KAWASAKI – Former Lotte Orions outfielder Hideaki Takazawa recalled that he and his teammates would joke that there were more officials than fans at the stadium for their games back in the day.
The Pacific League was far behind the Central League in terms of media exposure and attendance in general in the 1980s. And Lotte, in particular, would always finish in the bottom half of the standings. It was one of the least-popular teams in all Japanese pro baseball, and poor attendance figures at home provided clear-cut evidence of that.
But its small, not-so-state-of-the-art home stadium, Kawasaki Stadium, has remained stuck in the minds of baseball fans of a certain age, even a quarter century after the club left to become the Chiba Lotte Marines.
A legendary game played there Oct. 19, 1988, between Lotte and the Kintetsu Buffaloes — which is popularly dubbed “10.19” — is undoubtedly one of the biggest reasons why. On that particular day, the usually deserted Kawasaki Stadium was all of a sudden the center of Japanese baseball.
“People are still talking about 10.19, and I feel appreciative for that,” Takazawa said during a talk show at an all-day event to reminisce about the stadium’s legacy on Saturday. “I still get interviewed about it.”
That day, the Buffs played a double header against the Orions to wrap up their regular season and needed to win both games to capture the PL pennant over the powerhouse Seibu Lions. They won the first game 4-3. In the second, they had a 4-3 lead until Takazawa dramatically smacked a solo homer in the bottom of the eighth. It finished in a 4-4 tie as the game was ended after the bottom of the 10th due to the time-limit rule back then.
The Orions’ spot in last place had already been set before the double-header and they had not won a single game (seven losses) against the Buffs in October alone.
But the Oct. 19 games were different. Takazawa revealed that Lotte’s then-skipper, Michiyo Arito, told his players before the first game that he would play his best squad so it would not disrespect either Seibu or Kintetsu.
“We were told that we would have to play as hard as we could, because the games meant so much for both teams,” said the 58-year-old Takazawa, who now serves as a coach at the Marines’ baseball academy.
Takazawa went on to say the unusual mood at the stadium naturally raised the tension for the Orions players as well.
“It wasn’t a normal situation,” said the Hokkaido native, who became the PL’s batting champion with a .327 average that season. “The mood created by the fans got us going.”
Takazawa confessed that the Buffs, who dramatically won the first game by scoring the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth inning, inadvertently provoked the playing-for-nothing Orions into taking the second game more seriously.
“They were celebrating, laying on the ground (after pinch hitter Masataka Nashida drove in the go-ahead run),” he said. “And we were like, ‘Hey, we’re playing, too.’ We wouldn’t get like that normally, but the whole stadium contributed to the mood.”
At any rate, the result of the second game meant the Buffaloes came up short and their first pennant since 1980 slipped from their grasp.
After playing 130 games apiece, the gap between the pennant-winning Lions and runnerup Buffaloes was miniscule. Seibu finished the season with a .589 winning percentage to .587 for Kintetsu.
Kenichi Yokoyama, who was first a member of the Orions ouendan cheering group and later served as a club official for the Marines over two decades, is a walking encyclopedia of the team and Kawasaki Stadium, which opened in 1951.
Yokoyama, 53, said the team’s final game at the venue in 1991 did not fill the stadium, which is said to have a capacity of 30,000 but in reality probably holds far fewer, but that the 10.19 game did, a sign of how extraordinary the contest was. It’s often been shown on TV programs that some fans would play badminton during games there, using the wide-open space in stands devoid of people.
Kawasaki Stadium, which had been the franchise home for the Takahashi Unions and Taiyo Whales (predecessor of the Yokohama BayStars) before Lotte came in 1978, has now been renamed Fujitsu Stadium Kawasaki and has been renovated. It’s used more as an American football venue these days. Yet some things, such as the fences behind home plate, part of the outfield fences and light towers, remain from the old days.
Yokoyama added that it is special that the unpopular stadium has not been torn down.
“Among the Pacific League stadiums that were used when I was a boy, it’s only Kawasaki Stadium that’s still in existence,” he said. “It’s incredible that the stadium is sill here, remaining as a sporting mecca.”
Ikuro Tanaka, a club official for the J. League’s Kawasaki Frontale, the current designated administrator for the stadium (Tanaka is the stadium manager), said many of the football players and young Frontale players who practice at the stadium don’t know much about what happened in the past, including 10.19. But he wants them to understand that they were given the place today based on its history.
“We need to inherit the legacy,” Tanaka said. “When you ask people what reminds them of Kawasaki, many would still say here. We almost feel like we want to make this a world heritage site.”
The Saturday event was the second held to recollect the legacy of the stadium and 10.19. Tanaka said that the organizers would like to hold it once a year or so going forward.