Going from worst to first — last place to a pennant — is difficult for any professional baseball team. The Tokyo Yakult Swallows managed to do it this past season in the Central League, and the two clubs that finished at the bottom of the league standings in 2015 are hoping to rise to the top during the coming year.
Whether or not they can do it remains to be seen, but the Yokohama DeNA BayStars and Tohoku Rakuten Eagles have their sights set on moving up in the Central and Pacific League standings, respectively. They are starting with big improvements to their ballparks over the winter, including the replacement of an artificial turf playing surface with real grass and ideas to convince hometown fans in Yokohama and Sendai the stadium environment will be more fun than ever.
It was 1978 when the then-Taiyo Whales abandoned the aging bandbox Kawasaki Stadium and moved a few kilometers south to Yokohama with its brand new, central city-located ballpark. The Whales became the BayStars in 1993, and the Taiyo Fisheries Co. eventually sold the club to Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) in 2001.
Over the years, the team won but a single Japan Series championship (in 1998) and was basically a money loser, a situation not helped by the fact its deal with the city and stadium regarding the sharing of gate receipts and advertising revenue was not a good one.
TBS sold the franchise to the DeNA mobile game maker company before the 2012 season amid rumors the BayStars might leave Yokohama and perhaps relocate to Niigata on the Sea of Japan coast, a city just two hours from Tokyo by bullet train where the new 30,000-seat Hard-Off Eco Stadium seemed ready to welcome a pro ballclub.
During the first four seasons under the DeNA banner, the BayStars have failed to make the post-season Climax Series but, despite the last-place finish in 2015, there were some bright spots. Under flamboyant manager Kiyoshi Nakahata, the ‘Stars were in first place in the Central League in late May, and attendance has increased dramatically.
DeNA drew 1,813,800 paying customers last season, for an average of 21,730 spectators per home game. That represents an increase of 17.6 percent over 2014, the biggest improvement among CL teams.
To take advantage of the club’s popularity in the Port City and surrounding Shonan area, DeNA expects to establish majority ownership of Yokohama Stadium, prove to the city and fans the franchise will not be moving and eliminate the need to divide with the city income from ticket sales and advertising.
They also have plans to change the color of the stadium seats from the orange ones that have been in place for 37 years to the team’s blue and converting the playing surface from the hard-on-the-players-knees synthetic turf to real grass.
Meanwhile, the Eagles have big plans to further increase the seating capacity at Kobo Stadium in Sendai and improve the atmosphere at what is already one of Japan’s most interesting and colorful ballparks.
The Rakuten team owner, Hiroshi Mikitani, spent a ton of money to almost totally rebuild what was then Miyagi Stadium after being granted a Pacific League expansion franchise in 2004. The old ballpark was mostly unkempt with a choppy skin infield, patchy grass outfield and mostly decaying bleacher-type bench seats where fans had to be careful not to go home with splinters in their backsides.
When the team began play in 2005, the seating capacity at what had become Fullcast Stadium was 23,000, and the rotting benches were replaced by the Eagles team color maroon plastic seats from which spectators could comfortably watch the action played on a new jinko shiba (man-made grass) field.
Over the years since, the capacity as been gradually increasing to accommodate fans in the Tohoku area supporting the Eagles despite the fact the team has advanced to the post-season only twice, finishing second in 2009 (but losing in the Climax Series) and winning the Japan Series in 2013.
In addition, the Eagles created a carnival-like atmosphere outside the stadium, featuring rides for kids, food booths and other activities for fans to enjoy even before entering the ballpark for yakyu excitement.
The latest plans for the 2016 season include the addition of Rakutenyama Park in left-center field with a Ferris wheel that should offer a great view of the game from the top. LED lights on the wheel will trigger a fireworks-like celebration whenever an Eagles player hits a home run.
A new major league-style genuine grass field will replace the artificial turf carpet and, according to artists’ conceptions, the grass will be cut in such a way as to create an attractive MLB-style checkerboard pattern.
The Eagles drew a team-record 1,524,149 fans in 2015, averaging 21,467 per game, and the seating capacity at Kobo Stadium is to be 30,000 once the construction and renovations are completed in time for the start of the coming season. The scoreboard will be expanded as well.
Both the BayStars and the Eagles will have new managers, with Alex Ramirez taking the reins in Yokohama and Masataka Nashida assuming control in Sendai. The players on both clubs should be inspired by working in more colorful home office surroundings, and the fans must be excited and hopeful their teams will play as good as their stadiums are going to look.
The Baseball Bullet-In wishes all readers a Merry Christmas.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com
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