/

Fans fuel Fighters’ bid for another Japan Series

by Kaz Nagatsuka

SAPPORO — Forty-two thousand, two hundred and twenty two. That’s the listed maximum capacity of Sapporo Dome. Apparently somebody forgot to tell the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters fans.

News photoFighters manager Trey Hillman talks to The Japan Times in an interview in March 2005. Hillman has paid tribute to Fighters fans for their role in the team’s performances this year.
YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

With the dome’s 42,222 seats occupied, fans took to standing in the aisles during the Fighters’ regular-season home finale on Sept. 26 against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles when spectators packed out the house.

The fans have given the Fighters a huge boost as the defending Japan Series champions attempt to win a second consecutive title.

Hokkaido Nippon Ham appears to have won using smoke and mirrors this season. Their offensive stats are enough to make most baseball fans stop and do a double-take.

Not because they are so good, though, but because they are so bad.

As of Tuesday the Fighters were batting .259 as a team with 73 home runs and 525 runs scored, all worst in the Pacific League. Their 484 RBIs is the lowest total in Japanese baseball. Hardly numbers one would expect from a team that just won back-to-back PL pennants.

Cleanup hitter Fernando Seguignol is the only player to go yard more than 20 times (21) and only two others (Astunori Inaba (17) and Shinji Takahashi (10) are even in double digits.

To understand why the northern club has been so successful a year after winning its first Japan Series title in 44 years requires a trip to Sapporo Dome to witness the fans in action.

The loyal supporters who fill the stadium supply an infectious amount of energy and support that the ballclub feeds on.

Even manager Trey Hillman, a normally calm, softly-spoken guy who always looks down at the floor after games, was moved by the fan’s support after they watched his Fighters rally against Eagles phenom Masahiro Tanaka behind Tomochika Tsuboi’s game-winning hit for a 2-1 sayonara victory.

“You have to talk about the fans,” the American manager said shaking his head with a smile as he referred to the supporters who packed Sapporo Dome for three straight nights.

“Three days in a row, sellout crowds . . . These guys give us a tremendous amount of energy. I have to say this, these guys (the team) don’t take it for granted. I mean, we just have tremendous amount of appreciation for their energy.”

Among the fans, the feeling is mutual.

As much as the Fighters feel they receive a boost from the fans, the fans are thankful for the joy the Fighters bring to their everyday lives on the northern island.

“It’s totally changed,” said university teacher Hidetoshi Matsuyama, 57, when asked after a Fighters game if his life turned around after the team moved from Tokyo to Sapporo in 2004.

“Even before they came over here, I would go to ballgames when teams made trips up here to play some games. But at that time, I was just watching the games objectively. Now I am really into the (Fighters).”

Matsuyama, who left his job early that day because of the game, arrived at the dome more than two hours before the first pitch, wearing a Yu Darvish uniform and a Fighters cap adorned with numerous pins. The attire of a genuine Fighters fan.

Matsuyama said his wife is even more enthusiastic than he is.

“We have a daughter who went to a Tokyo university and my wife often would go down to Kanto to see her, and to see Fighters games,” he said. “Now our daughter has graduated and started working in Kansai. So my wife is planning to go there to see Fighters games now against Orix (at Osaka’s Kyocera Dome).”

Elsewhere at the dome were close friends Chieko Hagiwara and Aki Fujimoto, both 29.

Nurse Hagiwara and company employee Fujimoto try to visit Sapporo Dome together as much as possible.

“We’ve come here about five times a month or so, so we’ve watched about 30 games this year,” said Hagiwara, who was wearing the uniform of shortstop Makoto Kaneko.

Fujimoto said she was a Giants fan before the Fighters came to Hokkaido.

But like Matsuyama, her life became a lot more colorful and lively after the “Hammies” landed in Hokkaido.

“When I’m given the work shift chart, the first thing I do is to check how many Fighters games I can go to,” Fujimoto said. “Also, when I’m at home, I can never miss sports shows to check on the team on TV everyday.”

After the dramatic end to the home season, Hillman made an emotional speech in the middle of the field, thanking all the players, coaches, staff and the organization. And, of course, the precious fans.

“Hokkaido no minasan wa sekaide ichiban desu. Machigai nai,” said Hillman. (Our Hokkaido fans are the best in the world. No doubt.)

The lowest-scoring offense? So what? With the fans right behind them, the Fighters are the leading candidate to advance to the Japan Series.