Friday, April 25, 2008

Game Report: Mariners vs. Royals - ...Yabuta, who's gonna Bale out Nomo?

(It's not just a host of ex-NPB guys, it's a bad punchline!)

Usually when I'm in "better late than never" mode I just let these games slide off my radar into "never", but this one was kind of special for various reasons, so I at least want there to be some form of entry here about it. This is from the April 15th Mariners-Royals game.

It was another cold and cloudy morning in Seattle, so I was in no particular hurry to get down to the stadium; plus I had a bunch of errands to run in the morning. (You know, a baseball game really can kill most of a day for me -- since I generally try to get there 1.5 hours early, which means catching the bus 2.5 hours before the game, so for a 3:40pm start, I got out of the house a little after 1:30pm, and I didn't arrive home until around 9pm that night.) I ended up arriving around 2:30pm, wihch was way too late. I went down to the field and just sat there in the front row, watching the Royals take BP, which is really more than enough entertainment for me. I just enjoy watching batting practice, to be honest, regardless of whether I have my big camera with me. Brent (aka etowncoug on Lookout Landing and such) arrived a little while after I did, and he sat down next to me and we chatted about various stuff.

Joey Gathright got called over by some people and signed some stuff, including my ticket stub. Thanks, dude.

I was just saying to Brent what a totally nice guy Trey Hillman is when... Hillman actually started coming over towards us! I'm pretty sure he was actually going towards the group of people behind us -- the friends I saw him talking to the day before -- but I said hi anyway as he came up. And this time I actually managed to ask a few questions as he was signing stuff for kids/etc, although I still feel pretty dorky about it all. These aren't exact quotes from him, I'm just trying to recapture the responses via my shorthand notes and what I remember.

I asked, "Do you think what you've been given with the Royals is like what you got when you arrived with the Fighters six years ago?"

He said that you could say the situations were similar, but that being in the majors is a completely different ballgame. Getting the guys to keep working together well as a team is a big objective. "The important thing is to never underestimate what we can do. I'd love to take these guys all the way to the World Series."

"If anyone can do it, it's you," I said. "How about... err... do you have any crazy guys on this team kinda like Shinjo or Hichori?"

"Oh, yeah, we definitely have crazy guys," he said.

"Are YOU still crazy?" I laughed.

"Yeah, I'm still crazy. Last week I set my pants on fire."

"You WHAT?"

"I was going out to congratulate Tony Pena on a play, and there was a propane heater in the dugout, and I got a little too close, and next thing you know, I was on fire. It wasn't on purpose, but it got a good laugh from everyone."

"How much do you still keep up with what's going on with the Fighters?" I asked.

"I still keep up with it. I go visit as often as I can to see the standings and articles," ("Dude! I wrote the box score translator for that site!" I rudely cut in, because I was just too freaked out that Hillman-kantoku reads the site!), "and I even did that Skype call to Hillman's Hangout last night! It was at 5am here, but after people had watched the game in Sapporo, I think it was a tie, 3-3, not sure who they were playing," (again I cut in, "Seibu,") "the tie game with Seibu," he continued. "I can't see the crowd, they choose some people to come up and ask me a question, and I can see that person, but everyone in the restaurant can see and hear my response. The place fits around 70 or 80 people."

"Will you be doing any of those Q&A sessions during the first weekend in May?" I said, having told him before that I'd be heading to Sapporo for my first time over Golden Week.

"I don't know the schedule. Ikeda-san decides it and I just call in," he replied.

BP was coming to its end by that point. I asked him to sign a card for me -- it was his Nippon Series 2007 manager card -- and would you believe, he said "Hey, this is cool. I don't think I've seen this one before."

"Really? It's from last year's Japan Series."

"Yeah, that company, BBM? They make a lot of money off these cards, but they rarely give the cards to the people in them."

"Damn! I would have brought you a whole set if I'd known!"

(Now I am seriously trying to figure out if I could somehow find another box or two of Japan Series 2006/2007 cards and send them to Kansas City, no joke.)

My friend Brett, who had also shown up by then, asked Hillman to get Brian Bannister to come over to see some pitching stats that he'd printed up (because Bannister is a stathead. Which is cool). Hillman was like "I don't know if I want you Mariners fans getting into his head... but I'll give him the message."

Anyway, as Hillman headed off, I made some comment about how "It's just great to meet you finally. People in the stands in the Fighters section, they see my white skin, and usually ask me about you."

"Well, now you can tell them you've met me, and that it's absolutely no big deal!"

"WHAT? No way! This was the highlight of my trip home!"

The ushers kicked us out of the field area after that, and so I made my way over to section 108, where I was meeting up with a few folks; Chris and Rachel, who had gone with me to the first open-sen game this year at Jingu, and Edwin, who posts to as Kamina Ayato, and writes a TON about the Koshien tourmaments. (As such, I brought him a present: the Shube magazine special issue summarizing the spring senbatsu tournament. I knew Kinokuniya in Seattle NEVER gets those special issues.)

But, I pretty much immediately ran off to the bullpen to watch John Bale warm up, because, hey, last time I saw him pitch, he was wearing a Hiroshima Carp uniform. So, neat! I also saw Miguel Batista warming up, wearing a #42 jersey -- somehow it had entirely escaped me that this game was Jackie Robinson Day as well. I looked around both bullpens, but I actually don't really recognize all the guys anymore, which was kind of odd. I did see Norm Charlton hanging out in the M's bullpen, and realized he must be the bullpen coach now. And in the Royals bullpen I watched as the guys came in and as Bale and Buck left; I saw Yabuta, and at the very end before I left, I saw Nomo enter. He looked around, and kind of nodded at me and the Japanese guy with a camera, and then hid in the bullpen bench.

(The last time I saw Hideo Nomo in the Safeco bullpens was almost three years ago, when he was with Tampa Bay.)

Anyway, I got a BBQ sandwich and ran back upstairs JUST IN TIME to see leadoff batter David DeJesus get a single to right. Grudzilla singled as well, and my Royals boyfriend Mark Teahen struck out. But then during Billy Butler's at-bat, Batista threw a wild pitch, advancing the runners to second and third, and so DeJesus tagged up and scored when Butler hit a sac fly to center. 1-0. Jose Guillen grounded out after that to end the inning.

Naturally, Ichiro led off the bottom of the first with a double to right as well, then stole third in a cloud of smoke during Jose Lopez's at-bat, and thus scored on a sac fly to left. 1-1.

The Mariners put on two more runs in the second; Jose Vidro led off with a ground rule double which bounced over the wall into our section (it was pretty difficult to see from our angle, actually). Richie Sexson walked, and after a popout by Johjima, WILLIE BLOOMQUIST!1!111 hit a single to right; Vidro and Sexson were off on the hit so Vidro scored and Sexson got to third. 2-1. Yuniesky Betancourt hit a sac fly to center, and even Big Richie could tag up and score off that one. 3-1. Ichiro came out to some random J-Pop song, and a few seconds later, Bloomquist got caught stealing to end the inning. Whoosh.

So Ichiro led off the bottom of the third, and singled to left. This time he got to second on a wild pitch during Lopez's at-bat, ran to third on a popout by Lopez, and scored on a Raul Ibanez single. 4-1. Adrian Beltre hit a popup into the outfield after that... except it actually landed, so Raul had to actually run and slide into second base. Whoops. Bale struck out Vidro and Richie to end the inning, though.

The Royals caught up in the top of the 4th. Billy Butler walked. Jose Guillen mashed a double into left, so when Alex Gordon grounded out towards first, Butler scored (4-2) and Guillen got to third. Ross Gload singled, scoring Guillen -- 4-3. John Buck also singled, and... got caught stealing during Tony Pena's at-bat. (He was out by a mile. Or at least by his own height, and he's a pretty tall dude for a catcher.) Pena hit a weak grounder up the left-field line which rolled foul (and evoked the Price is Right music as it went), but then after that hit a grounder towards third which went for a single, Gload scoring on the play. 4-4. Pena stole and DeJesus walked, but that was it for the Royals as Grudzilla grounded out to end the inning.

They had announced Hideo Nomo being in the bullpen, but I didn't know if it was worth jumping up and running down there to see him warm up. After Johjima led off the bottom of the 4th with a single, Bale came out of the game and Nomo came in to pitch, and then I DID feel a little sad that we didn't catch him -- I realized it was probably the last chance I would ever have to see Nomo pitching from close up. Dang.

Sadly, Nomo got the crap beaten out of him. Willie Freaking Bloomquist also singled off him, and then Betancourt hit a double to left, scoring Johjima. 5-4. Ichiro actually STRUCK OUT, but then Jose Lopez -- who would eventually hit three sac flies for the day -- hit another one, scoring Willie. 6-4. Ibanez popped out to end the inning.

(As Ichiro was at bat, I said "This is definitely going to be on the news in Japan tonight... Nomo pitches to Ichiro! It's just a shame he didn't pitch to Johjima too.")

The onslaught continued in the bottom of the 5th. Beltre led off with a double. Vidro walked. Richie walked. Bases loaded, and out came Hillman-kantoku, who we noticed was also wearing #42 (in addition to many players -- Guillen, Betancourt, Beltre, etc). Nomo comes out of the game, and in comes Ron Mahay... and naturally the first thing that happens is that Johjima hits a double to left. Beltre scores. Vidro scores. And as Teahen finally recovers the ball and throws it in, Richie Sexson slides into third base. Headfirst. ARGH. 8-4. Bloomquist walks again, and then Yuniesky Betancourt also hits his second sac fly of the day, scoring Richie Sexson. 9-4. Ichiro grounds to short... but it turns into a wacky rundown for Johjima, some sort of 6-2-5-2-5 or something play, and he's out. Meanwhile, Willie gets to third, and thus scores when Jose Lopez singles. 10-4. "Raul," I implore, "You have to get an out, or I will run out of space for this inning." He obliges and strikes out.

In the meantime, the scoreboards have shown that Yabuta is warming up in the bullpen. "HOLY SHIT YABUTA!" I exclaim. "Thank Hillman! We HAVE to go down there."

So Edwin and I head down to the bullpen for the top of the 6th, during which time John Buck and Tony Pena manage to get on base and score runs to bring the score to 10-6.


While we were down there, watching Yabuta warm up, people were yelling crap at him. In English. We told them to shut up. They said "He can't understand us anyway," and I'm like "Is that an excuse?" I know it's part of the game and all, so it's really not that big a deal, but given that I was wearing a Lotte t-shirt under my Mariners jersey, I felt obligated to make sure somebody had his back. (Blame the mind control.) As Yabuta ran onto the field, we yelled "GANBARE YABUTA-SENSHU!!!! GANBATTE!!!", and then ran back up to our seats to see him pitch the 6th inning.

He did pretty well! Got a groundout from Beltre, and then struck out Vidro and Sexson!

But then the bottom of the 7th happened... Johjima led off with a single. ("Oh, that's gonna be on the news too. Yabuta pitched to Johjima and Johjima got a hit -- wow, is that now THREE moments from this game that'll end up on TV in Japan?") Willie Bloomquist walked -- making him 4 times on base for 4 plate appearances on the day -- and then Betancourt hit a pop fly out. Sadly, rather than going for ANOTHER moment for the Japan nightly news, they took Yabuta out of the game at that point and put in Jimmy Gobble instead, who promptly walked Ichiro to load the bases. Whoops. Jose Lopez served up yet another sac fly, and that made it 11-6. (And that's what the final score of the game would be, as well.)

Joakim Soria came out to pitch the bottom of the 8th, probably because he hadn't pitched in a week. Seems the Royals haven't really had a lot of close games for him to hang on to.

Arthur Rhodes (yes -- THAT Arthur Rhodes) pitched the top of the 9th. DeJesus was out on a looping liner caught by Yuniesky Betancourt, but then Grudzielanek and Teahen hit singles, and that was the signal to bring out another pitcher. "Where we're going," I said, "We don't need Rhodes." Mark Lowe came out and got a double play off Billy Butler shortly afterwards, and that was the game.

Strangely, the game took so long -- about 3 and a half hours -- that by the time it ended, it was already a little past 7pm, which is when games NORMALLY start. And damn, was it ever cold. Sometime around the 5th or 6th inning when a beer guy came in like "COLD BEER HERE!!!" I heard someone yell "I'd rather have hot chocolate!" In the 7th, we actually went up and bought hot chocolate.

After saying goodbye to people and to Safeco and stopping in the team store briefly, I headed back up to Ballard -- and then I pretty much stopped thinking about baseball for my entire trip back to America, for the most part. The Pirates weren't in town when I was in Pittsburgh, but that's probably a good thing. I guess I could have gone to PNC Park to look for Kuwata stuff, but eh, I had better things to do.

It's pretty neat that I got to see Bale and Nomo and Yabuta all in the same game. When I came back to Japan, the two big questions my students had for me about baseball were "Did you yell Shinjirarenaaaaaaaiiii at Hillman-kantoku?" and "Did you see Nomo?" It's great that I was able to answer "yes!" to both of them.

In a day or two, I'll start my Golden Week of Baseball - something like Jingu Sunday, Gifu Tuesday, Chiba Wednesday, Sapporo Friday-Saturday-Sunday, Seibu Monday. I may mix other games in there if I can figure out timing. (I *could* just go sit at Jingu all day Sunday and watch Tokyo Big 6 games before the Swallows-Dragons game in the evening. This is not a bad weekend for that, actually -- since Todai isn't playing, I might actually get to see some REAL baseball.)

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