Bat-hit crazy – watching baseball in Fukuoka

The game’s finished. Hawks won. One of the Fukuoka fielders picked up a weak hit, threw it to third base, caught out Chiba’s last man and that was that. Game over, points in the bag.

That was half an hour ago, and yet we’re all still in the stadium. In the intervening period we’ve had balloons, fireworks, interviews with the star players and a rousing rendition of the team song. Now a guy in a falcon costume is screaming round the pitch on a quad bike at alarming speed, one arm holding the club flag aloft whilst the other makes a vague attempt to steer the vehicle.

It will be another five minutes of videos and crazy Japanglish announcements from the blonde-haired announcer (who speaks fluent Japanese) before we are able to leave. And that will conclude a quite remarkable experience – Japanese professional baseball.

Three hours earlier, there’s not a cloud in the Kyushu sky and the sun is high above. Only a slight breeze coming in off the Sea of Japan makes the temperature anything like bearable. Taxi after taxi pulls up on the left of the bush-lined avenue, all the occupants – including the driver – sporting green button-up jerseys. A trail of green stretches right the way down the road, up the steps and to the base of the giant copper dome. The stream of green is made up of people of all shapes and sizes, every single one of them sporting a piece of Fukuoka Hawks merchandise. Regardless of age or gender, a cap, towel or jersey is obligatory – even better if it bears the name of one of the team’s heroes like Honda, Kokubo or Matsuda.

The path to the Yahoo! Dome

A massive stairway of thirty or so steps leads up to the base of the dome. Escalators are at either side of the stairway for those that can’t manage the climb, understandable given the heat and humidity. If you stand a good distance from the steps and squint your eyes a bit, the image of a massive white dog sporting a Hawks hat and jersey appears. This is Otosan (Dad), the main promotional character of mobile phone company SoftBank – more about them in a minute. At the top of the stairway, we are met with a massive yet constantly moving queue of people, all of them heading towards a long white tent outside the arena. What on earth could they be waiting for?

To properly understand the queue outside the dome, and the big picture of the dog, this is a good time to explain Japanese baseball. Much like the big American sports, Nippon Pro Baseball has a set league, divided into two geographical regions of six teams each. Also like the States, players are recruited fresh out of university on a draft system, where the team that did worst the previous year gets first pick of the new blood in order to keep things fair and balanced. The most talented Japanese youngsters tend to get cherry-picked by the American teams after a season or two, and guys that don’t quite make the grade stateside often come to Japan in a bid to kickstart their careers and/or make some Yen.

Each NPB team is a franchise owned by a big company, usually a producer of household brands. The owners lend their names to the teams, following the traditional logic of sports sponsorship and revenue generation. This is why you have outfits with names like the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, Tohoku Rakuten Eagles and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, promoting newspapers, online shopping and processed meat respectively. Fukuoka’s team is no exception, owned and sponsored by Japanese telecoms giant SoftBank (for reference, today’s opponents are the Chiba Lotte Marines, Lotte being a brand of confectionary).

This game takes place at the climax of a massive mid-summer festival in Fukuoka by the name of Hakata Gion Matsuri, and SoftBank are pushing the boat right the way out in celebration. As well as plastering a giant picture of a dog’s face right across the stairway, they’re also giving out free jerseys to everyone that comes to see a match during festival fortnight. That’s right, free jerseys, you know, the kind that usually retail for thirty-odd quid. There are five home games during the festival period, and the dome seats 30,000 people. Plus all the city’s licensed taxi drivers are issued with a jersey that they are encouraged to wear over their shirt and tie as they go about their duties. You do the maths.

Sea of green

Actually, to say they’re giving out free jerseys is not quite correct. The Hawks usually play in yellow, white and black, but every year the colour of the uniform changes for Hakata Gion Matsuri and Hakata Gion Matsuri only. It’s a different colour each year, and for some reason green has been chosen for this year’s festival (a taxi driver told me the next day that he is dreading the year they opt for hot pink). So what everyone is receiving when they pass through the white tent is a special edition jersey that the Hawks will wear this season and this season only. Still, it’s a remarkable gesture by the sponsors, and a good indication of what a massive business Japanese baseball is.

Beer, bento and beaters

Everyone greens up and heads into the dome. The game is already underway, but spectators are moving about everywhere in the corridors and tunnels under the stands. The first thing that strikes me is sound of fans’ drums and horns blasting out jaunty, motivational rhythms, carrying out of the arena and into the surrounding passageways. The second thing I notice is that there are food outlets everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. Curry, noodles, ramen, bento, o-nigiri, any kind of everyday Japanese food you might want you can have. A plethora of TV screens ensure that hungry fans can keep up with the action when they leave their seats to fill their stomachs.

We ignore the food for a minute and head for our seats. I’ve never been in a dome before to watch sports, and it’s a surreal phenomenon. A massive luminous green pitch sits right in the centre of a sea of darker green-clad supporters. It’s the middle of the day at the height of summer, but due to the presence of, oh I don’t know, perhaps a giant steel roof, all the light has to be artificially provided by a contingent of floodlights. Giant LED screens wrapped round the walls of the dome provide score information, action replays, team data and – of course – advertisements.

Our seats are down near the pitch, so close that we are right in the shade of a tall net designed to shield the fans from the most dangerous wayward balls. Even braver (and wealthier) aficionados can sit the other side of the net in a flat, unprotected area where, in return for wearing a protective hard hat to stop them from being knocked unconscious, they can watch the action only metres from the players.

For someone reared on a diet of lower-division Scottish football, watching baseball takes a bit of adjusting to. In stark contrast to Scotland’s spartan, utilitarian soccer venues, I am amazed to realise that concentrating on watching the sport on the pitch is just one of a number of things one can do at the stadium on game afternoon, battling for attention with eating, drinking and purchasing merchandise. Indeed, getting something to eat takes top priority for our party, so much so that a ten-minute discussion over what to buy ensues as we decide which of the six fast food outlets to plump for. During this time, the fact that the Hawks score a run barely registers.

The game!

A lot of this can be explained by the nature of baseball itself. Unlike football, which pretty much proceeds at the same pace throughout, there are long periods in a baseball match where nothing much happens. Ball. No ball. No ball. Ball. Hit! Nope, it’s a foul ball. Ball. Out. Repeat.

These stillnesses – which in fairness can be broken at any moment by a big hit and a lung-bursting run – lead me to have a good look at the crowd round me. Conspicuous in their presence are the young (and not so young) boys wearing catching gloves, whose purpose becomes apparent as soon as I’ve noticed them. Hawks captain Kokubo swings furiously at an incoming ball, which pings off the end of his bat and rockets skywards. The entire section’s heads turn in unison as the ball arcs up towards the roof of the dome, shoots way over the top of the protective net and begins to accelerate downwards in the direction of the spectators below.

As it becomes clear where the ball’s going to land, everyone in the vicinity leaps to their feet and starts jumping up and down, fathers holding glove-sporting wee boys up in the air. The ball lands with such speed and force that it immediately ricochets back into flight off an empty seat, prompting another posse of fans to spring out of their seats in anticipation of the second, slower landing. The ball is still traveling too fast for the unfortunate receiving fan, who sees the ball spin out of his hands and continue on its travels. The gutted thirtysomething lifts his face out of his hands just in time to see an older gentleman twenty-five metres away finally arrest the ball for good and retire it to the safety of his bum bag. Unlike football, one does not have to throw wayward balls back onto the pitch. You catch it, you keep it – hence the gloves.

When your attention is not being diverted by mis-hit balls, any number of blue-shirted vendors will be vying for your custom. These range from the ice-cream server, with a huge tray of ice creams on her front, to the beer seller, who pours beer into big paper cups from a colossal tank strapped to his back, right through to the balloon distributor, who trades in the victory balloons released during the seventh innings and upon conclusion of the match. The beer sellers in particular look exhausted, unsurprising seeing as they run up and down the stairs for the entire match in the sweltering heat supporting forty litres of chilled beer on their spines.

Action replay on the big screens

In between the gobbling of fried chicken, swilling of Asahi and inflating of balloons, I do occasionally get time to follow some of the sport. Baseball fans are a passionate bunch, making plenty of noise to cheer their team on. The away support in particular are doing a great job despite only occupying a tiny part of the arena. Dressed wholly in black and bouncing up and down to the beat of their drums and horns, the Chiba fans are like a brigade of jolly pirates. Chiba itself is east of Tokyo, and their loyals seem desperate to get their money’s worth out of the long trip down from the greater Tokyo area. Indeed, there were a fair few of them in the same Fukuoka hotel as us, making a weekend of it.

Whilst there is a designated ‘away’ area, I am pleasantly surprised to see that black-shirted Marines are also sprinkled throughout the ‘home’ end without an ounce of trouble. Baseball fans may be enthusiastic, but not in the confrontational, offensive way that British football supporters so often are. The chanting is loud and impassioned, but free of references to equine anatomy, opposing players’ maternal lineage or assumed body mass index. When it’s at a vital stage in the Hawks’ innings – guys at second and third bases and a big hitter stepping up to the plate – the music reaches fever pitch. People hit plastic beaters together to add to the noise, chanting the batsman’s name – HA-SE-GA-WA! HA-SE-GA-WA!

Suddenly a big crack causes the music to stop. A hit. Not quite good enough for a home run, but a big enough wallop that the guys at second and third are able to start sprinting. The clapping, whooping and cheering builds and builds, anxious eyes darting between the position of the runners and the progress of the ball as the fielders try to get it back to their basemen as quickly as possible. A roar erupts as a green-shirted runner slides home in a cloud of dust, and the scoreboard ticks over to 2-0. Cue rock music on the PA system and numerous action replays on the big screens.

Seventh-inning balloons primed

The Marines manage to limit the damage, stopping any more of the Hawks’ players from scoring a run in the innings. Fukuoka return the favour by shutting out the Chiba team for the rest of the game, their young bowler staving off a bases-loaded scare by expertly striking out the remaining Marines (previous top pitcher Wada transferred to the Major League in America after throwing the Hawks to All-Japan success in 2011). Eventually it gets to the ninth and final innings, a Marines run is halted by some solid fielding and the celebrations I wrote about above begin.

Apparently the roof of the Yahoo! Dome is opened every time the Hawks win, although today it remains closed in light of strong winds and recent heavy rainfall. It costs £2,000 a time to open the roof of the dome. If such an act was done by a Premiership football team at such a cost, purely in the name of celebration and promotion, I would be outraged. But baseball is such a fun experience, such a family-oriented afternoon of sport, that I really don’t mind.

On exactly the same day I go to watch the Hawks, serious discussions are taking place six thousand miles away about how to get people to come to Scottish football matches. The sport in Scotland is racked with religious sectarianism, financial scandal and allegations of bending the rules to pander to certain teams, and it’s driving spectators away in their droves. Before trying to renegotiate any more TV deals or propose any further re-structuring, the great and the good of Scottish fitba could do much worse than buying a set of plane tickets, going to a Japanese baseball game, and seeing how to really give the fans value for money.

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