Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Game Report: ENEOS vs. JR Shikoku @ Tokyo Dome -- There's no "K" in ENEOS, but 12 in Tazawa

I finally got to see an industrial league baseball game on Monday night (Sep 1). It was part of the first round of the 都市対抗野球大会 (toshitaikou yakyuu taikai), aka Intercity Baseball Tournament. You could say this is sort of like a Koshien for adults, since there are regional tournaments all over the country to qualify for it and then the best 32 teams come to the Tokyo Dome and match up in a single-elimination tournament for a week, and they bring their cheerleaders and marching bands from all over Japan. Many players try to display their talents in the hopes of getting drafted in the college/industry draft, and the teams are littered with former pro players now working as coaches.

It really does resemble an indoor Koshien with older guys and uglier uniforms. Honest.

The differences are, first, it doesn't happen outdoors in the blazing heat of summer, and second, aside from pro scouts and competing company employees, nobody actually seems to care all that much about this tournament from what I can tell. I mean, there are definitely an assortment of crazy baseball fans who like this sort of thing, but it's not like Koshien where the nation's youth is on display and heroes are born with the wave of a handkerchief.

The players on one of these teams, from what I understand, basically spend 90% of their "working hours" with the company practicing and competing in sports, and after their sporting careers are over, they become harmless office workers for the company, which under the Japanese system of "work is family, job for life" means they can be pretty set. Although I think that system is changing with the current Japanese economy being what it is, so perhaps these guys actually WILL have to do real work for their companies in the future. Who knows.

The cheerleaders and marching band members apparently work normal 9-5 office jobs with no overtime, so they can practice as an extracurricular activity. Or at least, that's what I heard; I'm sure it's different at different companies (another rumor suggests that cheerleader girls are all daughters of rich company execs, so who knows). Either way, it's an interesting way to continue such an activity once one gets out of college, I think.

And of course, the company strongly suggests that as many employees as possible come out to these tournaments to support the company team. In the case of the game I saw, which featured 新日本石油ENEOS, the oil company, vs. JR Shikoku, the... train company's little island branch, there were easily at least twice as many ENEOS employees, since they're coming from Yokohama, instead of from Shikoku. By the end of the game the ENEOS employees had overflowed the employee seating section on the third base side and taken over most of the left-field bleachers as well.

I dragged Simon along to this game, and he dragged a friend of his who used to work for Toshiba but who had never been to one of these tournaments before (and who shared some of that gossip about how these corporate sports teams work within the company). We got "balcony tickets" for 1500 yen, which meant sitting in these awesome amazingly comfortable seats right by the fancy boxes, complete with mini-desks and everything. What a deal. I want to go back to another game just to sit in the cushy seats for cheap again, and to see the marching bands.

Starting for ENEOS was a pitcher named Junichi Tazawa. I had thought his name was kind of familiar, but couldn't remember why... until I went and got out my Shukan Baseball draft issue, and my fall season issue of Grand Slam, and so on, and he's all over it. He's from Yokohama Shodai HS, apparently failed to make it to summer Koshien a few years back due to being outpitched by some dude named Hideaki Wakui, went to ENEOS and pitched in relief, and this year suddenly took the world by storm as a starter, throwing in the 90's and setting strikeout records during the spring Sponichi taikai tournament.

Tazawa started off the game striking out the first guy he faced, and did, infact, pitch 5 perfect innings to start out. It was honestly hard to tell at first whether he was amazingly awesome or if JR Shikoku just kind of sucked.

Starting for JR Shikoku was a guy named Shinji Iwai. Iwai was not nearly as lucky, and he walked the first batter he faced, centerfielder Masaki Maeda, who moved up on a sac bunt and stole third base, coming home on a sacrifice fly by rightfielder Naohiro Sakashita, to make it 1-0.

The second inning should have gone by 1-2-3, but when ENEOS third baseman Kentaro Miyazawa hit a high pop fly up to super-shallow left field, JR Shikoku shortstop Sho Ueno camped under the ball to make the catch for the third out... and MISSED, the ball bouncing on the field next to him for what the scorers called a hit, but I don't know what they were smoking. Miyazawa made it to second on the play, and advanced to third when Iwai threw a pitch right into his catcher's chest and it bounced away, and a single from shortstop Wataru Higuchi brought home the run. 2-0.

More of the same in the bottom of the 3rd, though this one was a bit more interesting. After Toshiba (playing for ENEOS) firstbaseman Jun Heima struck out, rightfielder Sakashita walked, and went to second on a groundout by leftfielder Keiji Ikebe. Second baseman Toshiyuki Yanagida singled to left and that's when things got weird. Sakashita ran home and scored the run (3-0), and in the meantime, JR leftfielder Yuta Hara threw in the ball, which pitcher Iwai got the cutoff... it was too late to get Sakashita at home, but Iwai fired the ball to first, and caught Yanagida off-base, perhaps trying to make for second on the play. JR first baseman Yasushi Takeichi made the tag on Yanagida and he was out, for a super-normal 7-1-3 inning-ending play.

ENEOS finally failed to score a run in the bottom of the 4th, but since no JR Shikoku batter had reached base yet at that point, they weren't too worried about it.

With one out in the bottom of the 5th, Jun Heima walked, and went to third on a single by Sakashita that barely bounced fair in the right-field corner. Another single by Yanagida scored Heima, making it 4-0.

As the 5th inning came to a close, I decided to go take a walk over to the other side and see what things were like in ENEOS land. Up in the balcony above JR Shikoku fans, things were pretty quiet, and even when I got downstairs it wasn't too crowded. However, where the sold seats ended and the company seating for ENEOS began -- a bit to the left of home plate -- it suddenly became very, very crowded, and I decided to stop and watch the top of the 6th inning in order to not miss Tazawa continuing his perfect game.

Which, naturally, meant that was the EXACT moment that Tazawa lost his perfect game, no-hitter, and shutout, all in one fell swoop as JR Shikoku first baseman Takeichi got the first hit of the game for JR, which just happened to be a home run that went sailing into the nearly empty right-field stands. 4-1. So as I was standing there in the midst of the standing-only ENEOS crowd, who were probably all company employees wondering what a strange American girl with a scorecard was doing there, the JR team managed to get two more singles, and bunted those runners up to second and third. Tazawa took control of the game again at that point and struck out third baseman Takashi Kikuchi and got DH Hidetoshi Senoh to hit a pop fly behind home plate... which ENEOS catcher Yamaoka got lucky and was able to catch, practically right against the wall, ending the inning.

I spent the next inning or two watching from the ENEOS side balcony, taking more photos and videos of their marching band. I have to say, while ENEOS had more energetic cheers, and three times as many fans, the JR Shikoku marching band was a lot more interesting.

Anyway, Yasunari Higashide pitched the last few innings for JR Shikoku after Iwai made it through 5, and wasn't too bad, but was plagued by the same off-and-on fielding that Iwai had suffered. I have to wonder whether that Ueno shortstop was just nervous or what, because he basically completely booted the ball when Yanagida led off the bottom of the 8th with a grounder to short. A pinch-running Yasunari Miyata stole second during Kentaro Miyazawa's at-bat; but after Miyazawa singled to center, JR centerfielder Nishimura managed to peg Yanagida trying to score and the throw was in time to put him out. A nice play to erase the earlier error, but subsequently a single by Yamaoka scored Miyazawa to bring the game to 5-1.

Kenji Kiyomi, a Keio graduate and perhaps ENEOS closer, took over on the mound for Tazawa to pitch the 9th, and basically walked a guy, gave up one hit, and struck out the other three batters he faced. Tazawa had struck out 12 in 8 innings (and walked none), so the ENEOS pitching staff managed to notch 15 strikeouts in this game, which is not shabby at all.

You can see the official box score for this game in Japanese on the Japan Amateur Baseball Association site, which also has plenty of other information about this tournament and other similar tournaments, also all in Japanese.

After the game they had a brief interview on the screen with ENEOS manager Hideaki Ohkubo, another Toin Gakuen -> Keio University guy, who played for Kintetsu for a couple of years before becoming a coach and now industrial league manager. Though to me the intriguing coach for ENEOS was Noriyuki Takahashi... who I actually kinda remember playing for the Fighters several years ago. Crazy. But not nearly as cool as JFE Higashinihon having The Older Yukio Tanaka as one of their coaches.

Also, I find it really funny that if you look at the ENEOS player profiles, Tazawa says that in 20 years he sees himself doing ENEOS TV commercials, whereas Kiyomi says he sees himself as a salaryman playing catch with his son.

Anyway, I came to the game to see marching bands, and so here are some pictures and videos of marching bands, as promised:

JR Shikoku marching band plays "Over Drive" by Judy and Mary. I used to love this song... like ten years ago.

JR Shikoku marching band plays "Don't Stop Me Now" by Queen, aka "Get Kenichi Nakata Off The Mound Dammit Ochiai"... no, just kidding. This is a pretty awesome rendition, complete with vaulting cheerleaders.

JR Shikoku marching band plays a catchy cheer song that has a recurring theme of "Yokohama Taose". While the band doesn't actually march, in this one you can see the band members doing a kind of stationary dance in their seats.

And here's an ENEOS cheer song. You can kind of see how crazy it was over on their side, complete with dancing drum boys and people waving huge fans and whatnot.

I think this must be the ENEOS company fight song or something to that effect. Seriously.

And here are a few pictures I took. Note, I didn't bring my GOOD camera because the Tokyo Dome is notoriously difficult to photograph in, although now that I have an idea of how seating and such works, I may try to get a good balcony seat for a later game and just rest my cheapo slow lens on the rail and see what I can do. If JFE Higashinihon makes the semi-finals, I'm totally there, anyway.

The JR Shikoku marching band and cheerleaders.

More JR Shikoku cheerleaders.

View of the JR Shikoku side from afar.

In contrast, this is the ENEOS side from afar. You can see that many more people came up from Yokohama than from, er, Takamatsu.

ENEOS cheerleaders show they can spell.

Guys on the side hold up words to the cheer songs for everyone and indicate what color fan to hold up.

This drummer guy was pretty crazy drumming and leading cheers and dancing and whatnot.

ENEOS cheerleaders.

Final score, plus Tazawa on the screen.

This was really a lot of fun to watch. I'm hoping to see a whole lot more amateur baseball here in Japan -- it's neat how no matter how big or how small the game, there are fans, and the fans really get into it and create a fun atmosphere. The ENEOS employees really came out to support their company -- and sure, ENEOS is one of the traditional huge powerhouse teams in this tournament, but it's still nice dedication that they could fill up half the Tokyo Dome like that. Or maybe it's just a nicer alternative to working overtime for an evening.

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