A friend recently brought up the subject of the appeal of Japanese baseball.
“What is it you like about it?” he asked, implying there was a lot not to like about the game and the way it is played in Japan.
“In fact,” he said, “Tell me five good things and five bad things about baseball in Japan.”
For sure, there were some changes over the past several years that have made some of the dislikes disappear. For example, fans no longer need to return foul balls hit into the stands, and the ball-strike count has been reversed to conform to international standards.
On the other hand, my new number one turn-off about Japanese baseball is something put into the game in 2011. For what it is worth, here are my five “dislikes,” followed by five things that attract me most to the game as played in Japan.
1. The ball. The batters will love this, and the pitchers may not be happy but, after a season and a half of going back-and-forth on this issue, I have reached a final conclusion the new NPB ball introduced last year is just no good. I am tired of the low-scoring games, the scarcity of home runs and seeing so few .300 hitters in both leagues.
Fortunately, there is word the Japan Pro Baseball Players Union, led by Hanshin Tigers infielder Takahiro Arai, will be taking some action to open discussions with the Commissioner’s Office to address the situation and consider changing the ball to a more lively version. For me, it cannot come soon enough.
2. Tie games. Nobody likes to see a game ending in a tie, but I suppose there is not much that can be done about this. Because Japanese teams do not have their own private transportation, and fans need to get home while trains are still running, night games cannot go into the wee hours of the following morning as they sometimes do in the major leagues.
Unfortunately, the extended power-saving measures following last year’s disasters are also still in effect, as is the rule stating no new extra inning may start after a game has reached the three-and-a-half-hour mark. The Chunichi Dragons have already played nine ties, and this limits the number of games pitchers can win or save.
3. Rainouts made up at the end of the season. For whatever reason, Japanese baseball has not been able to make up all postponed games as the season goes along; instead rescheduling them in October prior to the Climax Series. The result is teams have an unbalanced number of remaining games, with some clubs playing every day and others playing sporadically or not at all while the schedule is completed. All teams should end the season on the same day.
4. Overuse of the sacrifice bunt. This fundamental play has been a huge part of the Japanese game since baseball was introduced to the country. It is so predictable and, for me, boring. Rather than bunting to move a runner along all the time, I would like to see the managers be more creative and try the hit-and-run or squeeze play once in a while. Let’s see some excitement out there.
5. The stadiums. Most of the Japanese ballparks are symmetrical, none have an out-of-town scoreboard and many do not have the home run dimensions posted on the fences. They could be more like major league stadiums.
Now for the five things I like about Japanese baseball:
1. Foreign players. I appreciate the way Japanese teams hire foreign players but limit their registration to four at a time on each club’s first team roster. The imports, whether they be from North America, Latin America, Australia, South Korea or Taiwan, are interesting and add color to Japanese game.
Also, by getting the right players who can adjust to life in Japan on and off the field, a team can instantly improve its talent pool from the previous season.
2. Countryside games. Not all players are fond of traveling out of town for these series, sometimes to faraway prefectures with older ballparks. But, since Japan does not have minor league teams based in smaller cities, the fans in those places get to see their heroes once in a while when the teams visit.
This month, the Yomiuri Giants and Tokyo Yakult Swallows will play at Nagano Olympic Stadium on June 22, and the Yokohama Baystars will host the Swallows at Naha, Okinawa, June 26-27. In 2012, official games are being played in 29 stadiums off the beaten path, from Asahikawa in Hokkaido, to Naha.
3. Ceremonies. The shikyushiki (simulated first-pitch throwing) to the visiting team’s leadoff batter (who takes a courtesy swing and miss) and the presentation of floral bouquets by kimono-clad Japanese women to managers and representative players (almost always done at the chiho shiai, or countryside games mentioned above) add a distinctive Japanese flavor to pre-game festivities.
4. The post-game “hero interview.” This takes place after every game (unless it is one of those darn ties), and most of the fans usually stay in their seats to hear what the outstanding player of the game has to say. It predictably begins with the broadcast interviewer congratulating the hero by saying, “Nice batting” or “Nice pitching,” and it ends with the guy thanking the fans for attending and asking for their continued support.
5. Mascots and theme songs. All 12 teams in Japanese baseball have colorful mascots and theme songs played and sung by their cheering sections. My own favorite characters are “Tsubakuro,” the Yakult Swallows’ bird, the Yomiuri Giants’ “Giabbits” and “Doala,” the koala bear of the Chunichi Dragons.
How about you?
What is it you like or do not like about Japanese baseball?
Drop me a line and let me know.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com