SENDAI – The Japan Series-winning run by the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles was one of the best feel-good stories in Japanese pro baseball in 2013.
And, of course, it made the die-hard fans in Tohoku delighted and proud.
“I’d never imagined a day like this would come,” said Hiroko Takami, a 32-year-old company employee from Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, of the fact the Eagles were one win shy of clinching the Japanese Fall Classic, title before Game 6 on Saturday.
“It’s been only nine years since this team was formed and it was so quick to get here. Just unbelievable.”
Yachiyo Matsuya, Takami’s friend and also from Tohoku, said that as much as the fans cheer for the team, the Eagles have provided energy and inspiration to Tohoku, which was struck by the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011.
“The club’s kept its assistance for the region and has invited fans to the games,” said the 34-year-old Matsuya, adding that her hometown, Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, was severely damaged by the 2011 disaster. “So, really, it’s not about win or lose.
We truly appreciate that they care about us. It’s like the team is rooting for the entire Tohoku (region).”
Partially, because of those off-field supportive activities and the victorious run by the team, it appears that the Eagles now involve more people in Tohoku, including those who previously didn’t care about the game.
“We love the team from the bottom of our hearts,” said Takami, who was wearing a jersey of Eagles infielder Ginji Akaminai, Iwate’s baseball star, smiling. “And as the team’s playing in the Japan Series, a lot of people are being even more excited. My co-workers are, too. Some of them didn’t have much interest in baseball before, but even those people will be stuck in front of their TV sets.”
Elsewhere, company employees Katsuaki Monma and Masanori Kato were among the other rabid Eagles fans who were ready to storm into Kleenex Stadium before the gates were unlocked for the fans.
Monma lives 15 minutes away from the stadium and had a season seat right behind the back net this season. As a Rakuten fan since its inception in 2005, he said that it was hard to believe his favorite club had accomplished what it had in the fall of 2013.
“Because I’ve watched this team since it was so weak,” Monma said of the Eagles, who went 38-97-1 in their inaugural season. “Back then, I was excited about seeing every win, every run they’d score. I was so desperate to see every play. Now I have more breathing room.”
The Eagles seized their first Pacific League championship with an 82-59-3 record this year.
Kato agreed with Monma by saying, “We’ve been waiting for this moment since year one.”
Monma said that it is fortunate to see how the team has grown so fast and landed in the NPB championship series, considering there are other clubs that have a much longer history but struggled to win a title.
“Some of the teams like Hiroshima (Carp) take so long to win a championship,” said Monma.
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For Rakuten, it wasn’t always a smooth journey to reach the Japan Series. Sometimes it struggled developing its team (this season was just its second winning campaign), sometimes there were incomprehensible managerial changes.
Kato said he once thought about quitting being an Eagles fan. It was when ex-manager Katsuya Nomura was let go despite of the fact that he led the team to a runner-up finish in the Pacific League and came close to the Japan Series in ’09.
Yet the 44-year-old Kato didn’t abandon the Eagles.
“I couldn’t leave because I loved the players, cared about the players,” he murmured.
Maybe, or perhaps, it’s difficult for those who live in Kanto and Kansai regions, where there are multiple NPB teams along with other professional sports clubs, to understand the scarcity value of having just one NPB club in your local city.
“It’s the talk of the town,” said Marty Kuehnert, Eagles senior adviser and former general manager, of the phenomenon of the Eagles before Game 7. “Wherever I go, people know that I’m with the Eagles so they talk to me, but sometimes I may sit at a table in a restaurant or a table in a coffee shop, and the people behind me don’t realize it’s me sitting next to them, and I hear them talking about Ma-kun (Masahiro Tanaka). Or I hear them talking about (Motohiro) Shima, or (manager Senichi) Hoshino, or one of our stars.
“To be honest with you, we’ve got three other professional sports teams in town. I don’t hear as much talk about the other teams. They’ve got their hardcore fans, but I think the town’s biggest pride is the fact that they have one of the 12 professional teams. It’s pride for the prefecture, it’s pride for the Tohoku region.”
That’s one reason the strong bond between the team and its fans is close and unique.
A local TV station anchor in Sendai told this reporter before Sunday’s decisive game that Rakuten put its franchise name as Tohoku, instead of Sendai or Miyagi, because the market of the latter two would have been too small (Sendai’s population is just above one million now) considering its business.
Come to think of it, it’s sort of nonsense that one team represents the geographically large region, which consists of six prefectures.
But after all, the anchor continued, it worked well after the 3/11 disaster because since then the club became the sporting symbol of Tohoku.
Hoshino, who took the helm before the 2011 season — before the unprecedented disaster struck the region — sent sentimental messages to the victims of the disaster during the on-field post-Japan Series interview under sobbing rain.
“I know that so many of those who suffered from the disaster are still going through tough times,” Hoshino said. “And I’ve always been thinking of how we could comfort them. I thought that we had to win a Japan Series championship in order to do that.”
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When Masahiro Tanaka, the Eagles’ mega star, struck out the final batter for the title-clinching win in Sunday’s game and all the players and staff members ran up to the mound to celebrate, the stadium went nuts.
No, it wasn’t just the stadium. So many others who watched the game in front of their TV sets at home and public viewing sites in Miyagi, Iwate and other Tohoku prefectures went crazy.
And while many leaped for joy, so many others broke into tears. They couldn’t believe what they just saw. After what happened just a couple of years ago there, it was too good to be true.
Veteran reliever and Sendai native Takashi Saito said in an NHK interview after the game that the people in Tohoku, especially in the areas affected by the 3/11 disaster, had already been champions even before the Eagles delivered the title.
“Those people suffering have been praised for their persistence from all over the world, not just from inside Japan, even before we became the Japan Series champions,” said Saito, who joined Rakuten this year after playing for seven seasons in the major leagues.
“Maybe we could say this is their second championship. Without them, we couldn’t have become the champions.”
Yes, this is too good to be true for Tohoku. But the NPB championship flag probably went to the most fitting place.
Staff writer Jason Coskrey contributed to this report.