General

The Tiger's meow

by Gary Tegler

Anti-mainstream, anti-centralism, a love of losers. Such is the stuff of a Hanshin Tigers fan.

Never mind that our team has placed dead last for three years in a row. Never mind that in the last 50 years we’ve reached glory but thrice. Never mind that the front office makes the worst possible decisions.

Were we not here to support the team, all would be lost.

Friday night at 6. There is a slight breeze ruffling the flags over the left-field stand of Koshien Stadium. The Hiroshima Carp are in town to face the toothless jaws of the Tigers. Masako Matsumoto, 60, is in her element.

“I’ve been at every home game for the last 20 years,” she shouted amid the din of trumpets and drums. “Even when they’re down, I am here to support them.”

“Hey, if you’re born in Osaka, you’re a Tigers fan,” confidently states Yuji Tanaka, 21, who, of course, has been a fan “since birth.”

The supporters of the Hanshin Tigers, known not so much as fans but fanatics, would like to see the fangs of their beloved team displayed again. The last time was 1985. Mayumi, Wada, Kakefu and Randy Bass were the demigods of those halcyon days. When wood met orb, it was a hit. When ball met glove, it was an out.

The euphoria reached such heights that fans were jumping off of bridges in downtown Osaka into the Dotonburi River. A statue of Colonel Sanders was wrenched from its base in front of a nearby KFC franchise and summarily dumped into the same river because fans thought the face resembled that of Randy Bass, the slugger who still holds the Japanese batting average record.

One reason that the Tigers have such crazy fans is because they are in the same league as the Tokyo Giants, the team Osakans love to hate. Though both teams existed before the war, the rivalry didn’t begin to heat up until the 1960s with the advent of television.

“Osaka people simply want to beat Tokyo. That’s why they support the Tigers so strongly,” said Takashi Mandai, a senior sportswriter for Kyodo News who has been tracking the Tigers for 36 years. “There is a sense of motherhood that they feel for the team. There’s a lot of warmth in the relationship.”

While the Tigers’ fans may be impossibly loyal, they are not dumb. They lay the blame for their team’s misfortunes squarely on the front office.

“They are weak and have no vision of the future,” said Masayo Kato, 28, and a member of one of numerous support groups that meet weekly to discuss the team’s progress. “Even though they spend money to obtain foreign players, they don’t perform, and the roster is full of young players. Maybe five years from now we’ll see some results.”

Those sentiments were echoed by the sportswriter Mandai.

“Everything is wrong,” he said, his hands punching the air for emphasis. “The scouting staff has done a lousy job and the front office simply doesn’t provide enough money to get star players. The scouts only go overseas during spring training and have no connections with teams in the major leagues. Scouts for other teams make trips four or five times a season.”

There is no question that the front office has some bucks to spend, despite the fact that attendance has dropped off this season, according to Masato Tamamori, ace reporter for the Daily Sports newspaper, the most ardently pro-Hanshin paper in Kansai.

He pointed to the 1997 hiring of former Boston Red Sox star Mike Greenwell, who came to Japan for a month and quit.

“When he arrived, he was fat and his legs were weak,” said Tamamori. “They should have looked at his condition before offering him $3.5 million. The Tigers are constantly making mistakes like this. In the draft, they never go for the top players, they’re all third- and fourth-round choices.”

As team management continues to strike out (Hanshin is in the basement again as of this writing), the fans say they will remain loyal.

“I’ll keep cheering for the Tigers come hell or high water,” said 49-year-old Masakata Nakanishi. “But I’ll tell you, if we had a Sammy Sosa or a Mark MacGuire, we’d rock and roll.”