Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Game Report: Honda vs. NTT Higashinihon -- Battle of the Bands

Industrial league baseball tournaments are fun, sure, but for me, there's something specific that makes them awesome.

It's not about the beer or the takoyaki, or the Tokyo Dome ice cream sandwiches.

It's not about the hordes of company employees in their white shirts and black pants, wearing company bibs or towels, wielding their company's colored uchiwa fans.

And to some extent, it's not even about the baseball, the players out there on the field in an adult version of Koshien, complete with headslides and sirens and players scanning the crowd for scouts, hoping for a shot at being drafted.

What is it about, then, you ask?

Why, it's ALL ABOUT THE MARCHING BANDS, of course!

Honda band and cheer group after scoring the first run of the game, complete with a banzai at the end.

Honda band playing one of their standard ouenka, with cheerleaders dancing.

NTT Higashinihon marching band and company employees yelling - Kattobase Kiyota!

NTT Higashinihon band plays 銀河鉄道999 by EXILE between innings, and the cheerleaders do formations.

Monday night, August 31, I went to the Tokyo Dome to take in an industrial league baseball game -- one of the semi-final games of the 都市対抗野球大会 (toshitaikou yakyuu taikai), aka Intercity Baseball Tournament. It is vaguely like a Koshien for adults in that 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. However, unlike Koshien, this one happens indoors during typhoon season instead of outdoors under the blazing heat of summer. Also, rather than being whittled down from 4000 teams all over the country, this is more like being whittled down from maybe 400 teams, between club teams and corporate teams.

The players on one of these corporate teams, from what I understand, are employees of the company who 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 suggested 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, during one of these tournaments, the company strongly suggests that as many regular employees as possible come out to support the company team. In this case, since NTT Higashinihon is representing Tokyo, they pretty much filled up half of the Tokyo Dome. We watched in morbid fascination as the employees continued filtering in, wearing their "NTT East" teal vests, slowly spreading from the infield employee seating to cover most of the right field bleachers, and then even extending to take over the second floor once they had exhausted the outfield seating. It was truly an impressive showing.

(This is towards the end of the first inning or so, while they hadn't QUITE filled up the RF bleachers yet.)

The particular branch of Honda featured in this game was the one simply referred to as Honda (as opposed to Honda Kumamoto or Honda Suzuka), located in Sayama, which is close to the Seibu Dome, maybe an hour from Tokyo. I'm not entirely sure why they didn't fill their entire half of the stadium likewise, since it's not THAT far away, though my best guess is that since the Honda team actually has a fair number of baseball fans on their own -- no joke, they're in this tournament pretty much every year -- the company didn't feel a need to fill the stadium themselves.

This is the Honda band and cheerleaders. You can see that there are a fair amount of people in the outfield on this side, but that they hadn't filled the entire infield with employees. Note the sousaphones which say 必勝狭山市 (Victory for Sayama City) in the bells!

You are possibly by now wondering where I was sitting for this game, given the various perspectives of the movies and photos. Well, I went to this game with my friend Carl, who found himself stranded in Tokyo thanks to Typhoon #11 cancelling all flights out on Monday. Carl isn't particularly a baseball fan, but I've dragged him to plenty of games in the past. We were in marching band together in college, so I figured if nothing else, he could enjoy the craziness of the bands and the cheering sections.

We bought balcony tickets for 700 yen each -- I don't even know how us peasants can sit in those plush balcony seats during a normal game, so it's a special treat for me to sit there. We entered on the Honda side by random chance. The only problem is, there are 5 rows of seats, and while they all have fantastic views of the GAME ACTION, you only get a truly good view of the marching bands and cheerleaders from the front row. And thanks to Honda actually having fans, and us arriving at about 5:55pm for a 6pm game, we ended up sitting in the 4th row or so.

After about 3 innings, the Honda band exhausted all of their songs and started repeating them, and being band nerds, we actually even had started to pick up on exactly how many unique measures of music they had. So sometime in the 4th or 5th inning we decided that the NTT Higashinihon band sounded MUCH more interesting and moved over to their side instead. It took an entire inning to move across because you can't simply walk through the back area on the balcony level, but instead have to go downstairs to the main floor and walk across, and then NTT had a huge 6th inning so I stopped to watch it, and Carl went to get a hot dog, but when the dust settled we ended up in the front row on the NTT balcony from the bottom of the 6th.

The real benefit of switching sides, of course, besides taking videos of the band, was that I could finally actually boo Hisayoshi Chono without feeling bad about it. Chono aside, I actually like a lot of the players on Honda's team, but my dislike for him kind of outweighs the rest of Honda.

(If you're wondering, the 700 yen was half price due to an anniversary deal or something -- usually they sell the behind-home-plate area seats for 2400 yen, the balcony seats for 1400 yen, and outfield is something cheaper that I forget. The rest of the infield area is used for the company employees' cheering section.)

The NTT cheering section, as viewed from a full standing-only area behind the seats.

The NTT section, viewed from the balcony.

This drum player was awesome and scary all at once. Carl commented that they were using the old unsimplified kanji for "ouendan".

I pointed out that cheering for industrial teams is quite easy, as they always let you know exactly what you should be yelling at any given time. (Those signs say "Ganbare" "Kishiro".)

Anyway, despite a rough start involving some recycled college tunes and a somewhat awkward routine carrying around a mikoshi on the stage, I can tell you that the NTT Higashinihon band, using Spanish-themed marches and some J-Pop riffs, managed to defeat the Honda marching band by a signature of 5/4 in the key of B flat. Honda's repetitive 16-measure songs were certainly catchy and more unique than those used by NTT, but at the same time, they tended to fall flat after about two times through. It was a close match though.

Wait, you wanted to know how the BASEBALL TEAMS did against each other?

Oh, um. Well, actually, it was a really close game, which Honda won in the end. Yoshio Ohta started for Honda and Toshiichiro Kishiro started for NTT.

NTT ran themselves out of the first inning (went from runners at the corners with 1 out, to three outs a second later after a strikeout and a failed steal of second. WHY on earth do you steal second in the first inning with a runner at third? Come on.) and then Honda put the first run of the game on the board in the bottom of the 2nd. Yuichi Tabata doubled to left, and two batters later Katsutoshi Okano singled to left. The throw home got there around the same time as the runner, but the NTT catcher Ueda lunged to get the ball, which got away from him, and then he was knocked over by a running Tabata. Okano saw the ball go and made a run for it, and in the meantime Ueda recovered the ball and threw out Okano at second. 1-0.

Honda starter Ohta managed to load the bases for NTT in the 4th off two walks and a hit batter, but NTT didn't capitalize on it, and left all three runners on base.

Naturally, because I was making my way across the stadium, the top of the 6th ended up being totally crazy. Kenji Takahashi walked, and the next batter, Masashi Arakawa (actually on loan to NTT from Meiji Yasuda Seimei), hit a single to right, moving Takahashi to second. At this point, Honda switched pitchers, putting in their ace Rikiya Chikugawa, who had pitched the majority of the innings in the tournament already for them. The first guy Chikugawa faced was NTT cleanup batter Ikuhiro Kiyota, whom he struck out. But then Yoshiyuki Takao singled to left, and somehow nobody scored on the play, so the bases were loaded. Hiroshi Hirano hit a sacrifice fly to right field, and Takahashi scored the tying run! 1-1. Another loan player, Kazuya Takeuchi from JR Higashinihon, then hit a grounder up towards third base. Takeuchi was safe at first and Arakawa scored, and then SOMEONE got tagged out on the play to make the third out, but I have no clue who because when the run scored, the entire NTT section went nuts and blocked the sightline for the entire standing area. 2-1.

We went upstairs in time to see Hisayoshi Chono get another hit in the 6th (grr), but it wasn't until the 7th where Honda started stringing together a real offense. Hidenori Taura, on loan from JFE Higashinihon, singled to left, and Okano singled to right, moving pinch-runner Kyuta Horiuchi to third. Okano was also replaced by a pinch-runner, Satoshi Yoshioka. Ryo Saeki followed that up with a successful squeeze bunt up the middle, as Horiuchi was home almost before the ball even reached the pitcher. 2-2. NTT switched pitchers from Kishiro to Katayama at this point. Yoshioka got himself caught stealing next, with Yoshinobu Kotegawa at the plate. Kotegawa grounded to short -- except that somehow the ball went bounding THROUGH the shortstop's glove, so Kotegawa was safe at first. Saeki was off running on the two out play to begin with, so he passed second and was going towards third as the left fielder Katamichi recovered the ball. Saeki started home and Katamichi made a throw home -- over home -- more like FIVE FEET over home -- and Saeki was safe, Kotegawa safe at second by the time the ball was recovered, and Honda was ahead 3-2. Two errors, one run.

Kiyota got a one-out single in the top of the 8th for NTT, but then got caught stealing second, and that was the last thing NTT would accomplish offense-wise. Hisayoshi Chono got another hit in the bottom of the 8th for Honda, much to my chagrin, but then Yasuyuki Saigo hit a pop fly to right field, which right fielder Arakawa ran down and made a dramatic diving catch. Chono was already practically at home plate when the ball was caught, so he had no chance to make it back to second. Three out.

And thus Honda's marching band advanced to the finals.

(Honda team captain Okano makes a victory speech.)

Gen was also at this game, and after playing email tag for half of it, he sat across the aisle from us for the last inning or two and we all walked out together. I talked to him a bit about his new blog (Yakyu Baka, aka the Blog Formerly Known As Simcentral) and we made our way over towards home plate.

We're standing there looking at the tournament board, and we notice a guy with a big ice thing on his right arm. Gen's like "I wonder who that is?" and I'm like "I think it's got to be one of the Honda pitchers from today... but which one? I've never seen either of them close up!" So I finally bite the bullet and ask the guy's family in Japanese, "Who's that?" and they say "That's Chikugawa," and I'm like "The second pitcher for Honda today? He was really good!" They replied, "Thank you so much for watching!" or something to that effect. So after some other people asked him for photos and it looked like he was going to run off I just butted in and asked if I could take a photo with him too.

Rikiya Chikugawa, Honda #16

I told him thanks, and that he pitched really well and good luck in the game tomorrow and all of that stuff.

Here's the funny thing -- not only was he the winning pitcher in this game, and has pitched over half of Honda's innings this tournament, but -- last year, when I went to see Honda vs. ENEOS in the semi-finals, he also pitched the last half of that game as well! What a weird coincidence that we randomly saw him standing there.

What an exciting day. I wish I could go back and see the finals, but I'll be down in Chiba watching the Fighters-Marines game instead. I secretly want Honda to lose just for the Chono Factor, but it doesn't matter that much to me. Yukinaga Tanaka plays for Toyota, and I liked him when he was at Waseda, so I hope he can do well too.

No idea whether Toyota's band will beat Honda's, though.

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