Baseball | BASEBALL BULLET-IN

History set to be made with first interleague games in Japan

by Wayne Graczyk

By the time you read the next offering of the “Baseball Bullet-In” on Sunday, May 8, Golden Week 2005 will be over, and Japan pro baseball’s first session of interleague play will have begun.

The interleague portion of this year’s schedule will have its own season, May 6 through June 16, and its own sponsor, Nihon Seimei Life Insurance.

Each team in the Central and Pacific Leagues will play three home and three away games against each club from the opposing league in the latest example in which Japanese baseball has followed Major League Baseball in making changes to the game.

These have included domed stadiums, the designated hitter rule (in one league only), artificial turf, the four-man umpiring system, allowing fans to keep foul balls hit into the stands, free agency, post-season playoffs (in one league) and announcing accurate attendance figures.

Fans have been clamoring for real regular-season games between the leagues for years, but the hangup has always been with the Central circuit, where former Yomiuri Giants owner Tsuneo Watanabe was said to have strongly opposed the idea, and the other five CL teams who were reluctant to give up home games against the Giants and the lucrative TV and radio broadcast rights money that comes with them.

However, when troubles last year nearly resulted in the dropping of two teams and the restructuring of Japanese baseball into a single, 10-team league, owners apparently realized, if that happened, every team would be playing every other team anyway, and the approval of interleague games as one of the major reforms came about swiftly after the players staged a two-day strike last September, resulting in the 12-team, two-league format being preserved.

So, the interleague curtain will be lifted next weekend, and the opening series will feature the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks at the Yakult Swallows, the Chiba Lotte Marines at the Yokohama BayStars, the Seibu Lions at the Hiroshima Carp, the Hanshin Tigers at the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, the Yomiuri Giants at the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, and the Chunichi Dragons vs. the Orix Buffaloes at Kobe’s Skymark Airlines Stadium.

Neutral site games will be played on May 17 with Hanshin hosting Seibu at Nishikyogoku Stadium in Kyoto, and Hiroshima welcoming Lotte to Fukuyama.

The Giants will play the Marines on May 24 at Nagano Olympic Stadium, and the Tigers and Buffaloes will play the same night at Muscat Stadium in Kurashiki.

The Fighters will play an outdoor game against the Swallows at Sapporo’s old Maruyama Stadium on May 28 but, if that Saturday game gets rained out, the makeup will be on Monday, May 30, inside the Sapporo Dome.

The Carp will meet the Buffaloes on June 3 in Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture, and the Hawks on June 7 at Kurashiki.

All series during the inter-league period will consist of three games and, in the case of weekend (Friday-Sunday) games at outdoor ballparks, Monday will be a makeup day in case of a rainout. In addition, there will be four days (June 17-20) of open dates to accommodate any additional makeup games before the regular intraleague schedules resume on June 21.

Concerning rules, the Central League president will be the authority for games played in the CL stadiums, and the Pacific League chairman will oversee contests where the PL club is the home team.

The DH rule will be used in the Pacific League parks, but pitchers will bat when the traditional style of nine-man baseball is played in the Central League stadiums.

Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks slugger Nobuhiko Matsunaka, the team’s DH this season, has already been practicing his defense in left field in preparation for the inter-league games in the Central League venues.

The Pacific League rule of announcing starting pitchers on the previous day will not be in effect regardless of where the games are played, and two umpires from each league will work the inter-league games.

I asked a few players about the upcoming interleague season, and here is what they think:

* Hanshin Tigers relief pitcher Jeff Williams indicated he is looking forward to seeing some of the Pacific League parks he has not visited, such as Seibu Invoice Dome and Sendai’s Fullcast Stadium Miyagi. When told the Rakuten Eagles field seems dark because of dim lighting, Williams’ eyes lit up.

“That’s what pitchers like to hear, that the batters might have a tough time seeing the ball,” he said. The Tigers will play at Sendai May 27-29.

* Yomiuri Giants bullpen workhorse Brian Sikorski predicted, “This will be really exciting for Japanese baseball. It should help attendance in the Pacific League.” Sikorski also said, “It might even create some new territorial rivalries such as the Giants and Seibu in the Tokyo area, and Hanshin and Orix in Kansai.”

Brian will be especially looking to retire the batters of his former team, the Chiba Lotte Marines, for whom he played three seasons, 2001-2003.

Besides the May 24 encounter in Nagano, the Marines and Giants play at Tokyo Dome May 25-26 and Chiba Marine Stadium June 7-9.

* Alex Ramirez, the Yakult Swallows cleanup hitter, will be facing his good friend and ex-teammate, pitcher Kevin Hodges of Rakuten. “Also, I want to play the Seibu Lions,” said Rami. He will be re-acquainted with his buddy and fellow countryman, namesake and No. 4 batter, Seibu first baseman Alex Cabrera.

In addition, Ramirez will challenge Lions ace right-handed pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.

“I’ve never faced him, not even in a preseason or All-Star Game, and I want to see what he’s got,” said Ramirez.

Yakult plays Rakuten on May 17-19 in Sendai and June 3-5 at Jingu Stadium in Tokyo. The Swallows play the Lions May 24-26 at Jingu and June 7-9 at Invoice Seibu Dome in Tokorozawa.

There you have it.

Everything you wanted to know about interleague play in Japan, and it should be interesting and fun.


Have a question or comment about Japanese baseball?

E-mail: wsgraczyk@yahoo.com.