Baseball | BASEBALL BULLET-IN

Countryside games add challenges, concerns for NPB teams

by Wayne Graczyk

Japan’s schedule of countryside games (those played away from the home franchise stadiums of the 12 Central and Pacific League teams) has concluded for the season. The last scheduled game, where the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters were to have played the Chiba Lotte Marines on Tuesday at Asahikawa was rained out.

The Yomiuri Giants also had bad luck this year with the scheduling of home games played outside of Tokyo Dome. There were four trips and seven chiho (countryside) games slated in 2016, but earthquakes, typhoons and just plain rainy weather forced postponement of three of them and almost took out a fourth.

A Giants two-game Kyushu series against the Chunichi Dragons that was to have been played April 19-20 at Kumamoto and Kagoshima was wiped out because of strong aftershocks in the Kumamoto area. A severe earthquake had hit that city the previous week, there was some damage to Fujisakidai Stadium, and the decision was made to scrap the entire trip.

The Giants were able to play the Yokohama DeNA Baystars on May 17 in Yamagata and May 18 in Fukushima, but a scheduled July 26 contest against the Hiroshima Carp was rained out in Gifu. Typhoon Lionrock threatened to cause postponement of the Yomiuri game with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows at Fukui on the Sea of Japan coast Aug. 30, but the storm cleared just in time so the game could be played.

Almost every team plays the countryside games. Only the Marines among Japan’s professional clubs did not play a home game in a rural area in 2016.

The question has often been asked: Why are these trips made and games played outside the normal venues? Why, for example, would two Tokyo teams — the Giants and Swallows— travel to Akita in northern Japan or all the way across the country to the Hokuriku region instead of staying home?

It has been pointed out the Giants generally draw a crowd of 16,000 to 25,000 at the smaller-capacity ballparks when they usually attract attendances of 44,000 or more at Tokyo Dome. So why play somewhere else far away?

One answer is it is a tradition. The clubs have for years been going to cities around the nation that do not have their own franchise team. Unlike in North America where smaller cities in the U.S. and Canada support minor league teams, the fans in many Japanese areas would not get to see live professional baseball if it did not come to them.

Some of the teams play the out-of-town games when their regular home stadium may be unavailable because of another event — a concert, for example, or a high school, college or industrial league baseball tournament.

A few clubs have a prefectural or district name in their title and feel the need to play games in various stadiums within the geographical realm of their territory. The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles leave their home base in the city of Sendai to visit Morioka, Akita, Yamagata, Koriyama and other localities in northeast Japan.

The Saitama Seibu Lions, based in Tokorozawa, play a few games in Omiya in another part of the prefecture. The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters call Sapporo home, but the team also hosts games in Asahikawa, Obihiro and Hakodate on the island, in order to please fans in those communities and let everyone know the Fighters are a team for all of Hokkaido.

The quality of the facilities — or lack thereof — at the countryside ballparks ranges from superb to sub-standard. Niigata’s Hard-Off Eco Stadium is excellent. Nagano’s Olympic Stadium and Alpen Stadium in Toyama are also pretty good. In Kyushu, there are a couple of great ball parks; the Big N Stadium in Nagasaki and Sun Marine Stadium in Miyazaki.

All have adequate playing surfaces, clubhouses, descent broadcast and media seats and comfortable seating for 25,000 to 30,000 fans.

All too often, though, the chiho parks are plagued by a bad combination of skin infields, inadequate tarp covers and an arubaito (part-time) ground crew consisting of local high school kids and a few ojisan supervisors. Rain before or during a game can lead to a muddy disaster.

Sometimes there are no clubhouses (forcing players to get dressed in the hallways), cramped press rooms, poor food-and-drink concession stands with fans waiting in long lines, and the radio and TV announcers are forced to set up in a roped-off section of the stands.

Foreign players have over the years expressed concerns about playing in the sticks; mostly negative but sometimes tolerant.

Former BayStars and Giants (2005-10) relief pitcher Marc Kroon, an American and lover of ballpark food such as hot dogs, french fries, cheeseburgers and nachos, always had two concerns whenever his team played at a countryside stadium. He would ask, “What is the pitching mound like?” and also, “Is there a McDonald’s, Burger King or a pizza delivery shop in the neighborhood?”

Current Giants American pitcher Miles Mikolas has pitched at a few of the rustic stadiums and said the texture of the dirt on the mounds is sometimes worrisome. “Some of them are so soft, it’s like pitching out of an ash tray,” he said.

Yakult Swallows outfielder Wladimir Balentien said he doesn’t mind so much going to the out-of-the-way places to play, as long as the ballpark facilities and playing conditions are good. “I like Nagano and Niigata,” he said about those stadiums. “Toyama and Akita are OK too.”

When a game is not played in the rural area, the fans there lose the chance to see their favorite teams in action. The Giants-Dragons games pre-empted by the Kyushu earthquakes in April will be played at Tokyo Dome Sept. 27-28. The Giants-Carp rainout in Fukui in late July will be made up at the Big Egg Sept. 29.

That Fighters-Marines game rained out at Asahikawa last week has been rescheduled for Sept. 30 —at the franchise Sapporo Dome.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at Wayne@JapanBall.com

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