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Pro baseball hopes to inspire Fukushima in return

by Wayne Graczyk

On July 29, the Yakult Swallows will be playing the Yomiuri Giants at Azuma Stadium in Fukushima City, the closest a Japan pro baseball game will be played this season to the restricted zone around the crippled Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant No. 1. Yakult will be the home team for the encounter that had been scheduled long before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and subsequent radiation threat.

It will mark the second trip in a little more than a month to the prefecture for the two clubs who traveled to Koriyama for a couple of games June 28-29. The Giants were the hosts for those and, having gone along for the ride, I can tell you there did not seem to be any problems concerning the fallout.

That series was originally set to be played in three cities; Koriyama on the 28th, Utsunomiya in Tochigi Prefecture on the 29th and Tokyo Dome on June 30, but Kiyohara Stadium in Utsunomiya was damaged and unusable. So the series became two games at Kaiseizan Stadium in Koriyama and one at Tokyo Dome.

The atmosphere did not seem out of the ordinary in town or at the games. I had expected a good percentage of the 14,000 or so fans who showed up at the ballpark each night to be wearing surgical masks, but very few had them on. I also saw only one guy wearing a dosimeter.

Prior to the first game, a ceremony took place with the “Gambaro Nippon” theme which included video messages from celebrities and former Giants player and Fukushima-ken native Kiyoshi Nakahata — and one of encouragement from U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos. The slogan itself was displayed on the wall behind home plate at the recently renovated stadium.

Kaiseizan is one of the older ball parks in Japan, but a 2009 refurbishing has made it one of the more attractive. That wall at the backstop has a brick facing that might remind you of the Chicago Cubs’ Wrigley Field. The stands behind home that extend past first and third bases also look nice.

The scoreboard with interchangeable video screen that can replace the linescore and lineups with the touch of button or click of a mouse, is one of the better ones at Japan’s countryside ball yards, and the playing area was well lit. There appeared to be plenty of food and drink choices, and the lines at concession stands were not long. The only problem food-wise seemed to be thick smoke emitting from beyond the right-center field bleachers, as if the barbecue had caught fire.

A couple of youngsters, boys aged about 8 or 9, were seated in front of me, but they weren’t doing much sitting. During the game, they left their seats 14 times (I counted), returning each trip with something different on which to munch or sip. Corn dogs, fried chicken, noodles, soft drinks, potato chips, crepes, shaved ice … as I said, everything seemed normal.

Not everything is perfect there, however. The skin infield at Kaiseizan Stadium is of a dark color with thick dirt that made for difficult footing and fielding. Seth Greisinger, the Giants starting pitcher for the first game, said it is one of the worst surfaces on which he had ever played.

Each time the ball hit the ground, it had to be thrown out of play and, on grounders hit to second, short or third base, you could see a clump of dirt stuck to the ball as the fielders threw out batter-runners at first.

They must have set a record for the most groundskeepers at a professional ball game too, as 32 guys (I counted) came out at frequent intervals with those flat wooden stick rakes in an attempt to smooth out the choppy infield.

One really nice thing about the stadium in Koriyama is the genkan (entranceway) where there is a mini-museum with nostalgic photos and posters of games played there throughout the years prior to the renovation. There are scenes from previous Japanese games and post-season Major League tours.

In 1970, the Taiyo Whales and Yakult Atoms played Central League games at Kaiseizan, and there was a photo of Dave Roberts, one of the top American players in Japan at the time, hitting for Yakult. In 1980, the Giants, led by manager Shigeo Nagashima, played in Koriyama, and that game’s poster featured Sadaharu Oh during his final season as an active player. Also pictured was John Sipin, a foreigner fave who played nine years with Taiyo and Yomiuri.

The Giants used to play a Tohoku series every other year, visiting Morioka, Sendai, Fukushima and Koriyama, but this was their first appearance in Koriyama since 1988.

Also on display in the foyer are posters recalling trips by the 1971 Baltimore Orioles and 1974 New York Mets. Thirty-five or 40 years ago, leading Major League teams made post-season tours of 18 to 21 games, visiting cities throughout Japan from Sapporo to Matsuyama to Kumamoto and several places in between, including Koriyama.

Photos on the Kaiseizan walls show Brooks Robinson and Big Boog Powell swinging for the O’s and then-Mets manager Yogi Berra receiving a welcome bouquet of flowers from a kimono-clad Japanese woman.

Setting aside the bad infield, Swallows first baseman Josh Whitesell remarked the stadium in Koriyama is, “One of the nicest countryside parks where we’ve played,” and he has seen his share. He also homered in the June 29 game.

Yakult teammate Wladimir Balentien said about playing in Fukushima, “I guess it is safe, or we would not be here, and I hope by playing here, we can help lift the spirits of the people in this area by showing them some good baseball.”

The Swallows and Giants get another chance to do that later this month in Fukushima City, closer to the no-entry zone.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com