Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Game Reports: Weekend in Sendai - Eagles vs. Fighters at Kleenex Miyagi Stadium

I've said it many times before, but one of the best things about Japanese baseball is the away fan culture. No matter what game you go to, there will always, without fail, be SOME group of people there cheering for the away team, yelling their cheers and banging their drums. Sure, a Baystars game against the Giants at the Tokyo Dome will have only a tiny enclave of Yokohama blue amongst the eggful of orange towel-waving Yomiuri fans, while a Hanshin Tigers game anywhere in Japan is guaranteed to fill up one half and perhaps more of the stadium with a sea of yellow torakichi. There's always something, no matter how big or small.

The Fighters have a fairly unique away fan culture due to two main factors: first, their home is Hokkaido, which pretty much requires an airplane to travel to and from; and second, they used to be located in Tokyo, which means they still have a huge legacy of fans in the area. If you go to enough Fighters games in the greater Tokyo area, and always sit in the outfield, you simply WILL see the same people all the time. This is because a lot of us go to almost every game and we all sit in the outfield to make sure we're surrounded by other Fighters fans. Most people have a particular unique jersey they wear or a particular sign they always hold up, so you get this interesting phenomenon that happens where you'll have these acquaintances in the cheering section, where you know where they live and who they're a fan of and various other things about them, but have no idea what their name is.

I'm assuming that all teams have a subset of fans who are willing to spend their weekends travelling around the country sitting in the "visitor" section at all the other stadiums, but I sometimes wonder if it's an even larger percentage with the Fighters, especially the Kanto fans. With the Hokkaido fans, it seems like following the Fighters somewhere is a good excuse to get off the north island and go to the rest of the country. And with the Kanto fans, we're so used to being the visitors in the first place that there's no reason NOT to go other places and be that way too.

At any rate, it is not uncommon for me to show up in another city to watch the Fighters, only to find myself surrounded by other Fighters friends who ALSO don't live in said other city, and are only there for the Fighters games. Which is exactly what happened this weekend -- both days, I sat with a group of friends who live in Hokkaido (well, and one guy from Nagoya). Most of the people I ran into at the game that I know are from the Tokyo area. I did say hello to the Michinoku Fighters group, which is made up of people who ACTUALLY live in Sendai, but I think they were vastly outnumbered by the rest of us intruders!

Which is funny, because Sendai has a bunch of specific Sendai-only cheer songs, mostly due to trumpets being banned at Kleenex Stadium Miyagi. There are a bunch of short little two-line songs that we sing in place of having a trumpet fanfare after something like a batter getting on base, or the Fighters offense starting, or so on. There are also two Sendai-only chance theme songs:

"Ookina Homerun" -- Chance Theme #1

"Utte utte utte utte utte Shinji!" -- Chance Theme #2, from Saturday's game

Chance Theme #2, this time on Sunday, for Kaneko, and he hit a run-scoring sac fly in the middle, so you can also see the run-scoring celebrations, and the "vocal fanfare" of "nice batting! nice batting! mou hitotsu omake ni nice batting!"

After my first of four shinkansen rides of the weekend, I arrived at Kleenex Stadium Miyagi on Saturday around 1pm for a 2pm game. This would normally be fairly late, especially for a crowded weekend game, but I had asked some friends to save me a seat. I showed up just in time for the ouenka lessons and got one of the Sendai-only cheer song papers, and practiced some of the songs for a bit.

("Okay, and this is how the chance music goes...")

For whatever reason, they have these weird-ass goya mascots going around scaring people. Somebody told me there is a tie-in with the place the Eagles hold their okinawa spring camp, but in reality, I think they just like having bizarre mascots walking around for no real reason.

And then a little bit after the lineups were announced I had a really surreal conversation with one of my friends. He lives in Nagoya. It went something like this:

Me: "Hey, tomorrow is the final Fighters-Eagles game here of the season, right?"
Him: "Yeah, I think so. Why?"
Me: "I was at the game in Chiba on Thursday and we did an AWESOME cheer song exchange! Like we did Benny's song and they did Yukio Tanaka's and so on..."
Him: "Oh! Yeah, we might do that again here... at least some kind of 'ganbare Eagles' and they'll reply..."
Me: "Good, I really enjoyed it in Chiba."
Him: "...wait a minute, you were at the game in Chiba on Thursday?"
Me: "...yeah?"
Him: "I didn't see you there."
Me: "WHAT? You were there too?!?! Where?!"
Him: "No, I wasn't there. I was watching on TV."
Me: [stares blankly]
Him: "I saw you on TV at Tuesday and Wednesday's games, but didn't see you on Thursday."
Me: "Whaaaa.... really?"
Him: "Really."
Me: "That's so weird. But anyway, I was in the infield on Thursday. I came out to the outfield during the 8th inning for the purpose of the final game's ouenka exchange."
Him, laughing: "Ha, just as I'd expect from you..."
Me: "You always see me on TV?"
Him: "Always. I watch every weekday game when I get home from work... so I'm always like 'ah! it's Deanna!' You're a very famous Tokyo fan you know..."

Oh yeah, he also told me that the series in Fukuoka, after I'd left and gone to Shikoku, apparently on Sunday the Nippon Ham company gave tickets in the Fighters cheering area to a ton of Kyushu-based Nippon Ham employees. Problem is, these people live in Kyushu, so they were HAWKS fans -- it apparently made things very weird for the Fighters cheering section. I'm surprised the company didn't get seats somewhere like 3rd base infield... that'd make a lot more sense.

Anyway, I don't have a lot to say about the game itself. I spent most of it talking to people and singing and clapping a lot. People were in a really good mood because the Fighters were winning from the 3rd inning onwards, and there were so many different cheer groups meeting in one place for once that it was just interesting to talk to people and find out more about their cheering styles.

Masaru Takeda started for the Fighters and pitched a complete game win as the Fighters beat the Eagles 10-3. He had a slightly shaky beginning as he gave up a 2-run homer to "Takeshi SMASH" Yamasaki but then settled down for a while.

Koji Aoyama started for Rakuten, and pitched two scoreless innings before getting stomped in the third inning, culminating in a 3-run homer by Terrmel Sledge which put the Fighters up 6-2.

(Flags waved for Sledge's home run.)

The Fighters squeezed out another run in the 5th (literally) and 2 more in the 6th, and eventually Atsunori Inaba also hit a home run in the 8th inning to bring the Fighters run total to 10.

Inaba flag flying in Sendai!

I was trapped in the middle of TWO groups of people holding up a ton of signs for Yoshio Itoi, so I thought I'd take a photo. They also have a special Sendai-only Itoi call where men yell "Itoi!" and women yell "Yoshio!", faster and faster until a pitch happens.

Itoi supporter groups.

Kenshi Kawaguchi managed a home run in the bottom of the 9th, but Masaru Takeda ended up with a complete game win on 120 pitches, with a score of 10-3.

We all ran off immediately at the game end and walked across town to go to a restaurant and eat grilled cow tongue, which is the local specialty of Sendai, or at least, when you go to Sendai and come back, people ask you if you ate cow tongue. I'd kind of eaten it before in that I had gyutan yakisoba last year at the stadium, but this was the first time specifically eating it. It was definitely better than the yakiniku cow tongue I'd eaten in the past, but I still don't quite understand what the big deal is.

Everyone thought I was completely crazy, but after dinner on Saturday I went back to Sendai station and took a shinkansen back to Tokyo. I had a Saturday-Sunday ticket for the weekend, which costs 18000 yen and is good for unlimited train travel on JR East, including the shinkansen. At the time, I had figured out that it was cheaper and quicker to take the shinkansen to and from Sendai twice, and not pay for a hotel room, than it was to take a night bus and stay the night in Sendai. As it is, with good shinkansen timing, it's seriously around 90 minutes from my home station to Sendai station! I think it's usually 90 minutes from my home station to Kamagaya or Yokohama too!

Of course, it turned out that Lisa actually had extra space in her hotel room on Saturday after all, but I am an idiot.

Instead, I met up with Lisa when I arrived back in Sendai again on Sunday morning, around 9:30am. We walked up to the stadium, met up with my friends who were waiting in line outside the outfield gates. I introduced her to everyone, chatted with people for a bit, and then we went off to take photos of various things.

(I'm sure I have mentioned this before, but the real key to sitting in a good place in unreserved outfield cheering sections is to go with a group of friends, where two or three people in your group show up around 2-3 hours before the gates open and hang out in line, and save seats for everyone in their group once the stadium actually opens. I often feel guilty about taking advantage of this when I show up at weekday games after work, so I try to at least arrive fairly early when it IS possible for me to.)

Lisa and I in front of a Rakuten train car thingy outside the station.

Me with one of the Rakuten mascots. I have no clue what it's called, as they change their auxiliary mascots EVERY YEAR these days.

Yes, we are RIDICULOUS DORKS for posing with cardboard cutouts of Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka... and I'm not sure we care!

As the gates were starting to open, there was a kids-only signing table, and Ryo Hijirisawa was signing stuff.

We made it back to the outfield entry at 11:10am, just as the last of the people waiting in line went into the stadium, so we could just enter without waiting. As promised, people saved seats for us, about 5 rows back. I was next to my Nagoya friend again, and on the other side of us was a friend from Hokkaido. This particular friend was a Giants fan before the Fighters invaded his island, and as such always cheers for Tomohiro Nioka now. A couple of months ago I bought some boxed Fighters figurines and got a Nioka one that I wasn't too happy about, so one good thing about going back to Tokyo overnight was that I was able to go fetch the Nioka figurine and finally foist it off on my friend. He gave us bizarre bean-flavored taiyaki snacks in return. I've been told they are a Miyagi prefecture specialty, but I wasn't particularly fond of them.

I was under the impression that at Kleenex Stadium, if you sit in the outfield, and want to actually go down to the fence and try to talk to players before the game, you have to have a reserved ticket, but it turns out that until the end of BP, they let anyone down there. So, Lisa and I went down there. She just wanted to take photos, and I wanted to talk to Brian Sweeney.

Sweeney wasn't there, but the schedule said he would be coming out to do sprints at some point, so we waited around.

It's Shintaro Ejiri! He recently got a completely different haircut, and some people didn't even recognize him. I think I liked him better before.

Eventually, Brian did come out to do running -- and I yelled hello to him and chatted for a bit, told him he kicked ass at Chiba (which really was just the main thing I wanted to say) and so on and so forth. He said he'd be pitching on Tuesday at Seibu. I also introduced Lisa, and since she's from Ottawa they ended up talking a bit about minor-league baseball up in Canada (of which there is precious little these days, it seems). I actually had no clue that Brian had played baseball in Canada at all, so that was interesting to learn.

Eventually after watching pitching practice for a while, I headed back up to the cheering section to do aisatsu. Aisatsu means greetings, kind of; I've written a little about it in the past, but essentially you are required to say hello to everyone you know, or they will consider you really rude for passing them by. I'm still trying to figure out the exact rules of it.

One of the people in particular that I wanted to tag was a girl I met in Sendai last year who also loves Ryota Imanari. She even has a pair of his wristbands that he gave her last year. I brought her some stuff from Kamagaya, and we took a photo together!

(The purple sign is mine, but the blue one was given to us from one of the guys in the Susukinokai, or at least I think that's what their group was called. I tried to give it back to him after the photo, but he insisted on me keeping it!)

Then I went to talk to a guy who people call the "Sapporo Ojisan"; if you've watched Fighters games on TV, you may have seen him holding up his signs after the games. I'd seen him a few times at games before, but never up close. He's a really good artist, and has drawn caricatures and such for just about every player on the team in recent years! Take a look at these few I snapped photos of...

Sapporo Ojisan and his Yu Darvish "spirit" caricature.

Ryan Glynn in his Fighters days.

Trey Hillman, along with the 2000th hit newspaper page for Yukio Tanaka.

Lisa and I eventually went back to get food and drinks and stuff. Apparently we missed part of the pre-game ceremonies where a real live eagle actually flies over the stadium, but we randomly passed by the eagle trainer on the way back to the outfield:

(I didn't even know how to say "eagle" in Japanese until I looked it up, they're so rare here.)

By the time we were done with all of that, the game was starting.

Oddly, I'm not sure the results of the game had any effect at all on whether I actually enjoyed myself, though. It was a close enough game that the atmosphere in the Fighters cheering section was really good, and I was overjoyed to spend an afternoon hanging out with Lisa again, and also enjoyed talking to everyone around us.

And just as on Saturday, there were little Sendai-only songs to sing and cheers to yell -- and something even funnier, as well.

From the very first inning, when Inaba came to the plate with a runner on second, rather than just doing the typical Inaba Jump, the ouendan got us to all sing Inaba's at-bat song, "I Was Born To Love You", by Queen. THEN we launched into the Inaba jump.

Inaba came up to bat with runners in scoring position four times (AND WALKED FOUR TIMES, TWICE INTENTIONALLY), so we got to do this one fairly often, much to everyone's amusement.

Right, so it was a battle of the young lefties as Tomoya Yagi started for the Fighters, and Kohei Hasebe for the Eagles. Neither of them lasted 5 innings. The Eagles put a run on the board first, then the Fighters tied it up, and Hasebe came out of a tied 1-1 game, only to have Terrmel Sledge immediately drive in two of his runners off relief pitcher Satake to go ahead 3-1. But many walks led to the Eagles getting another run in the 4th to make it 3-2, and then Yagi came out of the game with one of his runners standing on base, which naturally Fernando Seguignol ended up driving in to tie the game 3-3.

After that, both teams spent the game doing their best to try to push a run ahead. The Fighters ended up having sacrifice bunts or flies in 6 innings out of 9 overall, in the end! The Eagles were not quite playing that game, with more of their hitters being big guys (Yamasaki, Seguignol, Miyade, Linden) and not so much fleet-of-foot runners. In the 7th inning, Takeshi Yamasaki walked, and Seguignol hit a double to right, moving Yamasaki to third. Daisuke Kusano then hit a fly ball to center, which would have been a decent sac fly if there had been anyone standing on third BESIDES their 40-year-old bulky designated hitter, but instead Itoi fired in the ball from the outfield and catcher Shinya Tsuruoka managed to swipe down and tag out Yamasaki on his way to the plate.

My friend from Nagoya, who had to leave the stadium by 6pm to go catch his plane home, said around 4:15pm with the game tied in the 7th, "Is this really going to be over by 6?"

I accidentally thought that it was 5:15 at that point by the way he was talking, and said "I think so, but it's not going to end well."

As an even stronger omen of their fate, Fighters erstwhile reliever Yoshinori Tateyama took the mound in the bottom of the 8th, and from that moment I knew the team was doomed to lose. I even wrapped my green Hichori towel around my head so I couldn't watch the game ("Every time I see Tateyama pitch he loses, so this way, I can't SEE it, so he can't lose, right?" "That's not going to work -- ALL of us have this problem where Tateyama loses every time we see him...")

Naturally Tateyama had to almost prove me wrong. Almost. With my Nagoya friend telling me the plays to write down in my scorecard, and a towel around my head, Tateyama managed to get to 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th. And he just couldn't finish it. He walked Seguignol, who was replaced at first base with Little Kensuke Uchimura. Daisuke Kusano singled, moving Uchimura to 2nd. Todd Linden walked too, and I knew there was no way we'd be getting out of bases loaded, even with two outs, and sure enough, Masato Nakamura hit the ball over the infield, and that was it as the Eagles won 4-3.

Nakamura was the game hero, though I think it probably should have actually been Fernando Seguignol, at least shared.

But either way, I wasn't really in all that bad a mood afterwards, having had a decent time hanging out with everyone. I have to admit that I was a LITTLE disappointed that there was no cheer song exchange afterwards, though -- all the Fighters fans were packing up and getting the hell out of the stadium to go back to Hokkaido or Tokyo respectively, and the Eagles fans were too busy celebrating, and all of the people in the orange ouendan coats were gone fairly quickly. Maybe the exchange in Chiba was a special occasion.

So we bolted with everyone else and walked back towards Sendai station, though we stopped off for a while so Lisa could get her stuff from her hotel, and by the time we actually got to the station it was around 6:30. Our original idea was to get seat reservations for the shinkansen and then go off to the Mint baseball card store for a bit, but we got sidetracked by miokuri of epic proportions.

(Miokuri literally means "to see off", but in baseball terms it usually refers to fans storming the players' bus after a game. Some people just want to talk to the players, some try to get autographs or photos.)

First we ran into a bunch of my friends from the game, who said "All the Fighters are in the station! They went to get train tickets and dinner! See that restaurant? Right inside is Kikuchi and Hisashi and Kanamori!!" Then while I was getting my train ticket, one of the women ran in and got me like "Sweeney just went by! You should go talk to him!"

So Lisa and I decided to go on in and see what was going on. I did infact run into Brian and basically say hello and goodbye (but in reality, I didn't want to bother him or anyone else). And as we were standing there, I saw Nashida-manager and Yoshii-coach walk by, in white shirts and slacks. Toshimasa Konta went by a bit later and I sort of nodded at him (keep in mind I was wearing a Yakyuudo t-shirt and carrying that huge blue Imanari signboard since it wouldn't fit in my bag -- I stuck out even more than usual) and he looked at me funny. Then Hichori came by -- you can't miss him, he was looking pretty badass in a white shirt and suit pants and pointy leather shoes and sunglasses.

We went up to the platform, where a bunch more players were all wearing suits and gathered waiting to board their train! Of course, there was also a group of about 20ish fans doing exactly what we were doing -- kind of craning our necks trying to see which players were where, while not being TOO obnoxious or obvious about it. A few fans did go up to players and ask for autographs, and most were told a polite but brief "No".

I saw Terrmel Sledge and caught his eye and waved. He waved back.

Makoto Kaneko, wearing a full suit and jacket, almost knocked Lisa over as he was walking by at a brisk pace with his suitcase, but we didn't realize who he was until a few seconds later.

The best was Atsunori Inaba, also in a suit and jacket, walking down the platform. He already looked enough like some kind of rock star, this tall handsome guy in a suit striding across, but there were around 15-20 people pretty much following him like a posse, saying "Inaba-san, Inaba-sama..."

Shota Ohno was wearing a full black suit too. For whatever reason, whenever I wasn't hiding behind the kiosk, he kept looking over at me kind of funny. I'm not sure if it was a look of "whoa! it's a gaijin!" or worse, perhaps, "whoa! it's THAT gaijin!" Much as I didn't want to bug people, if I'd had more presence of mind, I would have asked for HIS autograph -- I had a photo with me, that I'd taken during his Toyodai days and printed for another Ohno fan. Alas. (It might have been enough of a "Whoa, why do you have this?" moment for me to get away with it.)

Anyway, I surreptitiously snapped a few photos, but they didn't come out so well. You can get the idea, though:

Iiyama in the suit, and Kikuchi.

Ohno is the black suit on the left, Kaneko's the grey suit in front. Ejiri is on the right, you can kind of see Sledge in the background.

Trainstalking Sledge and Hisashi.

I was on the next train back to Tokyo AFTER the Fighters' train, so instead of going to the card store, I just hung out at the station until my train showed up. (Lisa went to get dinner with a friend of hers.)

The shinkansen ride back was nice, but I was still so hyper over the day's events that I completely couldn't sleep at all.

(I apologize for this entry being somewhat fragmented -- it was written over the course of a few days, as the last week or so has been crazy. This really was the a fantastic Fighters roadtrip though, and I wanted to make sure to share it.)

No comments: