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One time zone, shinkansen help NPB clubs on travel

by Wayne Graczyk

Have you wondered how teams in Japanese baseball move from one city to another and how it differs from the hectic, rat race travel schedule endured by their cousins in the major leagues?

Thanks to the shinkansen, high-speed rail is the way most traveling is done by ball clubs in Japan, with some commercial air flights and an occasional ferry ride taking the players and supporting staff members to the next town.

American and National League teams have their own air charter, and that is convenient, but they must put up with the periodic five-hour, coast-to-coast flights and battle jet lag because of the multiple time zones in the U.S. and Canada.

It has to be especially brutal for an East Coast team to have played an 18-inning night game in California, for example, then fly home in the middle of the night and lose three hours because of the time difference, before playing that night.

In comparison, Central and Pacific League teams have it easy. There is a 12-inning limit on games, one time zone in Japan, and the longest regular flight is the 2 1/2-hour hop between Sapporo and Fukuoka. Most of the franchise cities are located along the Tokaido and Tohoku bullet train lines, and the only team that does a significant amount of flying is the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

In fact, the Hanshin Tigers, with a base centrally located in the Kansai area, are scheduled to fly only three times during the 2010 regular season. The Tigers will wing it from Osaka to Sapporo for interleague play against the Fighters May 29-30, then from Sapporo to Sendai for a series against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

The third air trip, following June 18-20 play in Yokohama, is from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to Yonago, Tottori Prefecture, on the Japan Seacoast for countryside games against the Hiroshima Carp on June 22-23.

Japan’s lightest traveling teams would be the three Central League clubs in the Kanto area. The players on the Yomiuri Giants, Tokyo Yakult Swallows and Yokohama BayStars can drive their own cars to each other’s stadiums and sleep in their own beds at night after those “away” games.

Most players on the Giants even live closer to Yakult’s home Jingu Stadium than their own Tokyo Dome, and foreign players on the Kyojin have been known to ride bicycles or even walk to “road” games against the Swallows.

There are occasional bus rides or local train runs for all teams on short hauls, and the Hiroshima Carp, when they have a game scheduled at Botchan Stadium in Matsuyama, ride a ferry across the Inland Sea between Honshu and Shikoku.

Since the Japanese teams travel so much by Japan Railways and commercial flights, you may wonder how far in advance the train and plane tickets and hotel reservations must be booked, especially during a heavy traffic period such as the just-concluded Golden Week.

The process begins each November for the following season. A preliminary game schedule, without starting times, is released by the NPB office, and the traveling secretaries for the teams make a rough draft listing of when and where the team will be going.

In January, a final schedule with the game times comes out and, after they know which games are day and night, the staff members book the bullet trains, flights and accommodations as far in advance as they can, but with a minimum of two months of lead time.

When the players take to the air, half the team goes on one flight and half on another. This is a precaution in case of a disaster; if there were to be an accident and, heaven forbid, a plane crashes, there would still be players to carry on with the season.

That reminds me of an article I read in Baseball Digest back in the 1960s after the beginning of the jet age and the expansion of the major league map to California. It was titled, “What Happens if a Team’s Plane Goes Down?”

As I recall, the story said the first action to be taken in case an entire big league club was lost or injured and could not play, would be to call up its Triple-A minor league affiliate team roster to finish the season.

Back in Japan, foreign players usually travel with their Japanese teammates. However, some of them dislike flying and, when the team takes to the air, the gaikokujin often get permission to ride the Shinkansen on their own if that option is available.

One such reluctant flyer was Domingo Martinez. Playing for the Giants in 2000, “Maru-chan,” as he was known to Yomiuri fans, got up at 5 a.m. one Friday morning after a Thursday night game in Fukuoka, took a taxi from the team hotel to JR Hakata Station and boarded the first bullet train of the day at 6 o’clock for the six-hour trip home.

He had to be on the field at Tokyo Dome at 2 p.m. for practice before a night game and preferred the early wakeup time to sleeping later and taking a 10:30 a.m. flight, lasting about 90 minutes, with his mates.

Current Giants closer Marc Kroon no doubt spoke for many when he said he likes traveling on the JR’s Nozomi to and from Nagoya, Osaka and Hiroshima, and watching Japan go by out the window.

“I plug in my music and do some reading,” said Kroon, emphasizing the comfort and convenience of the bullet trains.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com