Baseball | BASEBALL BULLET-IN

Fighters could start trend with building of own stadium

by Wayne Graczyk

The recent story about the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters considering the building of their own stadium on Japan’s northernmost main island and move out of Sapporo Dome got me to thinking about the status of the other currently used ballparks in Japan.

Many are several decades old, and perhaps it is time for other teams and cities to evaluate the situation of their stadiums and move toward construction of something better. Japan needs more ballparks such as Mazda ZoomZoom Stadium in Hiroshima, asymmetrical and more like the newer ones in Major League Baseball.

There will be a new Jingu Stadium for the Yakult Swallows to play in Tokyo after the 2020 Olympic Games and, hopefully, the Fighters will be playing in their own facility in Sapporo by 2024, by which time Sapporo Dome will have been in use for 23 years, having opened in 2001.

The truth be told, Sapporo Dome is far from the best stadium in the world to watch baseball. It appears from the outside to look like the gas pavilion at a World’s Fair. Fans and media personnel have said it is dark inside.

Don’t expect the Hanshin Tigers to erect a new Koshien Stadium; that 92-year-old shrine will likely remain forever as “Japan’s Wrigley Field,” but many stadiums used by Central and Pacific League teams, though not nearly as old as Koshien, are getting long in the tooth. Most are symmetrical and not interesting.

Sendai’s Kobo Stadium is almost like a new ballpark, having undergone huge renovations in several phases since the Rakuten Eagles joined NPB in 2005, but some of the other home fields of Japanese teams could stand to be replaced.

Yokohama Stadium is almost 40 years old, having opened in 1978. Seibu Prince Dome is right behind; opened in 1979 as Seibu Lions Stadium with the roof added in 1999. Tokyo Dome is about to turn 30 already, Fukuoka Dome is in its 24th season of use, and Kyocera Osaka Dome and Nagoya Dome are in their 20th year since inauguration.

Chiba’s QVC Marine Field, located on Tokyo Bay and with its infamous wind currents that often play havoc with pop flies on breezy days, is 26 years old, having opened in 1990. It is the classic concrete “cookie cutter,” donut-shaped ballpark similar to those put up in North America in the 1960s and ’70s in such places as New York (Shea Stadium), Houston, Montreal, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. All were round, symmetrical and just plain dull.

The turning point toward new American ballparks with character and inner-city locations came in 1992 with the opening of the Baltimore Orioles Camden Yards. Other

cities followed with new stadiums and colorful names such as the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati.

Many of the new stadiums also have iconic trademark sights such as Levi’s Landing and McCovey Cove at AT&T Park in San Francisco, the Clemente Bridge crossing the Allegheny River beyond center field at PNC Park in Pittsburgh and the home-run Liberty Bell at Philadelphia’s Citizen’s Bank Park.

In Japan, a trend toward more colorful stadiums, though it is slow, has probably begun with the refurbishing of the Rakuten’s Kobo Stadium. Seats have been added constantly over the past decade, the scoreboard is exciting, and that Ferris wheel in left-center field, opened last month, cannot go unnoticed.

Hiroshima’s Mazda Stadium is marked by the gap in the stands with the observation walkway on the third-base side, its Sky seats and the shinkansen bullet trains passing behind the left-field stands. The architect who worked on Sendai’s Kobo Stadium also had a hand in designing the Mazda field.

Now it will be up to other teams and cities to keep the movement going, and the news from Sapporo is a good start.

The Fighters never regretted their move from Tokyo to Hokkaido in 2004, and Sapporo Dome is one big reason the team went north. The 42,000-seat stadium was there and ready to adopt a franchise team full time. Sparse weeknight attendance at Nippon Ham Games at Tokyo Dome also contributed to the decision to relocate.

Four Pacific League pennant victories over the years with managers Trey Hillman, Masataka Nashida and Hideki Kuriyama, and a 2006 Japan Series championship under Hillman helped boost crowd numbers in Sapporo, as did the emergence of star players such as Michihiro Ogasawara, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Yu Darvish and Shohei Otani.

However, the Fighters are said to be paying ¥8 million per game to use the city-owned Sapporo Dome and an extra ¥400 per fan when attendance goes over the 20,000 threshold. It is not surprising the ballclub is looking to build its own stadium.

But, what kind of a ballpark would be good?

The Nippon Ham organization will not be talking about it for the time being, but news articles in print and online have said they are looking to put up about a 30,000-seater with a retractable roof and natural grass.

They would need an all-weather facility, or the Fighters would not be able to play preseason exhibition games there in March while there may still be several centimeters of snow on the ground, and it might be too cold and frosty to play Japan Series games outdoors in late October or early November.

Above all, it should be a ballpark — a baseball-only facility with left field different from right field and some interesting features. Oh — and no fixed dome, please.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com