The Hanshin Tigers are in a position to win their second Central League pennant in three seasons, but they will have to get by a jinx that has plagued Tigers teams in the past: the “shi-no-rodo” or “road trip of death.”

This refers to the annual mid-summer vacating of Hanshin’s home Koshien Stadium to make the ballpark available for Japan’s national high school baseball tournament which lasts for more than two weeks, depending on days lost to rain.

The Tigers actually will not see Koshien for four weeks, counting the days prior to the high school tourney while the stadium is being readied for the student players and their supporters, and a few days past the scheduled end of the national championships, in case the kids need to make up some games.

This year’s secondary school meet begins Saturday, Aug. 6, six days after the Tigers clear out of Koshien following their game against the Yakult Swallows on July 31. The “shi-no-rodo” starts when Hanshin plays the BayStars at Yokohama Aug. 2, 3 and 4. Then come two “home-away-from-home” games Aug. 6-7 against the Hiroshima Carp at Matsuyama.

The Tigers visit the Chunichi Dragons at Nagoya Dome Aug. 9, 10 and 11, then travel to Tokyo for a three-game series with the Yomiuri Giants Aug. 12, 13 and 14. On Aug. 16, 17 and 18, there are “home” games at Osaka Dome vs. the BayStars. Then it’s on the road again Aug. 19, 20 and 21 to see the Yakult Swallows at Jingu Stadium in Tokyo.

The “road trip of death” ends with Hanshin at Hiroshima, playing the Carp, Aug. 23, 24 and 25. Finally, after 27 days of suitcase carrying, bullet-train and bus boarding and airport and hotel check-ins, the Tigers will finally smell the ivy again at Koshien on Friday, Aug. 26, welcoming the Giants.

Will they still be in first place that night?

Hanshin first baseman Andy Sheets, playing his first season with the Tigers, says of the shi-no-rodo, “I don’t even want to think about it.” That was prior to the July 26 game at Tokyo Dome when Sheets slammed three homers in leading his team to a convincing 8-3 win over the Giants.

Relief pitcher Jeff Williams said, “It is a tough time, no doubt about that.” He experienced it two years ago when the Tigers survived the “death trip” and won the Central League, but he missed it last year when he went to represent his native Australia at the Olympic Games in Athens.

In 2004, the Tigers finished fourth and had pretty much died before August anyway.

“It’s 27 days living out of a bag,” said Williams. “Even with the three games at Osaka Dome, when you get to go home at night and sleep in your own bed, much of that time is spent washing clothes and packing for the next segment of the road trip.”

Through games of July 29, the Tigers paced the Central circuit, leading the second place Dragons by five games, and Chunichi players Alex Ochoa and Tyrone Woods said it will be difficult to overtake Hanshin, even with their upcoming marathon road journey.

“Their bullpen is awesome,” said the Dragons foreigners, referring to the Tigers “FJK” trio of relay relievers, closer Tomoyuki Kubota preceded by setup men Kyuji Fujikawa and Williams to whom the “J” refers.

But Chunichi has been playing some awesome baseball, too, riding a nine-game winning streak through July 29 and cutting significantly into the gap behind Hanshin which had stood at eight games on July 12.

That Aug. 9-11 three-game set between the Dragons and Tigers promises to be the most important series of the season so far and could dictate Hanshin’s success or failure on this year’s road trip of death — or will it be a “road trip of life” this time?

Marc Kroon, the Yokohama BayStars closer and the subject of last week’s “Baseball Bullet-In,” has a trademark, the crooked cap, as pointed out in that July 24 column. But, he has no nickname.

“A lot of Japanese media members have asked me if I have one,” Kroon said, and he answers by telling them he does not but, if they would like to give him one, well — dozo.

Kroon, a native of the Bronx, New York, who now lives in Arizona, is known for the record-breaking speed of his pitches, his ability to save games for the BayStars and his lanky frame, and you would think he would have a pet name as have several other pitchers in Japan and the major leagues.

Last week I mentioned 1986-1987 Hankyu Braves bullpen ace Brad “The Animal” Lesley and the man for whom Kroon has been subbing as Yokohama’s closer, Kazuhiro “Daimajin” Sasaki. We also have Randy “The Big Unit” Johnson, “Tom Terrific” Seaver, Dwight “Doctor K” Gooden, Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky, Ron “Louisiana Lightning” Guidry, Rich “Goose” Gossage, Fernando “Tortilla Fats” Valenzuela, Nolan “Ryan’s Express,” Mark “The Bird” Fydrich, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, Jim “Catfish” Hunter, Steve “Rainbow” Trout and, of course, Hideo “The Tornado” Nomo.

Old timers might remember Bob “Rapid Robert” Feller, Sal “The Barber” Maglie, Vic “The Springfield Rifle” Raschi, Harry “The Cat” Brecheen, Harvey “The Kitten” Haddix, Dick “The Monster” Radatz, Phil “The Vulture” Regan, “Bullet Bob” Turley, Ewell “The Whip” Blackwell and, perhaps the most memorable of all, Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell.

A few lesser-known hurlers listed in the major league register: Gary “Truth” Serum, Ed “The Flushing Flash” Glynn and Kevin “Hot Sauce” Saucier.

So, how about a colorful nickname for Marc Kroon? Any ideas? Maybe something to do with Kroon’s appearance, where he comes from, the way he throws? The speed? A play on words in English or Japanese? If you have a good suggestion, e-mail it to me at wsgraczyk@yahoo.com and I’ll pass it along to Marc, then we’ll see if catches on with the Japanese media.

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