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First regular-season NPB games in U.S. nearly set

by Wayne Graczyk

What do you make of the idea to have the Yomiuri Giants and Hanshin Tigers open the 2014 Japanese baseball season in the U.S.?

The tour is reportedly in the works and an official announcement should be coming sometime during May.

Preliminary plans call for the two Central League clubs to stage next year’s lid-lifters in Southern California, playing a home-and-away series with one game each to be played at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and Angel Stadium in Anaheim in late March.

Presumably, the two archrivals would travel to the U.S. 10 days to two weeks prior to that and play exhibition games against major league clubs in Arizona.

The event would be part of a Yomiuri celebration commemorating the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Giants as Japan’s first professional baseball team in 1934, and it would mark the second time for Japanese teams to play official games outside of Japan. The Fukuoka Daiei Hawks and Orix BlueWave played a two-game series in Taipei in May of 2002.

A few years later, during the Bobby Valentine managerial era, the Chiba Lotte Marines were planning to play a couple of Pacific League games in South Korea, but that trip was scratched prior to the start of the season.

So, how would Japanese baseball go over in a major league stadium?

To what extent would the typical atmosphere of a game in Japan be brought to California?

Would the Giants and Tigers oendan cheering sections go along for the ride?

How about the mascots — Giabbit and Sister Giabbit for Yomiuri and To-Lucky for Hanshin — would they be there, too?

Will beer girls roam the stands selling Asahi Super Dry, Kirin Ichiban Shibori, Suntory Malts and Sapporo Black Star from a tank?

Will snacks of squid and rice balls wrapped in seaweed be available?

How about fight songs and a balloon launch in the seventh inning?

Would the lineups be announced in English as well as Japanese, and will the national anthems of Japan and the United States be played and sung?

Can we expect a post-game hero interview?

If the game ends in a tie, would the fans be able to live with that?

Most likely, airlines and travel agencies would set up tours for Japanese fans in the Tokyo and Osaka areas to go and root for the Giants or Tigers. The large Japanese-American population in the L.A. area would no doubt turn out to see the two most popular teams in their home country, but otherwise how would these games prove as a crowd draw?

The capacity of Angel Stadium is listed as 45,050, about the same as Tokyo Dome’s 45,600 seats. Dodger Stadium holds 56,000 spectators, as compared to the 47,808 chairs at Koshien Stadium.

But, would a Japanese game in America fill the parks?

Yasuhiko Ogura, 25, and a Giants fan who attends about 20 games a year at Tokyo Dome, says, “If they do this, I intend to go to Los Angeles. I have never been abroad, and this would be a great chance for me to take my first overseas trip and see the Giants beat the Tigers. I am saving my money now for the air fare, hotel and game ticket fees.”

Hanshin fan Akinobu Murata, 38, said he also wants to make the trip to California next March. “I lived in Seattle for two years, and I would like to go back and visit the USA,” he said. “This would be a good opportunity for me, and I would like to say I attended the first Japanese pro baseball games played in America.”

Giants pitcher D.J. Houlton said, “Playing there would be especially fun for me, since I played for the Dodgers for a few years, and I’m also from Southern California. Pitching in front of friends and family will be special, since they don’t get to see me pitch much anymore. I am definitely looking forward to being at home in March for the first time in a long time.”

Stay tuned for the expected official announcement next month, and we’ll see if Japanese baseball in the U.S. comes anywhere near the attraction of MLB games in Japan.

Diamond Dust: A recent edition of the daily Nikkan Sports paper ran an article that seems to confirm the ball being used in NPB games is livelier, and home runs are indeed on the increase. The Nikkan noted, in the early going while teams had played their first 14 or 15 games, there were 65 percent more homers hit in 2013 than in the first two weeks of the 2012 season.

Then NHK, on its April 21 Sunday Sports News TV program, noted 158 homers had been hit in Japanese baseball in both leagues since the 2013 Opening Day to that date. That figure compares to just 86 home runs hit during the same period last year.

One foreign pitcher who asked not to be named said he did a “bounce” test and is convinced this year’s ball has more “jump” than the one used in 2011 and 2012. He dropped both balls on a concrete surface and found the one now in play rebounded much more than the one he threw a year ago.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com