Baseball / Japanese Baseball | Sac Bunts

Home run celebrations becoming commonplace in Japanese game

by Jason Coskrey

Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks infielder Kenji Akashi briefly went viral across baseball late last week when he hit a three-run sayonara home run and celebrated with a backflip onto home plate. Well, near home plate, as he had to go back and actually step on it.

Before long, videos of Akashi’s acrobatics were being tweeted out by accounts connected to both MLB and the World Baseball Softball Confederation, baseball’s governing body, among others. It was also shown on MLB Network in the U.S.

While the flashy move probably surprised some outside Japan, NPB players are no strangers to post-homer celebrations. Backflips certainly aren’t the norm, but bat flips and various other “home run performances” are fairly common around NPB, where apparently a lot of the prickly unwritten rules MLB often grapples with (resulting in players getting hit with pitches) were lost in translation.

If anything, NPB players are celebrating more often. The area in front of the dugouts is so popular as a celebration spot it might as well be a stage.

“It’s kind of like teamwork in a way,” Yomiuri Giants outfielder Yoshihiro Maru told The Japan Times on Saturday. “It livens up the atmosphere on the bench. It’s one way to make things more fun.”

When Maru goes deep for the Giants, he returns to the dugout to all of his teammates raising their arms in half-circles (the word maru can be translated as “circle” and the gesture itself indicates something’s been done right) above their heads and shaking them left and right, while Maru does it back at them.

“I don’t remember when it started. It might’ve been after my first home run,” said Maru, the two-time reigning Central League MVP who joined Yomiuri as a free agent during the offseason.

In Fukuoka, Hawks third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda high-fives his teammates, then faces the crowd and does a big fist pump while screaming “atsuo!” (a portmanteau derived from the characters for “heat” and “man”) at the top of his lungs. Before long, Hawks fans were all yelling it along with him.

The Chiba Lotte Marines’ Brandon Laird has been known for using his hands to mimic making sushi as he rounds third and again near the dugout.

After seeing fans pantomiming reeling in a fish on the videoboard at Zozo Marine Stadium between innings on opening night, he added that to his routine, now catching the imaginary fish before making his “home run sushi.”

“I saw it on the screen,” Laird said after debuting the celebration. “I went fishing, cut a fish and made some sushi.”

The Seibu Lions’ Hotaka Yamakawa now does a sumo-esque pose toward Lions fans after homers — and the big man, who led NPB with 47 in 2018, should get to do it a lot.

Tokyo Yakult Swallows stars Waldimir Balentien and Norichika Aoki currently go with a handshake-dab combo.

Those are just a few, not counting bat flips. Not all are flashy, such as the small salute the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters used to do after rounding third, or SoftBank’s Alfredo Despaigne’s high kick.

While there seems to be an uptick in celebrations after homers, it’s hardly a new occurrence.

Akashi’s flip Thursday was an homage to his former manager Koji Akiyama, who did the same a few times after home runs for the Seibu Lions, including in some Japan Series games.

“I thought I’d do it if I hit a sayonara home run,” Akashi said during his hero interview that night. Akashi was drafted in 2003 and that was his first walk-off homer.

“Since before I turned pro. I’ve been admiring and practicing Akiyama-san’s backflip since about elementary school. Like, can I do it? I missed home plate, so everyone was telling me ‘step on it, step on it.’ ”

Current Yokohama BayStars manager Alex Ramirez, who played in Japan from 2001-2013, was famous for his performances, which always involved the team mascot.

In the end, it’s really just players having a little fun in a game that can often get way too serious.

In MLB, just looking at a deep home run for a second too long can lead to the benches clearing. In Japan, of all places, it’s just an area where players don’t seem to take things too seriously and can have fun.

To steal a phrase from MLB, they’re just letting the kids play.