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Niigata doesn’t appear ready for pro baseball franchise

by Wayne Graczyk

Two years ago, I wrote a column about how I thought the city of Niigata appeared ready to support a Japanese baseball franchise team, should there ever be another expansion (as in the case of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2004) or if an existing Central or Pacific League club decided to move. Now, I am not so sure.

I went there again earlier this month to watch the Tokyo Yakult Swallows host (they were the “home” team) the Yomiuri Giants and found the atmosphere a little disappointing. It was Sunday, Sept. 9, game time was 3 p.m., the weather was good, and I was expecting a crowd of at least 30,000 at Hard-Off Eco Stadium.

However, the paid attendance was later reported as only 17,966 for that important CL contest between the two Climax Series contenders, and it appeared as if there were not even that many spectators. The upper deck of the beautiful ballpark that opened three years ago was almost empty, and it seemed somewhat sad.

The attractions of the city and access to the stadium as reported in 2010, are still OK. There are lots of nice hotels, and it is just a little more than a two-hour bullet train ride from Tokyo to Niigata Station where convenient shuttle buses take fans to the game in 10 minutes.

However, there were fewer selections of food on sale at Hard-Off; no pizza, for example, as they had last time I was there. I somehow am getting the impression that perhaps Niigata was hoping to lure the Yokohama franchise which then-owner TBS Broadcasting had been trying to unload for several years before selling to Mobage-DeNA in 2011.

When it became apparent last December that team would remain in its home south of Tokyo, Niigata may have lost heart — and hope. The city, with its population of around 800,000, would still be a great place to put a pro baseball team, but the authorities should step up their efforts a bit.

Only five games were scheduled in Niigata this season, and the city’s sports council would be wise to first of all get more teams to go there and play more games. It should also beef up the ballpark facilities, showcase the stadium and strive to promote pro baseball so as to increase attendance and interest.

Diamond Dust: There were at least nine scouts from six major league teams in attendance at the Sept. 14-16 series between the Yomiuri Giants and Hanshin Tigers at Tokyo Dome. All were there to check out Hanshin closer Kyuji Fujikawa, about to become a free agent and said to be looking to jump to an American or National League team in 2013.

They also kept an eye on Tigers shortstop Takashi Toritani, another who can declare free agency following the season.

Seen were representatives from the Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Angels, Oakland Athletics, San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers. They got to see Fujikawa come in to save the middle game of the series, but he was not all that impressive.

Fujikawa retired in order the three batters he faced on a routine outfield fly ball and two infield grounders, but he did not come close to striking out any hitters, his classic forkball was just so-so, and his fastball, clocked consistently at better than 150 kph five years ago, registered at a maximum speed of 144 kph that night.

What’s worse, Fujikawa was de-registered three days later with what was described as a sore right adductor. He is likely done for the year, and this all points to the fact the guy’s major league appeal has obviously gone way down.

From the (e-) mail bag: In response to last week’s column about the Yokohama BayStars, Yokosuka fan Mike O’Donnell wrote: “What Yokohama needs are ballplayers who can catch. Our pitching staff is not bad. Our batting order could use some shuffling around to support our two decent power hitters. (Alex) Ramirez is a definite upgrade over (Shuichi) Murata, (who left as a free agent and signed with the Giants).

“But the reason we are in last place is our fielding. How many singles have our fielders allowed to become doubles, and how many ground balls have made it through our infield that should have been caught?”

Mike, it is obvious the BayStars, like the Hanshin Tigers, need a complete overhaul for 2013. Yokohama must solve its foreign player, hitting and pitching problems and, as you mention, the defense must also be tightened up.

Ron Scronce, a fan of Japanese baseball in North Carolina, wrote, “As you know, the Little League championships are a big deal for viewers of ESPN in the U.S. but, according to my wife, who is Japanese, there was virtually no news in Japan about the (Kitasuna) team’s victory. How could that be?”

Ron, it seems as if the popularity of Japanese baseball ranges from high to not-so-high on alternating levels. The pros and high school teams are the most followed, whereas interest in the college, corporate teams and the Little Leaguers is not that hot.

However, the channels on Japan’s J-SPORTS TV network have been showing Little League World Series games, including those (of course) played by the Japanese champion Kitasuna team.


Finally this week, an update on Alex Ramirez’s pursuit of the career 2,000-hit mark this season. Through games of Thursday, the Yokohama outfielder and 12-year Japanese baseball veteran had 132 hits in 128 games played to that date. He needs 150 base knocks to reach 2,000, and his current pace is for 148.5 by the end of the season on Oct. 7.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at Wayne@JapanBall.com