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PL champion Hawks are vital part of vibrant Fukuoka

by Wayne Graczyk

While I was flying from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to Fukuoka for the Pacific League Climax Series final stage last week, a thought occurred to me. What if the Wright Brothers could come back and take a similar flight today? What would they think of the advances made in aviation since they made that first brief bicycle-powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, 108 years ago next month?

Wilbur and Orville would surely be surprised — and pleased, no doubt — to see a couple hundred passengers flying between two cities 900 km apart in less than two hours in a jumbo jet equipped with compartments for baggage, restrooms, stereo music and videos with drinks being served. I don’t think they would have believed it.

Those who recall what professional baseball was like in the city of Fukuoka, say, 40 years ago, may also be amazed while watching a game these days in that northern Kyushu town. The changes have been dramatic as the city developed, and the home team has become one of the best sports franchises in the world.

In 1971, it was the Nishitetsu Lions who played in Fukuoka’s Heiwadai Stadium, with its skin infield and bench seats. The crowds were sparse and the team a habitual last-place finisher in the Pacific League following a game-fixing scandal and the banishment for life of some star players from pro baseball.

The city itself was somewhat isolated. It took four hours by the fastest express train just to get to Hiroshima and, if you were to go there by rail from Tokyo, you took the overnight sleeper. For foreign ballplayers, Fukuoka probably ranked last among cities in Japan where they wanted to live and work.

Today, it is a vastly different story. The team is the Pa League champion Softbank Hawks, the stadium is the Fukuoka Yahoo Dome, the stands are often filled to capacity with enthusiastic fans cheering for a club chock full of star players.

Hawks American pitchers D.J. Houlton and Brian Falkenborg say they love it. Houlton, coming off a 19-6 season, will see his contract expire following the Japan Series and has a chance to move elsewhere but says, “My first choice is to stay here.” He knows and is used to the city, the fans, his teammates, and last but not least, the Hawks’ success. Houlton is 32 and has pitched four seasons for Fukuoka.

Falkenborg also prefers to stay in Fukuoka until retirement. “I like it here, my family likes it here, I live near the dome and can drive my car to the yard in a few minutes,” said the Softbank reliever a year ago. “As long as they want me, I will stay. Hopefully it will be for a few more years. Then I will hang it up.” Falkenborg is 33 and completing his third season with the Hawks.

Their satisfaction is easy to understand. What is there not to like about Fukuoka? The JR Sanyo Shinkansen bullet train line was extended to the city’s main Hakata Station in 1975 and now connects to Hiroshima in 75 minutes and Tokyo in a little more than five hours. A modern subway system opened in 1981.

Fukuoka’s access routes from its international airport are among the best in the world. By subway, it takes just five minutes from the airport to Hakata Station with its newly reconstructed station building. From there it takes only seven minutes to the Tenjin city center.

A six-minute, three-stop ride from Tenjin on the subway gets you to the Yahoo Dome and Hawks Town where there is a shopping area, cinema complex, a Hard Rock Café, Hilton Hotel, the Dugout souvenir shop and the Sadaharu Oh Museum honoring the world home run king, former Hawks manager and current chairman of the Softbank ballclub.

Excitement is in the air inside the stadium with about 35,000 fans, most wearing Hawks powder blue jerseys, cheering for their heroes. Their seventh-inning jet balloon launch is a spectacle, ranking with that of the Hanshin Tigers fans as the best in Japan.

The team’s front office operation is outstanding, the fan service is really good, there is a great selection of food and drinks at the Fukuoka Dome concession stands and, when the Hawks win, the retractable roof is opened, weather permitting, to release smoke from fireworks set off to celebrate the victory.

If you’re not in Fukuoka this weekend, check out the Hawks Japan Series games against the Chunichi Dragons on TV, and you’ll get an idea of what baseball in that city is all about. I wonder if Wilbur and Orville will be there?

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Former Baltimore Orioles star Cal Ripken Jr. is in Japan this week, participating in a “Tomodachi” event to assist victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami disasters in the Tohoku area. Besides conducting baseball clinics for kids and visiting earthquake-and-tsunami devastated areas in Tohoku, Ripken appeared at a reception Nov. 8 at the American Embassy in Tokyo, hosted by U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos.

The “Iron Man” was accompanied by another former Orioles player, Brady Anderson, and Ripken reminisced a bit about his previous visits to the Far East. He was here playing on the 1984 Orioles postseason tour and later joined Major League Baseball All-Star tours in November of 1986 and 1996.

“I love coming to Japan,” Ripken said. “I enjoyed my three trips here as a player, although that ’84 tour was a whirlwind,” he remembered about the last time a single MLB team barnstormed the country. The O’s played 14 games then. The ’86 and ’96 All-Star team played just eight times.

Major League Baseball deserves kudos for its commitment to helping restore baseball programs in northern Japan to kids who lost them after March 11.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at Wayne@JapanBall.com