Baseball / Japanese Baseball | NPB NOTEBOOK

Batting center hit hard by recession

by Kaz Nagatsuka

TOYOYAMA, Aichi Pref. — On a mild Sunday morning, a throng of enthusiastic baseball-playing youngsters were waiting for their turn, while some casual adults tried to have some fun hitting the ball at one local batting cage just outside Nagoya.

The scenery is nothing special, nor is the cage itself.

Nevertheless, the place is arguably the most famous batting cage in the entire nation.

Kuko Batting Center is located near Nagoya Airport in Toyoyama, not far from Nagoya.

It looks like just another ordinary batting cage. But this place has been recognized as the cage that two of Japanese baseball’s biggest stars — Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners and Atsunori Inaba of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters — would visit throughout their childhood.

The place has nine cages, and its No. 8 cage tosses the fastest pitch at 120 kph and was the “regular position” for both Ichiro and Inaba.

“Both of them were living real close to here,” said Taira Kawaguchi, a 63-year-old employee at the cage, on Sunday, hours before Game 7 of the Japan Series.

However, even the influence of those top ballplayers hasn’t helped the business recently, Kawaguchi said with a shrug. Asked if it is because of the downturn in the economy, he agreed to a point.

“Up until four or five years ago, we’d have, say, 40 to 50 people waiting for their turns on Sunday afternoons,” he said. “But not any more.”

How about the Chunichi Dragons, who won the Central League pennant and advanced to the Japan Series? Has that helped increase business?

“Not really,” he said with a bitter smile. “The thing is, you can’t win against the recession.”

Kawaguchi, who started working here 11 years ago, has an extravagant hope. He said that it would be better if another star player could become known, one who’d honed his skills at the same place Ichiro and Inaba visited.

“I wish we’d have another, younger star,” he said with a laugh.

Unusual assumption: Saturday’s Game 6 of the Japan Series was aired on Fuji Television across the nation. Due to the length of the game, the audience witnessed some rare things they don’t normally see.

The station was prepared to show the game until 10:54 p.m. in case the game ended late. But it went longer than Fuji had expected and ended up being the longest game in Japan Series history (5 hours and 43 minutes).

Fuji had not sold commercial spots after 11 p.m., so it showed the game without any commercials for nearly an hour until the end of the game.

As a result, other programs were pushed back after the baseball game. For example, a Japanese movie that was originally scheduled to start at 9 p.m. began at 12:10 a.m.

A different era: Marines pitching coach Takashi Nishimoto gave his thoughts on the current pitching usage in the Japan Series compared to the past.

Asked whether there was a possibility that the team’s ace hurler Yoshihisa Naruse could’ve been used for Thursday’s Game 5 at Chiba Marine Stadium after four days’ rest, Nishimoto admitted that there was a chance for that.

Instead, Naruse pitched in Game 6.

Recalling his playing days, the 54-year-old former right-handed pitcher for the Yomiuri Giants, Orix BlueWave and Dragons, said that pitchers used to be asked to go to the mound more frequently.

“A starter would pitch three times if there were seven games,” said Nishimoto, who joined Chiba Lotte this year. “Going twice as a starter and once more as a reliever in the last game.”

Nishimoto explained that it may be because a starting pitcher would be used more often, even during the regular season.

“They take the mound on six days’ rest,” the 1981 Japan Series MVP said. “No five days’ rest. When I was an active player, we would go on four days’ rest.”

Nishimoto said that there used to be a tendency for starters to pitch more innings.