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Triumph in Tohoku: Staff of Eagles works miracle

by Jack Gallagher

SENDAI — I saw something beautiful Friday night.

Jack Gallagher

Something exciting and new, and — in the stodgy world of Japanese baseball — long overdue.

The home debut of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles was truly a sight to behold.

From start to finish it was a testament to what can be accomplished when talented, organized people are given the opportunity to put their creative skills to use without interference.

In just five short months, the Eagles have gone from a concept to an actual, live entity and the results are very encouraging.

Back on Nov. 1, Rakuten was awarded a Pacific League franchise by the lords of Japanese baseball, marking the admission of the first expansion team in 50 years.

From that moment until Friday night, the team staff was in a horse race to put an organization together that was respectable both in the front office and on the field.

If the home opener was any indication, the Eagles are well on their way on both accounts.

From Koichi Isobe’s leadoff home run in the bottom of the first inning until the post-game hero interview, fans were treated to a first-class show and a 16-4 victory over the defending Japan Series champion Seibu Lions.

I don’t think it could have been scripted any better.

Having been a part of startup endeavors twice during my career as an executive in pro sports, I can attest to the incredible obstacles facing any group trying to construct a franchise from scratch.

In North America, many organizations have up to five years after being awarded a pro sports team to prepare it for battle. That is the ideal scenario.

Trying to accomplish such a feat in five months requires something on the cusp of a superhuman effort, but the Eagles’ crew pulled it off.

“Our staff was very small in the beginning and kept growing in numbers,” said Eagles general manager Marty Kuenhert, the game’s first foreign GM ever. “They worked almost around the clock. I would put in 12 hours days and feel guilty when I left. Everybody was in the office — seven days a week. It was yeoman’s work.”

I was very impressed by how smoothly the event ran especially considering that the game day personnel at Fullcast Stadium didn’t even have a preseason contest to use as a dry run.

From the ticket-takers to the parking attendants to the workers in the concession stands, I felt an immense sense of pride running through the place.

Once the game started, the real show began.

A sea of red greeted the teams, as someone came up with the ingenious idea to give every fan attending a red poncho as they came through the turnstiles. Just about everybody wore them, too.

I can’t recall an event — anywhere in the world — where the crowd was so overwhelmingly supporting the home team.

There was a small group of Seibu faithful — maybe 20 hearty souls — pushed up against the back fence behind the right-centerfield wall. You could barely make them out against the “Red Army” of the Eagles.

The crowd was announced at 17,236, but it might as well have been 70,000.

The field — made of an artificial surface called FieldTurf — was immaculate. I swear, it looked like real grass and really added to the ambience of the affair. Hopefully it won’t be as tough on the players as traditional AstroTurf.

It was a refreshing break from the antiseptic domed stadiums that have become so prevalent in Japanese pro baseball over the past several years.

Perhaps one of the best features of the entire evening was the harnessing of the home team’s oendan by the stadium workers, who strictly regulated the number of drums and horns allowed into the outfield stands on orders from the Eagles’ management.

Yes, you could hear the crack of the bat — just the way it is supposed to be.

The only sound I detected that was out of the ordinary was that of the six helicopters I counted hovering overhead shortly before the first pitch.

I thought I was at the Super Bowl for a second there.

Isobe’s blast was the start of a big night in every sense of the word. I mean, think about it, a new franchise’s first batter in its first home game clubs a home run.

Amazing.

If that wasn’t ridiculous enough, three batters later Luis Lopez cracks a three-run shot and the team goes on to bat around in its first frame ever at home, putting six runs on the board in the process.

For good measure, the Eagles batted around again in the sixth, scoring six more runs.

Not all of the excitement came at bat, though, as ace Hisashi Iwakuma went seven solid frames for Rakuten, racking up eight strikeouts along the way.

The crowd loved every minute of it. Roaring each time the Eagles scored or Iwakuma fanned a Seibu batter.

The fans greeted the Rakuten outfielders with raucous receptions when they returned to their positions after excelling at bat.

Eagles manager Yasushi Tao and his charges will definitely take their lumps during their inaugural season — witness their 26-0 shellacking by the Chiba Lotte Marines on March 27 — but the support of the team’s front office and the spirit of the folks in Sendai will go a long way in smoothing the path for this group of pioneers.

Kuenhert says the Eagles mean a lot to the people in the area and will benefit from their presence.

“Everyone here is proud that they have a team now. People usually leave the countryside and gravitate to big cities like Tokyo. Now people are leaving the cities to come to Sendai.

“The economic impact of the team in this region is expected to be $300 million in the first year.”

On Opening Night, the Eagles delivered 15 hits, 16 runs and a thousand memories for the people in the Tohoku region.

It looked like the start of something big.