I should have known better than to predict the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks would win the 2003 Japan Series in five games over the Hanshin Tigers.
After seeing first hand that crowd at Koshien Stadium during Games 3, 4 and 5 of the Series, I believe it was virtually impossible for the Hawks to win more than one on the road in that hostile environment, and it is (now) not surprising the Tigers swept all three home contests.
There is no other group of fans in any sport in any country as vocal, as visible and as dedicated as those of the Hanshin Tigers. If there is, someone please point them out to me. Pitcher Trey Moore is right when he blurts out his favorite description of his team’s supporters: “Tigers fans wa ichi-ban yaaaaa!”
That is not a put-down of the fans of other teams but a recognition of the way the Hanshin rooters go all-out to get in the game and affect its outcome. Almost every one of the 53,000 spectators at each of those three games last week was wearing a Hanshin cap, jersey, T-shirt and/or happi coat. Well, maybe 52,500; there were about 500 people high in the left field bleachers cheering for the Hawks.
In addition, just about every Tigers fan participated in the constant, on-every-pitch rhythmic chanting and synchronized banging of plastic miniature-bat megaphones, the seventh-inning colored jet-balloon launch and proud singing of “Rokko Oroshi,” the team fight song.
They also toss in a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” for good measure.
I had the pleasure of sitting in the Koshien stands at Game 4 on Oct. 23 with the family of Tigers relief pitcher Jerrod Riggan: his father Jerry, mother Camille and brother Nate, along with Jerrod’s wife Jennifer and 1-year-old son Turk (named after Turk Wendell, Riggan’s friend and teammate and with the New York Mets in 2000 and 2001).
Jerry Riggan said, when his son joined the Tigers in mid-season, Jerrod tried to explain over the phone the awesome nature of the Hanshin cheering activities but gave up and said, “Dad, you’ve just got to see it to believe it.”
So the Riggans came to Osaka from their home in Brewster, Wash., in mid-summer to witness first hand the spectacle that was even more impressive on their second trip during the Japan Series.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s just amazing,” said Jerry, during a between-innings break when you could actually hear what the person next to you was saying.
I think there are two main factors why those fans act as they do: First, their team only wins the pennant every 15-20 years. The last three Central League championships were in 1964, 1985 and 2003.
So, when the Tigers win the flag, the backers are releasing two decades of stored-up emotions and the frustration of numerous B-class (second division) finishes, including time in the Central League basement.
Second, the sentiments were especially meaningful this year in the wake of the news of the impending retirement of manager Senichi Hoshino.
At first, it appeared Hoshino had perhaps made a mistake in stating prior to the start of the Series his intention to resign; that he should have waited until after its conclusion. However, it seemed clear the fans and players were determined to see Hoshino go out a winner, at least in his final appearance as manager before the home crowd in Game 5 on Oct. 24.
The scene was emotionally charged as the fans listened quietly (you could hear a megaphone drop) as Hoshino was interviewed following the 3-2 win that also gave Hanshin a 3-2 lead in the Series.
While you can bet the fans will always be there, it remains to be seen what will happen post-Hoshino.
Third base coach Akinobu Okada, a star of the 1985 Tigers championship team, will succeed Hoshino as manager.
It is rumored that coaches Koichi Tabuchi and Ikuo Shimano will join Hoshino in leaving the team.
American batting coach Tom O’Malley, another former Hanshin star player, says he is not sure what will happen in his case.
In addition to his major contribution toward substantially improving the club’s offensive attack, O’Malley is extremely popular as a campaign figure for the team’s official fan club and other promotions. His likeness appears on Hanshin Railway posters urging Kansai commuters to become members of the fan base organization and also the “No My Car” theme which reminds fans there is no parking at Koshien and to leave their automobiles at home. Take the train. The Hanshin train.
You would expect foreign players Riggan, fellow pitchers Trey Moore and Jeff Williams and infielder George Arias will all be invited to back play for the Tigers again in 2004.
Lefty starter Moore won 10 games and threw superbly in Game 3 of the Japan Series, while Riggan and Williams posted season ERA’s under two runs per game.
Williams was the winning hurler in Japan Series Game 4 and saved Game 5.
The pressure will be enormous on Okada to sustain what Hoshino accomplished in two seasons, taking the Tigers from last place to the pennant. But the new manager can count on the element of that “10th man,” the most intimidating unit of fans-in-the-stands in sports anywhere.
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