This could be the final season for the Seibu Lions, at least as we know the ball club by that name.
The arrest last week of Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, former team owner and kingpin of the Kokudo-Seibu empire, and the ongoing crisis affecting the entire Seibu group, indicates the team will most likely be sold, and you have to wonder if the defending Japan Series champion Lions players can shake off the publicity and breathe through the cloud of uncertainty sure to be above them all season.
There could be a sad ending to an era of Seibu Lions baseball that began in 1978 and will have consisted of 27 seasons of mostly happy times with some great moments experienced by star players, and a host of championships.
Tsutsumi first dabbled in professional baseball when he decided in 1977 to build a beautiful new stadium in a picturesque setting amid the lakes, hills and greenery within the boundaries of the city of Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, a western Tokyo suburb.
The original plan was to have all 12 Japanese teams play “home-away-from-home” series there, perhaps putting together about a 30-game card each season, featuring the Central and Pacific League clubs at random.
Then, as the ball park was nearing completion in the fall of 1978, Tsutsumi was able to purchase the then-Crown Lighter Lions of Fukuoka and move his own team into his own 30,000-seat stadium, and he would get the fans there by his own railway company’s trains and buses.
The team played its first home game at Seibu Lions Stadium on Saturday, April 14, 1979, while workers put the finishing touches on the structure.
Although the 1979 Lions were not successful on the field — they finished last — the fans came, despite the fact Seibu Kyojo-mae train station had not yet been built.
Supporters from throughout Saitama and western Tokyo cities such as Tachikawa, Hachioji, Kokubunji and Kodaira flocked to the games on shuttle buses run by Seibu Railways from their nearest train station. The Lions led the P.L. in attendance, drawing 1,365,000 spectators to 65 home games.
It did not take long for the Lions to become competitive. Seibu won its first pennant in 1982, the fourth season under Tsutsumi’s ownership.
The Lions beat the Chunichi Dragons that year, too, in a six-game Japan Series, then went on to win 14 more Pacific League titles and eight more Japan championships, including their 2004 J.S. victory over the Dragons.
Seibu played in at least one Japan Series against each of the six Central League clubs and beat the Yomiuri Giants in 1983, 1987 and 1990.
Throughout the years, the Lions were led by managers Tatsuro Hirooka, Masaaki Mori and Osamu Higashio who had some of the greatest players of all time in their lineups.
Shortstop Hiromichi Ishige was the first big star drafted by Seibu, joining in 1981.
Later came centerfielder Koji Akiyama and first baseman Kazuhiro Kiyohara, catcher Tsutomu Ito (the current manager), second baseman Hatsuhiko Tsuji and pitchers Hisanobu Watanabe, Kimiyasu Kudo and the Taiwanese fireballer Taigen Kaku, all of whom helped carry the team through those wonderful years in the 1980s and early ’90s.
There were some talented American players on the team as well.
Ex-major league stars Steve Ontiveros and Terry Whitfield contributed greatly to Seibu’s 1982-1985 championships.
Young Ty Van Burkleo hit 38 homers for the 1988 Lions, and Orestes Destrade led the country in home runs with 42, 39 and 41 in 1990, 1991 and 1992, respectively, all pennant-winning years for the Leos.
One of the more memorable moments was when a 20-year-old Kiyohara, in his second year as a pro, suddenly began to sob emotionally at his position with two outs in the top of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1987 Japan Series.
Seibu was about to wrap up the win over Yomiuri, the team for which Kiyohara had had his heart set on playing, until the Giants instead drafted his high school buddy and teammate, pitcher Masumi Kuwata, in 1985.
Kiyohara, apparently overcome by what was happening, had to be consoled by second baseman Tsuji before a full stadium and a nationwide TV audience, until he could calm down so the game could go on, the Lions could get the final out and begin their celebration.
More recently, it was shortstop Kazuo Matsui (before he left as a free agent for the New York Mets), outfielder Kazuhiro Wada and slugging first baseman from Venezuela, Alex Cabrera, with his record-tying 55-home run season in 2001, who provided the spark for Seibu.
Third baseman Jose Fernandez too.
Then there is the “Boy Wonder,” ace right-handed pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, the former Yokohama high school star who was supposed to play for his hometown BayStars, but was drafted instead by Seibu in 1998 and convinced to join the Lions when then-manager Higashio presented the kid with the ball from his own 200th career victory as an enticement to play for Tsutsumi’s club.
The baseball-railway connection became more important after Seibu Kyujo-mae station was opened and spectators could get to the ball park directly by train from the major stops at Shinjuku and Ikebukuro and walk about one minute from the station wicket to the stadium turnstile.
All the Seibu trains and stations were plastered with posters of news about the Lions, schedules of upcoming games and deals for passenger-fans. You could always pick up a free pocket schedule or buy a Lions yearbook or cap at the eki kiosks.
I really believe something was lost, though, when Tsutsumi decided to put that umbrella-like cover over the stadium and re-name it Seibu Dome in 1999.
Sure, it is great for those rainy days when games would otherwise be postponed but, darn, I miss sitting in the sun on a breezy Golden Week afternoon with that spectacular view of the trees beyond center field, or under the stars on a warm summer evening with fireworks going off in the distance after a Lions player hit a home run.
Throughout the years, Seibu has played the same theme song, that “Wo-wo-wo Lions, Lions, Li-ons . . .” by pop singer Shigeru Matsuzaki, and millions of fans and non-fans have taken advantage of yusho (championship) sales at Seibu department stores and Seiyu supermarkets.
I wonder how much of that will change and how the Lions players will cope with the potential distraction caused by the apparent misdeeds of their former owner.
Whatever happens, though, nothing can take away 27 years of mostly positive Seibu Lions memories.
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