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The Curse of Colonel Sanders

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Back in 1985, Hanshin fans were giddy with joy when their Tigers secured the Central League pennant and then went on to capture the Japan Series. The standard canal-jumping scene took a new twist when a plastic Colonel Sanders mannequin was tossed into the Dotonbori Canal in downtown Osaka.

As the fans let out chants of “Baassu, Baassu,” in honor of Hanshin slugger Randy Bass, the Colonel — who many fans apparently thought bore a striking resemblance to Bass — was heaved into the polluted waters below.

And ever since the Kentucky Fried mascot took his chilly dip that October evening, the Tigers are said to have been under the Curse of Colonel Sanders, and as any Boston Red Sox fan can tell you, these curses are not to be taken lightly.

As evidence of the “curse,” one needs only to look at the CL standings in the years since the Colonel was tossed. The Tigers’ best finish since then was third (in 1986 and ’92), while Hanshin has finished last an astonishing eight times since its championship season of ’85.

Also since the infamous incident at Dotonbori, the Hanshin hierarchy was rocked by the suicide of managing director Shingo Furuya in 1988. That year, Furuya was dispatched to the U.S. to bring back Bass, who had gone home during the season to be with his ailing son back in Oklahoma. The big guy refused to return to Japan before his son was out of danger, and when Furuya was unable to talk the Hanshin slugger into rejoining his team, he did what he must have felt was the “honorable” thing and leapt to his death from a window of Tokyo’s New Otani Hotel.

*** With the New York Mets and Chicago Cubs in town last month to open the 2000 MLB regular season here in Japan, it was interesting to hear the biggest complaint from the major leaguers and their entourage: Where’s all the noise?!

One of the things that keeps some of the ex-pat North Americans away from Japanese ballparks is the very thing that the MLB gang wanted to experience — that would be the practice of oendan, the ritualistic nonstop chanting and banging that lasts pretty much the entire game. Japanese organizers apparently told local fans to leave their trumpets and drums at home for the two-game set.

While most of the local media appreciated the more traditional laid-back atmosphere at the Big Egg, the tourists were clearly disappointed with the lack of “spirit,” which some of the visiting scribes described as like being at a U.S. college football game. I, however, would liken it more to waking up in the middle of a construction site with vicious hangover.

*** Last month, I had the opportunity to attend a Toronto Raptors-L.A. Clippers NBA game at the shiny new Staples Center in Los Angeles.

One thing I really noticed after living in Japan for a few years was how much people at sporting events back in North America enjoy themselves. At every break, the fans were out of their seats dancing in the aisles — including my 62-year-old mom, which was actually kind of scary — and this was at a Clippers’ game, not exactly the toughest ticket in town.

When Raptors star Vince Carter hit the winning 3-pointer as time expired, it capped an enjoyable evening in dramatic fashion.

Seattle Mariners reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki is the latest Japanese pitcher to leave these shores. In a recent Time magazine cover story on the Asian invasion in the majors, the former Yokohama BayStars closer had the following to say: “The game needs to be more fun (in Japan), or else all the younger players are going to want to leave.”

The fans might just start to feel the same way, too.

*** The comments of Japanese Olympic Committee chief Yushiro Yagi earlier this month regarding African athletes may be shocking, but they are hardly surprising.

Yagi mentioned to reporters that he “can’t stand losing to blacks” after Kenyan runner Erik Wainaina won the men’s event and Elfenesh Alemu of Ethiopia was crowned the women’s champion in the Nagano Marathon.

While Yagi has apologized for his insensitive remarks, you have to wonder how anyone who holds such sentiments can be involved in something as diverse and racially integrated as the Olympic movement. Adolf Yagi, come on down!

After the widely reported comments of Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who warned the local military to be on the alert for marauding bands of foreigners in the event of a major earthquake, it’s obvious that the brains of many Japanese bureaucrats and politicians shut down when their mouths open.

And saying you “can’t stand losing to blacks” in a distance-running event is a little like saying you “can’t stand losing to rednecks” in a stock car race — the odds are definitely against you.