Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball aren’t really so different on the field. Everyone is playing the same game and the rules are more or less the same, with some exceptions.
But as the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics found out during their exhibitions against the Yomiuri Giants and Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, respectively, the leagues are worlds apart in the stands, where Japanese fans take an active role in creating an atmosphere that’s a lot different than in MLB.
“That was awesome,” Mariners second baseman Dee Gordon said after facing the Giants. “It was awesome. They care about baseball. It’s an exhibition game, 46,000 people here (actual attendance: 46,315). That’s awesome. You don’t see that very often.”
Japanese fans beat drums, played horns and sang cheer songs when their teams were at-bat during the exhibitions. The atmosphere in the Big Egg was more akin to a college football game or a European soccer match than a baseball game in the U.S.
“It’s a carnival atmosphere,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “There’s a lot going on during the game that’s different from the States. That’s one of the things I think our guys were embracing and looking forward to and it lived up to the billing.”
There are a few members of both teams who played in Japan the last time the same two clubs opened the MLB season in Tokyo and could tell their teammates what to expect. Mariners outfielder Mitch Haniger was just in Japan in November as part of the MLB-Japan All-Star Series.
“I just told them (his teammates) about the experience, how fun it is playing in front of the Japanese fans,” Haniger said. “It’s a little different than playing in the States. There’s a lot more upbeat energy throughout the game. There’s not any quiet time really here, and as a player it’s really fun to play in front of that.
“That’s what I told my teammates, ‘You’re going to have a really good time playing in front of the Japanese fans.’ I said the Tokyo Dome is gonna be packed and it’ll be loud and it’s gonna be a good time.”
The noise level during the games was vastly different when each team was batting.
There was mostly silence when the MLB teams were at the plate, with the exception of the sound of camera shutters during Ichiro Suzuki’s at-bats. When the NPB clubs were at the plate, the fans sang their cheer songs for each individual player and the “chance theme” when there were runners in scoring position.
Some cheers were accompanied by flag-waving and others by rhythmic clapping. Some of the Fighters’ cheers included hand movements. In the seventh inning (“Lucky 7” in NPB), each Japanese team’s fight song was sung.
“I loved it out there, it was awesome,” said A’s pitcher Liam Hendriks. “Just the constant cheering, constant sound, it was really cool. There’s no dull moments. It’s go, go, go all the time.”
The atmosphere created by Japanese fans is one of the first things noticed by newcomers (fans and players) to the Japanese game.
“It’s exciting and I think it keeps the energy level high,” said Fighters pitcher Nick Martinez, who is preparing for his second NPB season after going 10-11 last year. “I think in Japan you wouldn’t even realize if a team was having a bad season or they were getting blown out in a game. Because the fans, they feel like they’re part of the team, which is really neat and really cool. It’s almost like a club to be a part of, and they’re just supporting their team.”
Count the Mariners’ Jay Bruce among the impressed.
“The crowd, it was amazing,” Bruce said. “Much different than Major League Baseball back in the States. It was a great experience for me, and I’ve really enjoyed being here so far.”
While the Japanese fans predictably stole the show, a small but vocal contingent of A’s fans made their presence felt, shouting “Let’s Go Oakland!” in rhythm.
For Martinez, it’s all part of his routine now. The lefty made 88 appearances for the Texas Rangers from 2014-17 before coming to Japan. He knows how different the atmosphere is and also how to deal with it when he’s pitching.
“That’s something that you kind of train for and mentally prepare for on your way to the big leagues and when you get to the big leagues,” Martinez said.
“When you come over here, maybe it’s a shock at first. It may take you a couple of times. But they bring the intensity out during spring training and the exhibition games. So it’s a perfect time to get used to it.”