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Countryside games offer charming change of pace

by Wayne Graczyk

FUKUSHIMA — I am writing this column on June 17 at the Yomiuri Giants-Orix Buffaloes interleague game at Azuma Stadium in Fukushima Prefecture, north of Tokyo. It is one of seven regular-season games the Giants will have played this year at countryside ballparks, and have you ever wondered why they travel out of the way like this?

Known as “chiho jiai” in Japanese, these games have been part of pro baseball history and culture in this country since the early days, having been played in the 1930s prior to World War II before franchises with specific home cities and stadiums were organized.

At that time, most of the teams were based in the Kanto and Kansai areas in the period when a club could not take a jet flight from Tokyo to Fukuoka or Sapporo in an hour and a half, or whiz by “shinkansen” (bullet train) from Tokyo to Osaka in less than three hours.

The players would make stops along the way for games in towns such as Shizuoka and, 70 years later, even with the speedy modern transportation, the tradition of the countryside games continues.

Reasons for scheduling official play in smaller towns throughout the country, sometimes off the beaten path, are various.

There are no minor league teams based in cities such as Kanazawa, Toyama and Akita on the Sea of Japan coast, Matsuyama on Shikoku Island, Nagasaki in Kyushu or Nagano in central Japan. So, teams can go there and expect a decent-size crowd to show up. This includes spectators who do not often get to see pro baseball except on TV.

When teams play a nine-consecutive-game homestand, they may find it difficult to sell tickets every day at the regular stadium, because they are trying to attract fans from the same market.

Some teams, such as the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, represent a region. Besides the respective home towns of Sapporo and Sendai, they each play chiho shiai in other cities in their areas.

The Fighters this year will play in the Hokkaido towns of Asahikawa, Obihiro, Kushiro and Hakodate, while the Eagles will travel to Morioka and Fukushima in Tohoku.

The Saitama Seibu Lions, based in Tokorozawa, will welcome the Chiba Lotte Marines for a game at Omiya Stadium, also in Saitama Prefecture, on June 27.

There are business reasons for hosting countryside games, too.

For example, when the current BayStars were the Yokohama Taiyo Whales, the team played a regular-season game in Shimonoseki on the southern tip of Honshu, because much of the operations of the Taiyo Fisheries Co., owners of the Whales, took place in that seaport city.

In southwest Japan, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks annually play a few games in Kitakyushu in a custom that dates back to when the Nishitetsu Lions were based in Fukuoka, and the Nishitetsu Railway trains and buses connected (still do) the two large cities in northern Kyushu.

As for the Giants, playing home games around the country serves two purposes.

First, it promotes what remains of the national fan base the Kyojin enjoyed in years past. Second, it helps sell newspapers.

It is common practice in Japan for paper delivery people to offer gifts — such as shampoo, laundry detergent, soy sauce or toilet paper — to entice prospective customers into ordering their publication.

In some rural areas, Yomiuri Shimbun representatives can say to a would-be client, “The Giants are coming to town. Would you like to see them play? I have two free reserved seat tickets to the game for you. Just sign up and subscribe to the paper for six months, and the tickets are yours.”

The ballparks in the countryside towns range from spectacular new facilities, such as Sun Marine Stadium in Miyazaki, to old and dilapidated fields and bleachers that should be torn down.

Sun Marine was built in 2001, seats 30,000, has a modern electronic scoreboard, a major league-style infield with real green grass, ample press box seating and broadcast facilities, plenty of concession stands and parking.

On the other end, there are “stadiums” with no lights so games cannot start after 1:30 p.m., there is little or no parking, no clubhouses and makeshift radio and TV positions set up in the stands.

Local citizens staff the food and drink concessions and, since they are not accustomed to taking care of thousands of people, they are often too slow with the service. You might miss two innings of the game as you wait 45 minutes for a plate of curry rice, a container of yakisoba or a corn dog.

Many parks have a manually operated scoreboard and the old skin (dirt) infield which reminds me of the description of a place where Gene Martin, the right fielder for the Chunichi Dragons in the 1970s, once played.

He said the ground “had a dirt infield and a rock outfield.”

But regardless of the playing conditions at the stadiums, the country towns have their charm, local color and regional food specialties.

If a team plays in Kumamoto, Kyushu, sportswriters might ask a player not about his condition but rather if he had time to tour the castle or if he tried the horsemeat sashimi.

There is also a custom to invite players from each team who hail from the town or prefecture to participate in a crowd-pleasing pre-game ceremony, receiving bouquets of flowers from young kimono-clad local women.

Like them or not, the countryside games will likely remain as an interesting sidebar on the pages of Japanese pro baseball chronicles for many years to come.