Baseball

Japanese fans providing new experience for major leaguers

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Seeing a different baseball culture, complete with its own traditions, has been an eye-opening experience for the players on the major league squad — many of whom are in Japan for the first time — during the Japan All-Star Series.

One of the things that has drawn the most attention from the big leaguers is the dedicated chanting and singing of Japanese fans during the games.

During Game 2 of the six-game series on Saturday at Tokyo Dome, Shuta Tonosaki entered as a pinch runner for Samurai Japan in the seventh and had his first at-bat in the ninth.

Japanese fans perform specialized chants and specific music for most of the team’s regular players, some of which are normally very loud. But Tonosaki’s cheer song is arguably on another level in terms of volume, and during it the fans in the outfield also jump up and down.

During Tonosaki’s at-bat, some of the major league players on the field could actually be seen taking few curious looks into the stands.

Kansas City Royals outfielder/infielder Whit Merrifield was the player closest to the main Japanese cheering section and also glanced up to see what was going on behind him in the stands from his spot in right field.

“I was just enjoying it,” Merrifield said when asked what was going through his mind as he watched the fans. “Because it’s different than it is in the States. So I was trying to learn the chants for the different guys.”

The 29-year-old, who played at second base in Game 3, said his favorite chant for the Japanese team was the one for Tokyo Yakult Swallows slugger Tetsuto Yamada.

“I like his chant, when they (the fans) go like this,” he said, imitating the way the fans wave their arms back and forth above their heads. “And then, they stand up and sit down. So I was listening.”

Enrique Hernandez of the Los Angeles Dodgers was also peeking into stands from his spot at third base on Saturday.

The Dodgers utility man is from Puerto Rico, where stadiums can get just as loud when the Puerto Rican national team competes in events like the World Baseball Classic and the Caribbean Series. But Hernandez readily admits it’s not something he sees in major league games.

“I was looking at them, thinking ‘this is pretty awesome,’ ” Hernandez said after Game 2. “I loved how they have a chant for every hitter. And at that time (when Tonosaki was at the plate), I’m sure that they were jumping up and down, they had very good choreography, which is pretty cool.”

Asked a follow-up question on Sunday, Hernandez expressed his amazement at how the fans remained so energetic throughout the game, irregardless of Game 2’s lopsided score as Japan cruised to a 12-6 win.

“Even when the game got a little bit out of hand at some point, the fans were still cheering like it was a close game,” said Hernandez, who seemed to be slightly swaying to the rhythm of Tonosaki’s song on Sunday.

At times, the cheer songs and chants have effected the MLB fielders in the same way crowd noise can disrupt football teams.

After Game 2, center fielder Kevin Pillar noted he sometimes listens to the sound of the ball off the bat when trying read fly balls. But when cleanup hitter Yuki Yanagita hit a pitch in his fourth at-bat that night, Pillar couldn’t hear the sound and was fooled by Yanagita’s aggressive swing. The ball didn’t fly as far as Pillar initially thought and landed in front of him in shallow center.

When asked if the “noise” could be a distraction defensively, Merrifield responded by saying, “Yeah, definitely.

“It’s hard to communicate a shallow fly ball to right field,” he added. “If I’m playing second base, and I’m going to catch it, I can’t hear the right fielder, saying, ‘I got it, I got it.’ So it makes it hard.”

Staff writer Jason Coskrey contributed to this report