Friday, October 17, 2008

Playoff Game Report: Fighters vs. Buffaloes @ Osaka Dome -- Shaggy and Tsooby Save the Day

On October 12, in a turn of events that almost nobody expected, Shugo Fujii prevented a Buffaloes stampede, Tomochika Tsuboi went 4-for-4, and Jason Botts iced the showdown with a 2-run shot into the right-field stands, as the Fighters advanced to the Pacific League playoffs Second Stage.

And I was there. And it was awesome.

My day started in Saitama prefecture at around 7am, and I guess I reached the Osaka Dome around 12:45pm. I found Matt The Baystars Fan outside the stadium and hung out for a bit, but seeing as he was wearing a Rhodes #8 towel and planning to root for the Buffaloes, I figured it was best for me to go join with the proper forces as quickly as possible, and I went into the stadium.

Thanks to a certain Larry Rocca, I actually had a seat in the very front row of the bleachers, right behind Hichori Morimoto, or where Hichori would be later; when I arrived, the pitchers were out there shagging BP flies. That was pretty sweet. I put my bags down, then went a few sections over so I could yell down to the field.


He turned and looked up and waved. "Oh hey! You made it!"

"Yeah! How's it going?"

"Not bad, not bad... you coming tomorrow too?"

"Whaddaya mean TOMORROW? Aren't you guys going to win TODAY?"

He laughed. "Well... yeah..."

"But I have a ticket for tomorrow, yeah, if for some reason you DON'T win today. Are you pitching if there's a game?"

"Nah, I think it's gonna be Ryan."

"Awww, okay. I'll come see you pitch at Seibu next week then."

"Yeah... see you! Thanks for coming! Enjoy the game!" He waved again and walked off towards a few other players.

Two members of the Fighters ouendan came up to me after that and were like "Hey, that was really cool, what were you saying? Can you help us yell at Ryan Glynn in English? English is really tough but we wish we could talk to the foreign players." I taught them to say "good luck" and some other stuff. It turned out they had come down from Sapporo, and were only 17 years old. Crazy. You'd never see that in the States, I don't think.

I looked around to see if I could find any of my friends from Kanto, but the only people I recognized were Osaka-based fans that I'd met on prior trips. Eventually I did see a lady wearing a "Tomochika #7" jersey that I was pretty sure I'd seen at the Kamagaya kouhakusen, so I basically went up and asked if she'd been at Kamagaya, and sure enough, she was, and we got to talking, and she explained that she'd been a Tsuboi fan for 10 years or so, back from the days of the Hanshin Tigers Tsuboi-Shinjo-Hiyama "Pretty Boy Outfield", and she kind of followed him to the Fighters. When the outfielders started warming up, I yelled with her, "TSUBOI-SAAAAAAN!" and he actually looked up and waved at us. She nearly fainted.

I also confirmed from her that the Fighters basically DID just take Tsuboi's fanfare from the Tigers ouendan. She told me that she actually cried the first time she went to a Fighters game after Tsuboi was traded, and heard the fanfare again. Her dedication almost makes me feel guilty that I didn't follow Ogasawara to the Giants... wait, no it doesn't. Kutabare Yomiuri.

She really hoped Tsuboi would be in the lineup. I said I doubted it would happen, but if he was, surely he would do really well for her sake. As I went back towards my seat, she told me to please cheer for Tsuboi, and I promised I would.

Imagine my surprise when about ten minutes later, we were all cheering the starting lineups, and not only was Itoi leading off, Inaba wasn't playing (apparently he had a light back injury?), but batting 7th and playing left field was the aforementioned Tsuboi!

Fighters                Buffaloes
-------- ---------
Itoi RF Ikki 2B
Hichori CF Shimoyama RF
Kensuke 2B Cabrera 1B
Sledge 1B Tuffy SMASH! DH
Shinji C Hamanaaaaaaaka LF
Koyano 3B Hidaka C
Tsuboi-chan LF Kitagawa 3B
Jason Botts DH Mitsutaka Gotoh SS
Kaneko! SS Sakaguchi CF

Fujii (3-8, 3.25) Komatsu (15-3, 2.51)

One really bizarre thing to note. Here's what my view looked like as the game started. Take a look at the 3rd base infield. The outfield was packed as expected, but...

The Osaka Dome seats around 37,000 people.

The game attendance for this game was 26,703.

Seriously, as the game started, I was in disbelief over the sheer amount of empty space there was. I realize the Orix Buffaloes are not that popular compared to their crosstown ferocious feline friends, and the Fighters have most of their fanbase concentrated in Sapporo and Tokyo, but.. these are the PLAYOFFS! Are there not more people in Osaka who'd want to come see such a game? They could sell out Kiyohara's final game, but could NOT sell out the actual season final game? What the heck is up with that?

To put it in another perspective... 31,139 people went to Skymark Stadium that evening to see a meaningless game between the Tigers and Dragons.

I just don't get it. Should they have perhaps charged a little less for tickets, like Seibu decided to do? I mean, the OUTFIELD seating was all completely full...

As the game started, the Fighters went down quickly in the first inning, but Kensuke Tanaka fouled a ball into the stands on the third-base side, and I really have to wonder what the TV announcers were saying as the ball bounced into a COMPLETELY EMPTY section of seats, and several young boys chased it down the aisle.

And Fujii pitched a 1-2-3 inning.

The second inning started off much like the first, two fairly quick outs (the first on a web gem play by Mitsutaka Gotoh, who snagged the ball and threw to first base from a spin), and then Eiichi Koyano got the first hit of the game, a line drive to center for a single. BAM! Then that Tsuboi-chan hit a fly ball to center, which dropped for a double, him sliding into second base headfirst as Koyano reached third. Big Jason Botts got up to a full count before walking, which loaded the bases.

Makoto "Clutchest 9-spot Batter EVER" Kaneko came up to bat with two outs and the bases loaded, and I was thinking that it was the perfect Kaneko time to have some completely unexpected heroics, and sure enough, he hit this towering pop fly into the infield. What happened next was both unexpected and heroic, as Orix 2B Ikki Shimamura ran in and dived for the ball and missed. Koyano and Tsuboi scored as Ikki was lying sprawled on the ground and Kaneko reached first base. 2-0.

And Fujii pitched a 1-2-3 inning.

In the top of the third, Kensuke Tanaka singled, and stole second base on a swinging third strike by Terrmel Sledge, but that was it.

And Fujii pitched a 1-2-3 inning.

I started talking to some of the people around me; turns out the women sitting next to me had come down from Nagoya, and the guy sitting behind me was from Sendai. This may explain why the stadium was so empty. After Tsuboi-chan managed another hit in the top of the 4th, this one a deep infield single to secondbaseman Ikki which had him beat the throw by a hair, and a single by Jason Botts as well, Makoto Kaneko came up to the plate with two guys on and one out. I vaguely wondered why we weren't doing chance music in such a situation, and His Clutchiness chose that moment to ground into a double play to end the inning.

And Fujii walked the leadoff batter Ikki Shimamura.

Hichori made a freaking amazing play after that -- Shinji Shimoyama hit a monster pop fly to right field and somehow Hichori managed to get there for it, making a backhand catch as he almost ran into the INAX sign. And then Kensuke Tanaka decided to repay Gotoh's earlier kindness by making his own FANTASTIC snag of the ball deep in the infield, throwing in a spin to catch Alex Cabrera at first, as Ikki went to second. Two outs, and still a no-hitter.

Tuffy Rhodes came to the plate and Shaggy Shugo lost his no-hitter and shutout all in one swing, as Rhodes hit a legitimate single up the middle and Ikki scored. 2-1. Hamanaaaaaaaaaka struck out after that to end the inning.

Cheering for Kensuke Tanaka.

The game actually seemed to be passing amazingly fast; before I even knew it we were singing the Fighters sanka to start off the 5th inning, and after Itoi hit a popout, Hichori walked, and Kensuke Tanaka singled to center, moving the fleet-footed Hichori to third. Sledge came to bat and the ouendan were making very strange hand movements, which I learned a moment later were because they wanted to start the Genghis Khan chance music.

Which is mostly a Sapporo-only theme, and usually I imitate the fans in front of me to follow along to it...

...except being in the very front row, that raised a slight problem...

...until I realized the Nagoya women next to me didn't know it either, so all three of us were looking stupid together. If there's one thing I've learned from Japan, it's that you can never quite look stupid as long as you're not ALONE in looking stupid.

Anyway, Sledge walked, loading the bases, and then Shinji Takahashi came up, and the Genghis Khan music continued. Shinji hit a pop fly to left field, and as Hamanaka and Gotoh both approached it, and we were all cheering, I yelled "落とせ~~!" ("Drop it!")

And uh, Gotoh dropped it. The ball took a comical bounce over both of them. Hichori took advantage of the moment to run home and score, 3-1. Everyone else advanced. The fans banzaied and high-fived. The Buffaloes looked confused. The Fighters ouendan thankfully changed to the Kanto-area Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang chance theme as Eiichi Koyano came to bat.

I was grateful to be doing a song I actually knew, which of course meant Koyano grounded into a double play. Whatever.

And Fujii pitched a 1-2-3 inning.

I still couldn't find my new Tsuboi-fan friend in the stands when I looked up, but sure enough, Tsuboi led off the 6th inning with yet another single to second; this time Shimamura got the ball on an awkward grounder shot, couldn't quite pick it up, and simply didn't throw to first. 3-for-3. Then Jason Botts grounded up the first-base line... he ran towards the base... the ball rolled past first.. was it foul? No! Oops. So the Buffaloes scurried to recover the ball while Tsuboi got to third. Kaneko's Wand of Clutchiness indeed seemed to have lost its power as he grounded back to the mound; Orix pitcher Komatsu, to his credit, judged the situation quickly and started running towards third base, where he and Hidaka and Kitagawa trapped Tsuboi in a rundown. The Fighters lost momentum with that play and the inning ended shortly after that.

And Fujii pitched another inning. Sakaguchi grounded out to short, but then Ikki Shimamura singled to center. Shimoyama singled to right, the ball bouncing in shallow right field. Rightfielder Yoshio Itoi, who hadn't done much of anything all game in the field OR at the plate, chose that very moment to charge the ball and make an Ichiro-style laserbeam throw from rightfield to third base, where an EXTREMELY surprised Ikki found Eiichi Koyano already waiting for him there with the ball. That spurred the entire Fighters outfield section to stand up and yell "いいぞ、いいぞ、糸井!" (essentially "Great play, Itoi!") You take our momentum, we take yours. Alex Cabrera hit a pop fly out after that and we got our Lucky 7 song started.

The Fighters flagbearer near me kept aiming his flagpole at another trumpet player's head as it came by and I kept ducking too because I'm too tall anyway.

In a strange fit of verisimilitude, the Fighters managed to be lucky enough to bring their score to 7 during the Lucky 7 inning, and they went through 3 pitchers to do it. LHP Tsuyoshi Kikuchihara had the honor of giving up a double to Kensuke Tanaka before Terrmel Sledge lined out right into shortstop Gotoh's glove. RHP Mamoru Kishida (!!!!) then struck out Shinji Takahashi before giving up a single to Eiichi Koyano that scored Kensuke (4-1). They apparently didn't consider the lefty-batting Tsuboi as a threat despite him already being 3-for-3 and hotter than a takoyaki grill, and Tsuboi responded by hitting the ball way out to left field; most of us were already standing up to cheer and we leaned over the wall to see what would happen, as it fell between the outfielders for another double! Tsuboi was 4-for-4! Koyano scored (5-1), Kudoh came in to pinch-run for Tsuboi, and Hidetaka Kawagoe, the former Orix ace, replaced Kishida on the mound.

I hoped we'd do the Ponyo theme for Jason Botts (complete with "big big home run" at the end). The ouendan started up the From the North Country chance music. Botts must have been thinking what I was thinking, because he chose that moment to, infact, hit a big big home run, just this line drive that was still rising into the air when it narrowly missed decapitating a few surprised balloon-holding Orix fans in the right-field stands. 7-1. Tomoyuki Oda pinch-hit for Kaneko and hit a popout before most of us had even stopped the banzai from the homerun.

Yeah, those poor Orix fans had to wait a REALLY long time for THEIR Lucky 7.

They had this ridiculous-looking gigantic inflatable Neppie mascot thingy on the field. I failed to take a reasonable photo of it, so Jeff sent me some from his broadcast screenshots:

(game screenshot)

I... really... don't... know.

And Shugo Fujii walked Tuffy Rhodes to start off the 7th and was finally taken out of the game, to thunderous applause from the Fighters faithful. Shaggy did us proud. Tateyama came out to the mound, but in the meantime Hichori gathered the outfielders (Itoi and Kudoh) together and reprised the Glovehead act, much to everyone's amusement:

"That's Hichori for you," I heard someone say behind me, "Always thinking of fan service."

Tateyama got himself into a jam and back out of a jam in the 7th, and then back into another jam, during which the Orix Buffaloes managed to score their second run of the game; Sakaguchi led off the bottom of the 8th with a single, moved up on Ikki's single, advanced to third on a pinch-hitting Muramatsu groundout and then scored when Alex Cabrera hit a towering sac fly to right field. 7-2.

I of course did not know it at the time, but Kazuhiro Kiyohara was apparently sitting in his private box at the stadium watching the game and feeling kind of grumpy about the sequence of events:

(screenshot from Jeff)

Makoto Yoshino and Daisuke Katoh held the Fighters down in the 8th and 9th innings, and the score remained 7-2 as the Orix Buffaloes came down to their last 3 outs of the 2008 season.

Just to make sure nothing went wrong, Fighters closer Micheal Nakamura came out to finish out the game.

And of course, that is exactly when things started going wrong. High-socks Hiroyuki Oze pinch-hit for Hamanaka and walked on four straight pitches. He stole second; there was no throw. It didn't matter because Takeshi Hidaka ALSO walked, this time on five pitches.

I had been thinking all game about how crazy it'd be if the Fighters really did win, how I'd have a day to spend in Osaka on Monday, how I'd need to find a way to return Monday's ticket (still haven't), and so on. But suddenly, I had this nagging thought...

"...what if they choke?"

Fortunately, Hirotoshi Kitagawa chose that moment to take the first pitch he saw and hit a big fly ball... which died in right field. One down.

Mitsutaka Gotoh was the next batter. First pitch... ball one. Second pitch... ball two. "What the heck??" I heard someone yell. "Get it together, Micheal!" yelled another.

Gotoh fouled off the next pitch, and the next pitch was a strike, and the next was a ball, and the entire left-field stands collectively bit their nails off as Gotoh swung and missed the 3-2 pitch. Two down.

Fortunately, whatever had gotten into Micheal stopped with the next batter, Sakaguchi, who took a few strikes, fouled one off, and ultimately grounded to short, where Yuji Iiyama ran the ball to second base for the forceout, and THAT WAS THE GAME! The FIGHTERS WIN IT 7-2 AND ADVANCE TO SECOND STAGE!!!!!


All of us in front ran up to the railing and leaned over during the interviews. First manager Masataka Nashida gave an interview, and he said he was glad Fujii came through for the team, and of course he was impressed by how well Tsuboi did, and he thanked everyone for coming from all over Japan to watch the team win, and of course, to come watch Second Stage as well!

(Manager Nashida -- screenshot from Jeff)

The game hero was Shugo Fujii. I thought it should have been Fujii AND Tsuboi, but whatever, WE all knew how awesome Tsuboi was, that's what counts. Anyway, Shaggy thanked the fans for coming, and thanked Shinji Takahashi for calling a good game, and of course thanked the team for getting a great lead out for him so he could relax more while pitching.

I know I certainly didn't expect this outcome, but I am happy and proud for him too.

(Hero Fujii -- screenshot from Jeff)

After that, the Fighters actually all came out to the stands. They waved to the fans and we cheered like crazy for them and waved back. I thought it was a nice gesture.

(Fighters address the fans -- screenshot from Jeff)

Then after that it was just a big old party in left field.

Actually, first, we heard some drums from the Orix side, and their ouendan all, in unison, yelled towards us, "絶対勝つぞファイターズ!", which means, basically, "the Fighters will definitely win!"

We weren't really ready for this so most of us just turned to the other stands and bowed and waved, with no coherent call back. (Back in September we did a more organized call and answer between the two teams' ouendans, but I guess this was different.)

A minute later, from the Orix side, we heard: "西武倒せファイターズ!" which means "Beat Seibu, Fighters!"

This time we banged our cheer sticks and applauded waved and yelled various things back, all to the effect of "thank you" and "good luck next year". It was nice. I'm really glad and honored to be part of such a fanbase.

The poor Osaka Dome people put up a sign on the big boards...

Basically "Thanks for supporting us this past year".

And then we all sang and sang and sang until everyone's voices ran out and we got kicked out of the Osaka Dome, essentially. We did the lineups and the songs for each player; then the ouendan leaders called out each players' accomplishments and we sang songs for them ("Tsuboi was 4-for-4, can you believe it? Let's sing his song," and so on).

Around that time, two guys from the Hokkaido Broadcasting Company cornered me with a videocamera, in a kind of "whoa! a gaijin, let's interview her!" sort of way.

Sadly, I am not very good at being interviewed. They asked me if I could understand Japanese and I said yes, and they asked where I live, and I said, in my usual deadpan, "Saitama." After a brief shock/amusement moment they corrected to "Err, what country are you from?" and I said I'm from America, and they asked how long I'd been a Fighters fan, and I told them for the last 6 years or so, and they were surprised and asked me why. I think I botched the Japanese but I basically explained that from the very first time I saw the Fighters at the Tokyo Dome, during Hillman's first year as manager, the fans were always so amazingly nice to me, and were so enthusiastic for the team, that I wanted to be part of such a great group, and I fell in love with the team along the way.

I was wearing my Hichori shirt and towel but a Kensuke wristband around the towel so they asked if I was a Kensuke fan, and I said "I like everyone, but I like Hichori best," and then they asked me to please say an ouen message for the Fighters into the camera, so I yelled ”頑張ってファイターズ!絶対勝つぞ!” and the guys were like "Errr... can you say an ENGLISH message for us?"

Well, quite frankly, I realized this is a major cultural gap thing -- anything that would be typical to yell in English, like "Yeah Fighters! Good job guys!!! Wooooo!! Kick ass! Take names! Go get the Lions!" or whatever... wouldn't really be appropriate. On the other hand, translating a typically Japanese message into English ALSO wouldn't make any sense.

I thought for a minute and yelled, "Let's go Fighters! I'll see you in Saitama next week! Congratulations!!"

The reporters looked at each other like "What did she say about Saitama?"

Then after conferring between each other, and most likely deciding I was the stupidest gaijin on the face of the planet, they thanked me for my time and moved on to less retarded people to interview.

So that was pretty strange. From what I can tell, I didn't make it onto the broadcast, though you never know.

After that... some more singing. Some more talking. I ran into some other Osaka Fighters fans that I knew from past games and said hi, and I caught up with the Sapporo ouendan kids for a bit and said I'd see them at Seibu, and I found the Tsuboi fan from before the game and we gushed about how awesome he was for a while and exchanged email addresses; I'll also see her at Seibu. In general there was just a lot of "wow! amazing! see you next week!" going around with everyone. I'm really not sure anyone expected things to go like this.

I got a call from Matt the Baystars Fan; he and John the Tigers Fan were both hanging out near the homeplate entrance. They'd been cheering for the Buffaloes and had exited the dome quite a while earlier, but we were waiting for me, so I went out to find them, which wasn't hard.

The nice thing about being with other English-speaking friends is that I can ask them to take really crazy pictures of me and explain exactly what I have in mind, so I made Matt and John help me with a concept or two I had by the Buffaloes player wall on the way to the train station...

Kiyohara, Kiyohara, wherefore art thou Kiyohara? Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

When the going gets Tuffy...

All of the reasonable izakaya near the Taisho station were really full or really not all that appetizing-looking, so we adjourned to the Dotonbori area of Osaka, which I had been told was a major party center, and indeed, it was. It's rather far away from Koshien, and even not that close to the Osaka Dome, but it IS the place where the Hanshin Tigers fans legendarily jumped into the river when the Tigers won the pennant. Of course, if you try that now, this is what you will encounter...

Yes -- the river is now protected by big barriers and even nets, just in case someone gets the stupid idea to jump.

As for the rest of the area, we got okonomiyaki and hung out around the area. Matt succeeded in getting a little Tigers mascot doll from a UFO catcher when I failed, and John showed us this famous Glico ad that people always take photos in front of, and we acted like tourists for a bit, which is always nice for a change.

Matt proudly displays his To-Lucky that he managed to win in one try. Grr.

John and I mimic the Glico guy.

John had to go home after that, but Matt and I wandered around a little more so we could commisserate about the sad state of the Yokohama Baystars.

While standing by the Dotonbori river barriers, two Korean guys came up to us, one with a big video camera. Apparently they were filming for some Korean TV show. They asked us what we thought of Osaka and of the neighborhood. I was too preoccupied looking up the results of the Baystars game to see if Murata had hit another home run (he did! 46!) and so Matt ended up talking into the camera for a few minutes about how the Dotonbori area is historic to baseball fans, because it's where the Hanshin fans jumped into the river after winning the Japan Series, and they stole a Colonel Sanders and threw it in because nobody looked like Randy Bass, and ever since then Hanshin hasn't won another pennant, and so on.

The Korean guys thanked him for his speech and then walked away.

Matt thought for a minute and was like, "I hope I didn't just diss Hanshin Tigers fans to the entire nation of Korea."

I replied, "Well, it was in English anyway, so they might subtitle it as you either talking about the Great Honor of River Diving or the Rude Hanshin Thieves no matter what you said."

"Good point."

Anyway, it has taken me almost an entire week to write this TL:DR entry, because I am busy with things like finishing up my job, and moving to a new house, and all kinds of things, plus going back to the Seibu Dome this Sunday as well. I did have another Osaka adventure on Monday with Nadya, wandering to the Hanshin Tigers minor-league park, and maybe I'll turn that into more of a photopost soon. It was a lot of fun. Osaka can be pretty neat.

And most of all -- GO FIGHTERS!

(EDIT: And I also mean "GO PHILLIES!" I was able to watch the last 3 innings of the NLCS with my dad over Skype. That was pretty cool. Now if only I could figure out a way to watch the World Series from Japan.)

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