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Anniversaries abound around NPB


The year 2013 will mark a season of notable anniversaries for Japanese baseball franchises and ballparks. It is Japanese year Heisei 25, the 25th anniversary for Tokyo Dome, Japan’s first indoor stadium, and the 20th for Fukuoka Yahoo Japan Dome, the country’s first-and still the only-retractable roof facility for baseball.

I can recall a time in 1982, in the days before cable and satellite TV, when a friend came to my house in Tachikawa, and we were listening to an American League game on the former Far East Network radio station. The Minnesota Twins were playing the Kansas City Royals at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, and my friend said, “They should build a dome like that in Tokyo for the (Yomiuri) Giants and (Nippon Ham) Fighters games.”

“Where would they put it?” I asked.

“Right there where they play now,” he responded. “Knock down the old Korakuen Stadium and put up a dome.”

“That’s impossible,” I countered. “There is no space there to build a domed stadium. No way.”

He was laughing at me a few weeks later when plans were announced to do exactly what he had suggested and I had considered unthinkable. A domed stadium would be built in the Korakuen complex across from Japan Railways Suidobashi Station. Six years later, in 1988, the Big Egg was up and running as indoor baseball made its debut in Japan.

Meanwhile, it was 20 years ago when the Fukuoka Dome was opened in 1993. It was supposed to be adaptable to the weather conditions: roof closed on rainy days and chilly early spring evenings; lid lifted on warm, sunny afternoons and moonlit nights. Sadly, the open air days have been few and far between.

It was soon discovered there is a wind problem with strong gusts coming in from adjacent Hakata Bay, causing swirling of dirt and dust around the home plate area. Because of this, only a handful of games have been played with the top off during the past two decades, even on perfect weather days.

This will also be the 35th anniversary of Yokohama Stadium, opened in 1978, and the home of the Yokohama BayStars will this year add field seats down the first- and third-base lines to give some fans a closer look.

Coming up too is the fifth season already for the Hiroshima Carp to be playing at Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium, and the 2013 campaign will be the 10th already for the Nippon Ham Fighters since manager Trey Hillman led the franchise to Sapporo, and for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks to be playing under that name.

Where does the time go?

Diamond Dust: Japanese baseball fan and Colorado resident Ken Shimada has offered a player review of a guy coming to Japan. Shimada wrote in an e-mail: “I want to comment about Ryan Spilborghs, who recently signed with the Saitama Seibu Lions. The (Denver) fans really liked his laid-back attitude when he played for the Rockies. I remember he got called up quickly after playing really well for AA Tulsa (in 2006).

“He appeared on several Rockies commercials when he played here. He is media- and fan-friendly, and fans in Denver really miss him. I also saw him last year in Colorado Springs when he played for Round Rock, the AAA affiliate of the Texas Rangers. He took his time and posed for pictures with a disabled fan when he was in Colorado Springs, and several fans cheered him when he came to bat, even though he was no longer with the Rockies.”

Thanks, Ken. Spilborghs seems to be the type of “4A” player who often finds success in Japan. I have seen him play in person for Colorado twice; once at the 2007 World Series against the Red Sox at Fenway Park in Boston, and again in an interleague game against the Royals in Kansas City in 2008.

His name alone intrigued me; his father is from Belgium and his mother from Guatemala, though Ryan was born in Santa Barbara, California. He is 33 and a left-handed-hitting outfielder.

The Lions issued a statement after announcing his signing on Dec. 17, in which Spilborghs said, “Since I was a little boy, I have always dreamed of playing in the major leagues and Japan. From (Sadaharu) Oh to Ichiro (Suzuki) to Daisuke (Matsuazaka), I have always respected Japanese baseball. I am honored to have the opportunity to play for the Seibu Lions and promise to play as hard as I can.”

Having lost All-Star shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima to free agency and the Oakland Athletics, Seibu will be relying on a six-man foreign player roster to help make up some of what will be missing. Spilborghs will be joining holdover position players Jose Ortiz and Esteban German in the Lions lineup.

The other three non-Japanese are relief pitchers Randy Williams, the lefty setup man and also a returnee from 2012; Brian Sikorski, who comes back to Tokorozawa after having left for surgery in 2011; and Dennis Sarfate, transferring from the Hiroshima Carp. Playing his 11th season in Japan, Sikorski will not be counted among the four-man foreign player first team registration limit.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com