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Golden Week offers a bonanza for Japanese baseball teams, fans

by Wayne Graczyk

Japanese baseball would not have any attendance problems if every week was Golden Week.

Fans pour into the stadiums throughout the country during this annual series of holidays beginning April 29 and ending May 6, and some teams can draw more spectators to a three-game series during Golden Week than they get during the rest of a month.

The Central and Pacific Leagues are careful to prepare their schedules to ensure each of the 12 teams gets at least one Golden Week home series, or at least a home date, to take advantage of the fans’ interest to watch pro ball during the eight days of balmy, breezy and (usually) beautiful weather.

I can recall driving to Seibu Lions Stadium on Constitution Day, May 3, 1988, for the Lions game against the Hankyu Braves.

The ballpark was packed with an SRO crowd and, following the game, it took me 45 minutes just to get out of the parking lot and three hours to creep and stop along the single road leading from the stadium to the main Shin-Ome Kaido highway.

It was then I realized why there are so few automobiles on the road in Tokyo during Golden Week. Every car in the country seemed to be on that street with me in Tokorozawa.

This year, 175,360 fans attended the first six games of Golden Week on April 29, Showa Day, with reported crowds as follows:

Yomiuri Giants vs. Hiroshima Carp at Tokyo Dome — 40,663.

Chunichi Dragons vs. Yokohama BayStars at Gifu — 15,982.

Hanshin Tigers vs. Yakult Swallows at Koshien Stadium — 43,504.

Seibu Lions vs. SoftBank Hawks at Seibu Dome — 26,619.

Lotte Marines vs. Nippon Ham Fighters at Chiba Marine Stadium — 30,021.

Orix Buffaloes vs. Rakuten Eagles at Kyocera Osaka Dome — 18,571.

It should be noted the ballpark in Gifu, Nagaragawa Stadium, is a small countryside facility, and that Dragons-BayStars game would have drawn more than 40,000 at Nagoya Dome.

Capacity crowds were expected for the May 3-6 four-day weekend.

Toyoharu Kunimitsu of the Dragons public relations staff said, “I think a lot of people who decide not to fight the domestic and overseas travel wars find relaxation at the ball yard. We expect full-house attendance all four days.”

He is referring to the Dragons’ Golden Week schedule at Nagoya Dome, which has Chunichi playing the Hanshin Tigers May 3, 4 (Citizen’s Day) and 5 (Children’s Day) in a shui-kobo series (games between the first- and second-place teams in the league standings), and the Hiroshima Carp on May 6th.

One of Marty Kuehnert’s jobs as assistant to the president of the Rakuten Eagles is to help promote the team and put bodies in the seats at Kleenex Stadium Miyagi. His club has a pair of holiday games against Softbank; a night game on May 5 and an afternoon meeting the following day, and it should be an easy sell.

Marty says, “We have the smallest capacity in Japanese baseball (22,187) and the hottest team in the country at home right now (13 wins and only one loss), so we expect to have standing room only on the 5th and 6th. It should be really exciting both days for everyone who is lucky to get in.”

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GW, as the Japanese often refer to the period by its abbreviation, is also a good time to evaluate how well players are performing with about one-fifth of the season completed.

Former Hankyu Braves American slugger Boomer Wells, for example, used to say he was doing great here if he hit double figures for the season in home runs by the end of Golden Week.

“That was my goal, to hit 10 by May 5 every year,” said Wells, who led the Pa League with 37 homers in 1984 and also hit 42 in 1986 and 40 in both 1987 and ’89.

This year, Saitama Seibu Lions first baseman-designated hitter Craig Brazell hit his 10th dinger on April 20, nine days before GW even began.

Orix Buffaloes slugger Tuffy Rhodes slammed his No. 10 for the year on April 27. Brazell socked No. 11 on Showa Day.

It should be noted however, when Wells played, opening day was around April 9, and this season the Pacific League began play on March 20. Still, 10 homers at this time of the year is a great start, and we’ll see if Brazell and Rhodes go on to have golden seasons.

Here’s an oddity: While Brazell had hit 11 homers, the entire Hanshin team had only nine as of April 29, yet the Tigers were in first place in the CL.

Starting pitchers, too, gauge their progress and usually look to rack up five victories before Golden Week fades into history.

A quintet of hurlers had piled up four wins each as GW began: Pacific Leaguers Yu Darvish of the Nippon Ham Fighters and Hisashi Iwakuma of the Rakuten Eagles and, in the Central circuit, Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi of the Hanshin Tigers, Masanori Ishikawa of the Yakult Swallows and — a surprise — Kazuki Yoshimi of the Chunichi Dragons.

Ishikawa notched his fifth victory on April 29 and Darvish became a five-game winner on April 30, my 36th wedding anniversary, believe it or not.

For sure, Golden Week is a golden time for pro baseball in Japan. Be sure to get to a game if you have not already made it to the park this week. That is, if you can get a ticket.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at wayne@JapanBall.com