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Challenging ‘road of death’ easier on current Tigers than past squads

by Jason Coskrey

The Hanshin Tigers on Aug. 1 played the first of what will become a long string of games away from their home stadium, which is currently being used for the National High School Baseball Championship.

Hanshin takes this road trip every season, and has historically done extremely poorly during it.

Their troubles away from home were so pronounced in the ’70s (perhaps to the benefit of a few of the V9 Giants teams) that the extended road trip became known as the shi no rodo, or road of death.

These days, the Tigers don’t seem particularly worried about the so-called road of death.

“That’s an old story,” pitcher Atsushi Nomi said of the long road trip.

In a way he’s right. The shi no rodo is more like an old wives’ tale and about as menacing as a story about the boogeyman to today’s Tigers.

Hanshin teams of the past could tell them different.

Past teams would often leave Koshien Stadium in favorable position — sometimes first place — in the standings. They’d return battered, tired, beaten and out of the pennant race on most occasions.

This year, Hanshin will have played 21 games before returning home on Aug. 26.

“It’s the time of the year that physically, you’re starting to get a little tired,” said Tom O’Malley, a former Gold Glove third baseman who hit over .300 in each of his four seasons (1991-94) with the team. “Mentally as well. It’s a drain knowing that every game, you’re playing away from home. You really have to be strong to get through it.”

The road trip isn’t as arduous as it once was. Nearby stadiums give the Tigers the chance to play in front of their home fans and sleep in their own beds.

“It feels the same (as the rest of the year),” outfielder Matt Murton said of the road trip, appreciating the fact the team has two series at Kyocera Dome in Osaka.

Other Tigers squads didn’t have that luxury.

In their day, the shi no rodo was a grueling, nearly monthlong jaunt that saw the Tigers more or less barnstorm their way across the country living out of suitcases, sleeping in hotels and playing in front of hostile crowds.

They played a few games at Okayama Stadium in the ’70s and at Heiwadai Stadium, in Fukuoka, for a time in the ’80s between the departure of the then-Crown Lighter Lions in 1979 and the arrival of the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks in 1988.

“There haven’t been too many years where the Tigers have done well in that three-week stretch,” O’Malley said. “I don’t know what the records show, but I don’t think they’ve ever been over .500 or close to it.

“It takes a toll. You really gotta be prepared and stay strong physically. It’s a drain mentally and physically, there’s no doubt.”

In Hanshin’s Japan Series-winning 1985 season, for instance, the team played consecutive series at Jingu Stadium, Heiwadai Stadium, Korakuen Stadium (the forerunner to Tokyo Dome), Hiroshima Stadium, Yokohama Stadium and had one game in Okayama, with one day off between each series.

“I can’t imagine,” Murton said of the journey previous Hanshin teams made each year.

The shi no rodo became a little easier after the construction of what is now Hotto Motto Field in 1985, which allowed the team to play a few home games in nearby Kobe. In 1997, Kyocera Dome was built, presenting another nearby venue.

“We played at Green Kobe Kyujo and Nishinomiya (Stadium),” O’Malley said. “Now we’re playing six games at Osaka Dome, so it’s a little nicer being indoors.”

There was once a comparable situation in the U.S, where the Omaha (Nebraska) Royals regularly had to vacate Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium to make way for the College World Series. The Royals — renamed the Storm Chasers this year — and the CWS have since relocated to different venues.

“It’s a long stretch,” Tigers first baseman Craig Brazell said. “It’s not easy. Kind of in and out of hotels left and right. It’s not an easy stretch.

“The only other trip I took close to this, was when I was in Omaha playing for the Royals. We had the College World Series trip, which was like 21 days. But it’s not easy. You just have to get through it, battle through it.”