Sometimes history repeats itself. Eighteen years ago, in 1985, the Hanshin Tigers entered the month of August with a healthy lead in the Central League standings. The weather was as scorching as the Tigers who then, as now, played their home games at historic Koshien Stadium.
I don’t recall Hanshin having as big a lead as they have now, and they surely did not yet have a magic number on Aug. 6 for clinching the flag. (The “magic” countdown actually began prior to the All-Star break last month and was reduced to 29 as of Aug. 5.)
But the pennant fever burned as hot as now, and Tigers fans went wild over the heroics of Randy Bass, Masayuki Kakefu, Akinobu Mayumi, Akinobu Okada, Rich Gale and company, predecessors of George Arias, Makoto Imaoka, Atsushi Fujimoto, Akihiro Yano, Shinjiro Hiyama, Atsushi Kataoka, Norihiro Akahoshi, Tomoaki Kanemoto, Kei Igawa, Trey Moore, Hideki Irabu, Jeff Williams, Jerrod Riggan, et al.
The world does change in 18 years, though. Let’s take a look back at what it was like in 1985 and, if you were not here then, or not even born, you might be surprised at some of the following: Ronald Reagan was in the first year of his second term as U.S. President, and Yasuhiro Nakasone was the Japanese Prime Minister. A world exposition, Expo ’85, was held in Tsukuba, Japan. One American dollar would have gotten you 236 yen in Tokyo on Aug. 1, while the Nikkei stock average stood at 12,345.68.
Michael J. Fox starred in the year’s biggest movie box office hit, “Back to the Future,” and USA For Africa topped the music charts with “We Are the World.” George Arias was 13 and about to enter high school in Arizona, current Tigers batting coach Tom O’Malley was 24 and a third baseman with the Baltimore Orioles, and manager Senichi Hoshino had a year earlier wrapped up his career as a pitcher for the Chunichi Dragons.
When the Tigers and Seibu Lions traveled to face each other in the 1985 Japan Series, they went back and forth between Tokyo and Osaka on the Japan National Railways (JNR) Hikari Super Express; JR and the faster Nozomi Shinkansen had not yet arrived. There was no Internet, no e-mail; not everyone had a cellular phone. The Series games were televised on terrestrial channels only; satellite and cable broadcasting were still years from start-up.
Hanshin players celebrated Central League pennant and Japan Series victories with regular beer, as the Japanese brewers had not yet thought of happoshu. The Japan Series games were all played in the daytime under brilliant blue skies and bright autumn sunshine because Japan had no domed stadiums. Home runs were still hit into Koshien’s “Lucky Zone,” an area between the outfield stands and a wire fence that was taken down in 1992.
While Hanshin and Seibu squared-off in the Japan Series, the Kansas City Royals defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in a seven-game “Interstate 95” World Series played entirely in Missouri. Neither team, nor any other major league club for that matter, had any Japanese players.
Tigers outfielder Keiji Nagasaki became the first Central League designated hitter, as the DH rule was put into effect for the first time in a Japan Series and used only in the games played at Seibu Lions Stadium.
One of the world’s all-time most tragic accidents occurred on Aug. 12, 1985, when Japan Airlines Flight 123 crashed into a mountain in Gunma Prefecture, killing 520 of 524 passengers and crew on board. Among those who died were famed “Sukiyaki” singer Kyu Sakamoto.
The Hanshin Tigers were hit hard by that disaster as well. Team President Hajimu Nakano lost his life in the jumbo jet crash and never got to see the team clinch its first pennant in 21 years and the (so far) only Hanshin Japan Series victory.
In a somewhat bizarre incident, Tigers fans celebrating the Japan Series triumph appropriated a statue of Col. Harland V. Sanders (who they said resembled Bass) from in front of an Osaka Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet and threw the likeness of the southern gentleman into the Dotonbori River. This year, the KFC store managers in Kansai have decided to keep the Col. Sanders mannequins inside their shops, so as not to tempt the over-enthusiastic Hanshin rooters into repeating the misdeed of 18 years ago.
It should not happen, anyway. In 1992, when the Tigers got off to a good start in the CL pennant race (only to fade by mid-season), a group of Hanshin fans visited one Kentucky store, bought some finger lickin’ good chicken, dressed the Col. Sanders statue in a Tigers pinstriped happi coat and Hanshin logo hachimaki headband and apologized for those who had dropped him into the drink in 1985, vowing it would not happen again when their team wins its next championship. We’ll see.
So, on what date do you think the Tigers will clinch the 2003 Central League pennant? Will it be Sept. 4 at Hiroshima? Sept. 6 at home against Yokohama? Sept. 11 at Yakult? Sept. 15 at home against the Carp? Sept. 19 vs. the Yomiuri Giants at Tokyo Dome?
Is there such a thing as wrapping up a pennant victory too soon? In 1990, when the Giants won the CL by 22 games, they locked up the flag with a win on Sept. 9. Then they went through the motions of playing out the regular season before beginning the Japan Series six weeks later. Yomiuri was so flat, and the Giants suffered a humiliating four-game-sweep defeat to the Seibu Lions, much like the one they handed the Lions last year.
It will be interesting to see how this year’s Tigers handle whatever is coming. At least, this time, they should have Col. Sanders on their side. Somebody, pass me a drumstick.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.