station passed thousands of people without them ever looking up to even notice you’re a foreigner. If, by chance, they do look up, and they do realize, then they will ignore you even more. So I am always startled when someone here addresses me directly.

“Sumimasen” she yelled again as she moved from the back door to the front counter. I turned and walk to meet her. She began speaking to me in very polite department-store Japanese. I could not quite understand what she was saying and the only word that I heard clearly was, “Home run”.

“Home run?” I asked in a confusing tone.

“Hai. So desu ne.” (Yes, that’s correct) She said. Which ironically is the same Japanese I learned form watching all the baseball games on TV. The manager appeared at her side, he was animated and full of smiles.

“Hello.” He said with a heavy accent, “Here is free batting card because you hit home run.” He bowed and pointed to the 2 cards in the girls hands. She then presented me with two complimentary batting cards from the My Dome batting Center.

“Migi to hidari” The girl interjected.

“She say you homerun left and right…  Jouzu desu ne! He said mixing English and Japanese.

“Thank you.” I said.

“Are you from America? He asked me. “Yes, I am American.” I answered.

“You play baseball?  The manager asked me. “Yes.” I said. “I used to play back… ”

“You American baseball player?” The Manager excitingly asked.

“Umm… I guess so, but… ”

“American baseball player!   American baseball player!” The manager started yelling. The manager turned back and yelled instructions to another My Dome employee who was working behind the counter. It was a young kid who quickly disappeared back into the office.

“Umm… I think you may have misunder… ”

“Shashin wa daijoubu desu ka?” the manager said while buzzing with excitement. I don’t know what he said, I only know that he had asked me a question. As I was trying to figure it all out, I noticed that the young kid had returned from the office and brought a large Polaroid camera to the counter. The girl grabbed it and turned directly to me. Meanwhile the Manager had slid around next to me. The next thing I know we were smiling for a photo.

“Hai cheeeeeeeeeezu” The girl said as she raised the big blocky camera to her eye.

“Umm I think you might have… ” FLASH… went the camera right into my eyes. I tried to stretch my eyes a little to shake off the momentary blindness.

“Domo arigatou gozaimashita” The Manager said. He was still looking at me as if I was the Yankee’s Derek Jeter, while out of the front of the camera slid the familiar slice-of-cheese shaped photograph of us together. I did not know people still used these camera’s, especially in Japan where there were so many other high tech alternatives.

I soon learned why as the girl pulled the photo from the camera and took a look at it. She nodded in approval and handed it to the Manager. He quickly ran around the counter and went to pin it on a wall full of other Polaroid pictures. Under the posters of McGwire and Ichiro, were smaller photos of baseball players and celebrities. Among them were scattered Polaroids of various people taken here at My Dome, many of them were with the Manager.

I never did get a chance to explain myself, nor did I ever understand who they thought I was. I soon moved to a different part of Nagoya and started going to a different batting center. I also never did hit the ball as well as I did that day. I could not think of a better way to end my “therapy”, than with a positive ego-boosting home run that pushed the “I-want-to-go-home” thoughts way back in my mind.

So if you are ever in Nagoya Station with some time on your hands, take a walk down the train tracks to My Dome and look for my photo on the wall. It’s the one with the guy who has the I-love-Japan look on his face.   Photo – 百楽兎, Wikipedia