Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Look at the Japanese Leagues -- Part 2: Eastern and Western, or Down on the Farm

This is Part 2 in a series.

I mentioned this in the first part, but each pro team has exactly one farm team. In the sense of "minor leagues where the players are actually controlled by pro teams", there's basically only one level of minor league play, roughly defined as being "below the pro leagues". Most of the players are young guys who still haven't broken through, along with your usual assortment of veterans hanging on or players rehabbing or trying to work out issues.

With the exception of the Yokohama Baystars, whose farm team is the Shonan Sea Rex, and the Orix Buffaloes, whose farm team is the Surpass, all of the farm teams bear the same name as their corresponding pro team.

Since players are all really considered to be on the same 70-man organizational roster regardless of whether they're on the top team or the farm team, they keep the same uniform number when going between the majors and the minors. For 10 out of the 12 teams, this means guys wear the EXACT SAME UNIFORM no matter what their status is, although the Surpass and Sea Rex players do wear different uniforms than their corresponding top team, albeit with their same uniform number.

Unlike the pro leagues, which are semi-arbitrarily historically organized into the Central and Pacific Leagues, the minor leagues are organized geographically into the Eastern and Western Leagues:

Eastern League

Team City Prefecture Stadium (Year opened)
---- ---- ---------- ---------------------
Yakult Swallows Toda Saitama Yakult Toda Stadium (1977)
Yomiuri Giants Kawasaki Kanagawa Yomiuri Giants Stadium (1985)
Shonan SeaRex Yokosuka Kanagawa Yokosuka Stadium (1949)
Rakuten Golden Eagles Higashimurayama Yamagata Yamagata Stadium (1980)
Seibu Lions Tokorozawa Saitama Seibu #2 Stadium (1979)
Lotte Marines Urawa Saitama Lotte Urawa Stadium (1989)
Nippon Ham Fighters Kamagaya Chiba Kamagaya Fighters Stadium (1997)

Western League

Team City Prefecture Stadium
---- ---- ---------- -------
Softbank Hawks Fukuoka Fukuoka Gannosu (1991)
Hanshin Tigers Nishinomiya Hyogo Tigers Den Naruohama (1994)
Hiroshima Carp Iwakuni Yamaguchi Yuu Stadium (1993)
Chunichi Dragons Nagoya Aichi Nagoya Stadium (1948)
Surpass Kobe Hyogo Ajisai Stadium (2000)

You might notice that yes, one league has 7 teams and one has 5. Yes, that IS stupid. No, it wasn't always that way. From 1979 (when the Crown Lighter Lions moved from Fukuoka to become the Seibu Lions in Saitama and brought their farm team with them), the leagues actually had 6 teams each. Then in 2004 when the Orix Blue Wave and Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes merged to form Voltron -- er, the Orix Buffaloes -- their corresponding farm teams also had to become one. Fujiidera Stadium ceased to exist, along with the Kintetsu minor-league team that played there, and Surpass Kobe, which had been the Blue Wave's farm team, became the farm team for the new combined organization.

With the formation of the Rakuten Golden Eagles, and a farm team in the northeastern Tohoku area, naturally the geographic split now favored the eastern side of the country.

Geographical Difficulties

While it would theoretically make sense to even up the leagues somehow, geographically it simply doesn't really make any sense to move one of the Eastern teams into the Western League. All of the EL teams except for the Eagles' team are based in the Kanto region, which roughly means "the area near Tokyo", and only one farm team isn't within an hour train ride of its top team: the Fighters, who built their stadium and training complex in Kamagaya in 1996 back when the Fighters still shared the Tokyo Dome with the Giants.

Fighters fan digression for a second: The Fighters had a facility on the Tamagawa river in the western part of Tokyo, but it was apparently completely inadequate both in terms of clubhouse and fan amenities, plus when the Tokyu Toyoko trains went by it would actually pause the game action. So, the Fighters built a nice new place for their farm team in the middle of nowhere in Chiba with great facilities. Then they ended up moving the franchise to Hokkaido a couple of years later. However, moving the farm team to Hokkaido would have not only meant vastly increasing the travel budget for the Fighters' minor-leaguers but also for all OTHER teams in the Eastern League, who would have to fly to Hokkaido rather than bussing around Kanto -- so in the interest of keeping things cheaper and easier for everyone, the farm team stayed in Kamagaya.

As for the Western League, while the teams are not nearly as close by as all of the Kanto teams in the Eastern League, the furthest apart are the Osaka-area teams and the Hawks' team in Gannosu (which is in the northern boonies of Fukuoka).

The interesting thing is, due to the rosters being so nebulous sometimes, and the farm teams usually being located so close to the top teams, it is NOT entirely uncommon for a player to actually play in two games in one day, both a farm game and a top team game. On weekdays, almost all farm games take place at 1pm, and almost all top team games take place at about 6pm. And sometimes on the weekends, the Lotte Marines will actually have a "doubleheader" where their farm team plays a game at Chiba Marine Stadium starting half an hour after the major league team finishes an afternoon game. So you might see a player working out with the farm team early in the day, then playing in a top team game at night, or you might see a farm team player practicing with the top team on a day the farm team doesn't play.

Scheduling and Seasons

Thanks to having an odd number of teams, there ARE a lot of days where at least a few farm teams aren't playing, too. However, a day without a scheduled game is not usually a "day off": players will still have their daily practices and be out on the field working out nonetheless.

Since 2005, the 7-team Eastern League teams have played 96 games per season, while the 5-team Western League teams have played 88 games each. There is also a minor-league All-Star Game, played a day or two after the pro All-Star Game. This has gone on since 1963, although it used to be called the Junior All-Star Game and is now the "Fresh All-Star Game". At the end of the season, the top team in the Eastern League plays a farm championship game against the top team in the Western League.

The season runs for almost the same duration as the pro season: games are scheduled from the end of March until early September, and then makeup games take the season into mid-late September. The farm championship game happens at the start of October, right around when the pro season is winding up its final makeup games.

Exhibition games and Futures matches

The NPB farm teams also tend to play a LOT of exhibition games when they don't have official games. These can be against anyone from "amateur" industrial league teams such as JR, ENEOS, Honda, etc, to various "club" teams such as the NOMO Baseball Club and the Ibaraki Golden Golds, to teams from the independent regional semi-pro teams (Shikoku, Hokuriku, and certainly the new Kansai one, to be covered in a future post).

Another interesting diversion is what they call the "Futures" games -- these are played between one Eastern League farm team, and then a "futures" team which is made up of players from the rest of the Eastern League's teams. The only requirement is that players on the "Futures" team have never seen action at the top team level. A lot of them will be instructional (ikusei) players, who are already a super long shot to make the majors anyway.

The "Futures" teams have also been known to play against club teams -- a sort of famous incident was when Golden Golds female infielder Ayumi Kataoka got a hit off of Lotte's pitcher Kurotaki in one of those matches, singling to left.

(It's really interesting going to those games -- the players wear a Futures jersey and the rest of their uniform is from their home team, so you can spot the Searex guys with their bright teal outfits.)

Whither DH?

Whether or not a farm team game incorporates the DH basically depends on who the home team is. If the home team is a Central League farm team, they will not use the DH. If the home team is a Pacific League farm team, they will use the DH.


Farm team games are REALLY fun to go to. At some of the stadiums, games are even free -- there's simply no point in charging admission at a place like, say, Lotte Urawa Stadium, which has 3 benches on each side and a vending machine selling canned beverages, and that's about it. The Fighters stadium in Kamagaya charges admission (1000 yen for general admission, 500 yen if you're a Fighters fanclub member), but it's also a full grandstand with concessions and a mascot wandering around and mid-game activities and nice bleachers and bathrooms and everything. Your mileage may vary. Show up early and stake out a good seat.

Unlike the pro games, you can often very easily stalk players for photos and autographs and such -- in most cases, there is no clubhouse within the minor league field itself, and the players all have to exit the field to get back to their bus or to walk to the training facility nearby. The atmosphere is a lot more relaxed, though, and the young players are usually happy to sign stuff, or are at least very polite about it. Sometimes the veterans are happy to sign stuff too, if they're not in a sour mood about being stuck in the minors at the time :) Japanese fans, who are really diehard in terms of supporting their team, are also generally very respectful towards the players, so there is a relatively good relationship between the groups.

I'm a camera geek, and what I love best about the minor league games is being able to just sit right up in front by the field, so I can take a ton of photos. I usually end up there with a few other friends and we all chat about the players and snap photos. We often cheer or yell things to the players, and sometimes they even yell back. It's just a very intimate way to see a game.

Most minor-league parks do not have ouendan (the big organized cheering groups with the trumpets and flags and all), which may be a plus or minus depending on who you are.

The only caveat is, if you're a non-Asian foreigner, especially at some of these more out-of-the-way places, be prepared for a lot of staring and a lot of "gaijin" comments.

(Here are some of my minor league game posts, with plenty of photos and stories.)

So, those are the minor leagues. Next up will be, most likely, either the independent leagues, or the college leagues.

Please comment if you can add to this or correct it, as I'm considering it a work in progress.

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