Baseball | BASEBALL BULLET-IN

Will Swallows become a 'gypsy' team in 2020?

by Wayne Graczyk

A recent news item indicates Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium may be closed from May to October in 2020 because of the Olympic Games. I am not certain why it has to be closed for five months but can understand.

Since the ballpark is located adjacent to the National Stadium where the Olympics will be held, it needs to be shut down at some point prior to the start of the Summer Games for security reasons and to alleviate congestion in the area.

The 2020 Olympics are scheduled for July 24-Aug. 9, followed by the Paralympics (Aug. 25-Sept. 6).

If Jingu Stadium is unavailable for most of the pro baseball season, what will the Tokyo Yakult Swallows do for home games? Could it be the Birds would become a “gypsy” team? If so, it would be the second time for a team in Japan to wear that label and play all “home” games in several stadiums around the country. This brings to mind one unforgettable episode in Japanese baseball history.

The Pacific League Lotte Orions went by the “gypsy team” description for five seasons in the 1970s. After losing their regular home, Tokyo Stadium, to a monetary scandal involving the ballpark’s owner that forced its closure, the Orions played from 1973-77 wherever they could find an available ballpark.

Lotte played opening days in Sendai’s Miyagi Stadium (long before the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles moved into that city in 2005) and hosted home contests throughout those seasons in Tokyo, at Korakuen Stadium and Jingu, Kawasaki, Shizuoka, and their spring camp site in Kagoshima on the southern tip of Kyushu.

The Orions even played a series at Nishikyogoku Stadium in Kyoto, though there were already three Pacific League teams (the Nankai Hawks, Kintetsu Buffaloes and Hankyu Braves) and one Central League club (the Hanshin Tigers) that called the Kansai area home.

The team was always traveling in those days four decades ago, when getting around the country was not that easy. There was no Tohoku Shinkansen service at that time, so the train trip from Tokyo to Sendai took four hours, compared with the time it takes bullet trains to make the 1-hour-and-40-minute run today.

Scheduling must have been a nightmare for the Pacific League officials, and the Orions’ traveling secretary no doubt had a stressful job.

Jim Lefebvre, the 1965 National League Rookie of the Year, played for Lotte from 1973 through 1976 and served as a coach in 1977. He used to describe the hectic day-to-day life of an Orions player, basically living out of a suitcase and seldom sleeping in his own bed. He recalled chaotic situations at train stops reminiscent of the “Keystone Kops” or “The Three Stooges.”

“We carried our own equipment, and it made for a comical scene at train stations. A train would pull into the station, and we would have two minutes to shove everything on the train before the platform bell rang and doors closed. Bats and bags were flying everywhere,” Lefebvre recalled.

After all the players and their gear made it onto the train, the guys would take a deep breath, straighten out their neckties and take their seats, relaxing and acting as if what had happened was routine.

If the Swallows are forced to find other places to go through the last three-quarters of the 2020 season outside of Jingu Stadium, there would be several places to play as the home team and for the fans to wave their trademark green vinyl umbrellas. They could host some games at Tokyo Dome, for example.

Even now, Yakult plays a few games as the home club in other cities such as Shizuoka in central Japan, Akita in northern Japan and Matsuyama on Shikoku Island. QVC Marine Field, home of the Chiba Lotte Marines who were once the gypsy Orions, might also be an option.

Another nice place to play and where the Swallows have gone in recent years as the home team is the 30,000-seat Hard-Off Eco Stadium in Niigata.

While maybe not qualifying for the full-time “gypsy” label, other teams in Japan and the major leagues have over the years had to spend unusually long periods of time outside of their regular home stadiums.

The Hanshin Tigers usually open the Central League season at Kyocera Osaka Dome because their own Koshien Stadium is occupied by the annual Japan Invitational High School Baseball Tournament. The Tigers did not see Koshien this year until the fifth series of the season on April 8, two weeks after Opening Day.

Hanshin also will not play at Koshien between Aug. 1 and 25, again giving up the ballpark for the National High School Baseball Championship.

In August 1992, the Republican National Convention was held at the Astrodome in Houston (where U.S. Vice President George H.W. Bush was nominated as the party’s presidental candidate). While the event ran only four days, Aug. 17-20, preparation of the facility to host the event and post-convention work to dismantle the set-up caused the then-National League Houston Astros to play 26 consecutive road games from July 27 through Aug. 23.

Jingu Stadium is also the home of Tokyo’s Big 6 League of college baseball, hosts other university games and some qualifying rounds of the Tokyo Prefectural high school competition for teams vying for a slot at the Koshien nationals. If Jingu is unavailable in 2020, those kids would also need to find another place to play.

Despite living the homeless life, the Orions won the 1974 Japan Series (playing Series home games in Tokyo’s Korakuen), so maybe the Swallows, as Japan’s second “gypsy” team, will have success, even if they lose their home for a good part of the 2020 season.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com

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