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Swallows fans getting test in patience in 2017

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Tokyo Yakult Swallows fans can be forgiven for being frustrated, even angry, at the way the season has played out thus far. The team is mired in last place and began this week six games out of even fifth place.

That’s to say nothing of the punch to the gut the fans took on Friday night at Jingu Stadium, as they watched Hiroshima Carp supporters, whose numbers all but turned Jingu into a sea of red, scream in joyous revelry after the Carp turned a five-run, ninth-inning deficit into a victory.

Swallows fans there that night could only stare on in starry-eyed disbelief. They probably wanted to scream even more than the Carp fans did, but not with any emotion that could be mistaken for joy.

Apparently some of them did actually, with media reports saying some fans could be heard shouting for manager Mitsuru Manaka to step aside. To basically walk off the field and keep going until he reached wherever it is managers who take a “rest” during particularly trying seasons end up.

But who could blame them? A season wrought with injuries and losses, especially losses like Friday’s, tends to do that to a fan base.

And it hasn’t been an easy time to be a Yakult fan. Three of the last four seasons have ended with either a fifth- or sixth-place finish, the outlier being a run to the Central League pennant in 2015. Needless to say, Swallows fans have been put through the wringer lately.

“I think objectively this is probably the worst year in that there’s not a Coco Balentien 60 home run chase or a Tetsuto Yamada Triple 3 to follow. We’re not close to fifth place at this time,” longtime Swallows fan Kozo Ota told The Japan Times. Ota also writes for the Swallows-centric website, tokyoswallows.com, describing himself as “a third-generation Swallows fan that grew up on Montreal Expos baseball.”

“But especially since I got to witness a league championship a couple of years ago, these wins and losses don’t really drag into my emotions the next day like they used to. So I think I’m in a healthier place, and I think for the most part, that’s true of many Swallows fans.”

The Swallows faithful has remained just that during the bad times this year, of course there have been plenty of chances to do so. They still scream just as loud, wave their flags, dance with their umbrellas and enjoy the antics of mischievous mascot Tsubakuro. Ota said the atmosphere he sees in the stands is not one of doom and gloom, but a typical one, made all the more festive by an influx of casual fans (due, he feels, to better marketing after the pennant win) mostly unburdened by past losses and looking to have a good time outside at the ballpark.

That said, nerves were probably frayed following the weekend’s series against the Carp.

On Friday, a slumping Yamada put up four RBIs to help the team enter the ninth with an 8-3 lead. Then it all fell apart as Yasuhiro Ogawa, an All-Star starting pitcher making a rare relief appearance, allowed two solo home runs, an RBI double and, finally, a three-run home run by Takahiro Arai that put the Carp in line for a 9-8 win. Saturday’s loss wasn’t as soul-crushing only because it was so absolute, with Hiroshima bashing its way to an 8-2 victory. The last game ended in a 3-3 tie, but might as well have been a loss, as Ogawa gave up another lead in the ninth.

“The reaction was pretty devastating because we were soundly beating the top team in the CL, and then suddenly we had lost,” Ota said of the feeling in the stands on Friday. “I think the reaction was pretty typical.

“The second game on Saturday was your typical blowout loss and I think most people were better equipped to take that loss. I sit with people who have been going to Jingu Stadium for as long as I’ve been alive, over 30 years, and they were obviously frustrated, but nothing more than usual. But Friday’s game really hit hard.”

As far as those who shouted at Manaka, Ota thinks that if it happened, it may have just been a few people blowing off steam.

“I think in Japan, fans don’t really get angry at players,” he said. “So the natural place you kind of voice your frustration is the manager. Tetsuto Yamada is struggling, and there are any number of players, like (Masanori) Ishikawa, who have been struggling, but you rarely hear heckling directed toward those players.

“It’s all about cheering on the players, singing their cheer songs as loud as possible. So when you are frustrated with the overall product, the natural target is the manager.”

The fan base may not be calling for Manaka’s head, but a 28-49-2 record says something needs to change. Manaka hasn’t done much to warrant being fired (and shouldn’t be) yet, but managerial changes aren’t always deserved. After all, it’s much easier to get a new voice to lead a team than to find a new team for the manager to lead.

The Birds don’t have to change managers, but they need to do something. Japanese baseball fans are a loyal bunch, and the Swallows fans have been no different. A fitting reward, then, would be for the team to do whatever it has to and improve on the field.