Sunday, September 28, 2008

Game Report: Marines vs. Buffaloes @ Osaka Dome - It's Always Shunsuke Day

Just like I've never seen Seibu lose a game at the Seibu Dome, I have still never seen Orix WIN a game at the Osaka Dome. I kept my streak intact when I went to the Marines-Buffaloes game last Tuesday.

Tuesday, September 23rd, was a national holiday in Japan for the autumn equinox, so several games were held in the afternoon, including the one in Osaka. This was good for me, because I could see the game and then return to Tokyo in the evening, rounding out a nice 3-day 3-game trip. Because it was the Marines, I was also able to take advantage of the kindness of their coaching staff, namely Frank Ramppen, and bug him for a ticket to the game. I promised that the Marines would win, because it was Shunsuke Day. (Amazingly, both times this year I have gone to see Marines away games outside of Tokyo, they have been Shunsuke Days. How do I get so lucky?)

I got to the stadium really early in order to have time to get my ticket and wander around. The nice thing about being super-early is that you also get a chance to run into wandering mascots:

I also took a while wandering around the "mall" that kind of circles the basement level of the stadium, or maybe it's the first floor, I'm not sure. There are a lot of shops and restaurants down there, including a Buffaloes shop, and the Bs Club, and several restaurants that you can eat at and watch the game from the outfield. (I don't know how; I'm going to research that later. I assume you need a ticket for them, but maybe not.) It's pretty neat. There's really a lot you can do with these newfangled dome stadiums, and it's nice that they have done so.

Eventually I figured I should probably go into the stadium, so I did. The Marines were taking batting practice. Even though my ticket didn't technically let me go all the way to the front row, I told a security guard I just wanted to take a few pictures and say hello to the Marines staff. I don't think she believed me, so when I got up front I managed to yell hi and thanks to Frank, and then Marines Statsmaster Paul Pupo even came over to the fence and talked to me for a few minutes. I took a photo of the field and the warmups by putting my little camera up to the fence, and then ANOTHER security guard came up and told me I couldn't do that, and I would have to return to my seat... despite that he saw me standing there talking to a Marines staff member.

So I said goodbye to Paul and walked up a ton of stairs to the walkway... and then walked down again behind home plate. Stuck my camera up to the fence and finally got a good shot:

I was going to yell hi to Bobby, and I swear, ANOTHER security guard ushered me and some other fans away from the fence. I really have to wonder if that's normal treatment or if they were just picking on me for being a foreigner. I mean, we're talking an hour and a half before the game, here. What's the harm in taking a picture of the field that doesn't have a big fence in the way?

By the way, the seats behind home plate are really nice. They even have little airconditioning vents in EACH SEAT:

I went back to my seat, pausing on the way to note all of the people hoping to get autographs. They had apparently arrived quite early, and were all lined up with their shikishi (autograph boards) and markers stuck under the netting. I think these people seriously just sat there for about an hour or two waiting to see if any player would come over and sign; someone DID come over and sign some of them at the very end of batting practice, though I couldn't tell who it was.

Anyway, given that I wasn't going to hang out around home plate and get yelled at by security any longer, I decided to see how much of the Osaka Dome I could actually explore without invoking the ire of any other security staff.

The answer? All of it.

Really, if you have a ticket for infield seating in the lower level, it seems quite possible to go pretty much anywhere in the stadium to look around. I walked around all of the lower level and looked through the concessions and whatnot, and then found an elevator to the upper level. (The ramps to the upper level seemed to be closed.) There was a stadium staff girl standing by the elevator, but as I went in, she didn't check my ticket or really do much more than smile, so I figured, what the heck, and went up to the 5th floor, which seemed to be the upper seats. There was a semi-helpful diagram of the floors by the elevator... and as it turns out, the only buttons I could press were for 3, 4, and 5 anyway:

I believe the 6, 7, and 8 floors are those box seat levels, and 9 is the Sky Hall", which is a space that can be used for meetings, concerts, etc... there's actually a separate entrance to the Osaka Dome just for the Sky Hall, with a big escalator snaking up the side of the building. I'm actually not sure what level 4 is; I saw a bunch of staff-looking people there and got the vague "you shouldn't be here" vibe from it, so I went back in the elevator and went up to the 5th floor, the upper deck.

Wandering around the upper deck was interesting.

No smoking, no throwing, no jumping, and no getting hit in the head by foul balls.

(I wonder, does that mean the Inaba Jump is outlawed at the Osaka Dome? I doubt it, because the Chiba fans were doing their usual bouncing.)

If you want to smoke, you can go into your own little cigarette box:

Actually, in general, the upper level is not particularly exciting. The food places are few and far between and a lot of the hallways are narrow. I can't help but wonder what kind of disaster it becomes during an actual CROWDED (read: Hanshin) game. During this game, all the seats were unreserved as far as I know, so you could just kind of go sit anywhere you felt like up there.

Here's some perspective on the place, four-part photo a la Zack Hample:

From top left, clockwise: from lower-level infield unreserved 3B, from upper-level infield 1B towards outfield, same place towards infield, and from upper-level infield unreserved 3B.

After walking around the stadium several times, I realized I was HUNGRY, so I stopped by a bento cart, where I wanted to get a cool player bento, but the only cool player bento they had were an "OSAMU UMASO" bento of Hamanaaaaaaka, and a Tuffy Rhodes Katsu Meshi bento. They actually had an acronym for UMASO with each letter standing for some kind of food in it, but when it came down to it I decided I'd just go with the simple katsu bento. It was good.

I've been to all of the stadiums in Japan this year (scary, I know), and I have to say, the best variety of player bento were at the Yahoo Dome, by far, although the Fighters bento in general were pretty great at the Sapporo Dome too.

Right after I finished my bento, and was chewing on some mint Mentos and debating getting up to throw away the box, there was a tap on my shoulder. "You're Deanna, right?"

It was Nadya, who comments on this blog from time to time; I'd told her where I was sitting, just in case "big gaijin girl wearing Watanabe #31 t-shirt and gray Marines towel" wasn't going to be descriptive enough. She talked the security guard into letting her come over (note a theme for the day?) and we chatted for a while, about high socks and scary Tigers fans and wacky Kansai people and whatnot, before she went off to go find a seat in unreserved seats. Hopefully I didn't scare her too much, and maybe we can actually go see a game together next year, with some better planning on my part. (I could do a better job of warning people when I'm going to other cities, I suppose, although this month has been hell on me for various other reasons, and the storm is nowhere near over.)

Really, one of the best things about this season has been getting to meet and talk to so many people who love Japanese baseball.

Before the game started, they had two kids come up and give a little "good luck Buffaloes" speech in English; I think it was some promotion from ECC, the English school that has a lot of branches in Kansai. I saw this on Sunday too; the kids just came up to say "My name is ____, my favorite player is ___, hit a home run for me!" or something to that effect.

Of course, the girl said "Hamanaka, hit a home run for me," but Hamanaka didn't play that day. Poor kid.

As I mentioned, it was a Shunsuke Day. What I didn't mention is that I hadn't seen Shunsuke pitch in a month. When last we left our hero, he hadn't lost a game in two months, and had just become 11-4 on the season. Then he went 1-3 in his next four starts, so he was 12-7 coming into Tuesday's game.

Orix's starter was Mamoru Kishida, owner of one of the three coolest first names in Japanese baseball (the other two being Rui Makino and Kyuji Fujikawa).

Orix's announcer had a severe case of 2<->5 English dyslexia and kept introducing someone whose uniform number is 22 as "number fifty-two", and vice versa.

I started off the game cheering for the Marines during their innings and counting Shunsuke's pitch count during the Orix innings, until I realized that the Osaka Dome scoreboard has an overabundance of something most stadiums in Japan don't have: USEFUL INFORMATION. Pitcher stats! Batter stats! Wow!

No, really. I mean, they HAVE the pitch count, and even have it by balls and strikes. I'm not sure I've seen anywhere else in Japan that displays that information consistently. The Tokyo Dome sometimes displays the pitch count, but no breakdown, and they don't always show it. I can't think of anywhere else. Usually, when I want to know pitch count, I either get out my cellphone and look it up on Yahoo, or I go nag my Fighters friends who keep a much more meticulous scorecard than I do.

(I will note that this wonderful abundance of information is somewhat nullified by the fact that you can't SEE the outfield scoreboard from the main cheering seats at the Osaka Dome, though. That's why this was the first time I saw it.)

So, you might note in that picture of the score, it was 2-0 Marines, in the second inning. Hashimoto led off with a single, moved to second when Julio Zuleta grounded out, and then Shoitsu Ohmatsu, RBI man, hit a clean single to right, scoring Hashimoto. Benny singled to center, moving Ohmatsu to second, and then when Daisuke Hayakawa hit a shot up the middle through a diving Gotoh, that scored Ohmatsu, to make it the 2-0 score... before "K is for Kishida" went back to his 2-strikeouts-per-inning pace and got Hosoya and Nishioka.

It was around that time that I realized there were basically two other actual vocal Marines fans sitting nearby, because we were all doing the claps and cheers for the players, in what was a mostly silent infield. One was a nondescript salaryman-type sitting to my right, and the other was a big Chiba fanguy decked out in an Ohmatsu jersey and everything.

Shunsuke ran into a bit of a problem in the bottom of the 2nd, with the bases loaded after he hit Hirotoshi Kitagawa in the arm with a pitch, and Gotoh and Kitagawa pulled off a double steal, and Keiji Ohbiki walked. But, Hiroyuki Oze, he of the aforementioned high socks, popped out to third base to end the threat.

Satozaki managed to not only get himself out by lining to the pitcher in the 3rd inning, but also got Jose Ortiz doubled off first base. Oops.

Somewhere around the 5th inning, while the Marines were in the midst of adding another run to their tally (a Hayakawa double followed by a Hosoya-kun single, 3-0), I started talking to this American couple sitting a few rows in front of me. I had noticed them walking in and out of their seats from time to time, and they also had a camera and a videotape and were constantly shooting photos, and I had noticed they were wearing nametags that said something like "M's Style", so I wondered if they were filming for something Marines-related; it wasn't a bad assumption to make given that I was sitting in a kankeisha area. The woman turned around with her camera pointed my way and I kind of put my hand in front of my face so I wouldn't end up in any shots, but she was like "Hey, can you take a photo of us?"

So I said "Sure, no problem," and took a picture. Then, "What are you guys filming for anyway?"

"Nothing in particular," she said, "We're just camera-happy tourists!"

Turns out they were visiting Japan on their honeymoon and really wanted to see a baseball game while they were here, and are friends of friends of Bobby's, so they got the special Marines Guest Treatment and all. Naturally, they thought I was a tourist too, until they asked where I live, and I gave my normal deadpan answer of, "Saitama."

"Where's that?"

"It's like the Hoboken of Tokyo."

Anyway, we were still chatting for a while, as they shared some of their stories of their travels so far with me, and I babbled a bit about baseball and answered questions, and in the 6th inning Ohmatsu walked, and while I was still talking to Mike and Rachel (the honeymooners), Benny chose that moment to launch a home run into the left-field stands, which was mostly funny because I stopped mid-sentence to stand up and watch where the ball was going, then cheer when it was a homerun, then high-five the dude in the Ohmatsu jersey across the aisle. 5-0.

I returned to my seat a bit after that, telling M&R that they should at least stay long enough to see the balloons in the 7th inning. They did, and then they had to leave -- busy travel schedule. By now, I think they should be in Bali, from what they said.

Shunsuke kept his shutout until the 8th inning, when Tuffy Rhodes singled in Tomotaka Sakaguchi (5-1), and after 121 pitches, relief lefty Yusuke Kawasaki came in to deal with Gotoh and Hidaka, finishing out the inning.

I was actually kinda psyched to see Daisuke Katoh pitching the top of the 9th -- I'm not an Orix fan but I do like Katoh. However, perhaps because it wasn't a save situation as his team was LOSING, he ended up giving up a run to that dreaded Hayakawa-Hosoya combination, as Hosoya hit a double into the gap. 6-1.

Ogino pitched the bottom of the 9th, and while Hirotoshi Kitagawa was at the plate, suddenly there was a huge commotion and everyone in the stands started bolting towards home plate again, because, naturally, there was some big dude in the on-deck circle taking practice swings...

Yeah, it was time for the Daily Daida Kiyohara. He took like the first or second pitch he saw and hit a biiiiiig towering pop fly to right field which was caught for an out. Shinji "Shimoyaman" Shimoyama pinch-hit after that as well, hit a big pop fly out to third base, and that was the game.

Shunsuke was game hero for the Marines, and he gave a short speech and then went out to wave to the fans in left field. PR-guy-Kajiwara ran out there and had him hold up "Imae" as well:

And that was it.

I made the mistake of going back to the Buffaloes store after that, and nearly got crushed by the horde of people who wanted to buy Kiyohara goods. Me, I got a sheet of "Kiyohara Security System" stickers and a little keychain... even if I'm not really a particular Kiyohara fan, it seemed like it was the appropriate souvenir to bring back from Orix in this particular time and place. Plus the stickers made me crack up.

And well, it was about 5pm at that point, and I had a train ticket back to Tokyo leaving Shin-Osaka station at 7:37pm, which seemed like an awfully long time, and there was only so long I was going to spend wandering through the undermall of the Osaka Dome, so eventually I gave up, went back to the train station, and got them to move my train up by half an hour... and then I pretty much slept the entire way back to Tokyo rather than doing anything productive with the 2.5-hour ride.

I'm not exactly planning to go back to Osaka any time soon, though if Orix hosts First Stage of the playoffs and I can get a ticket, I'm TOTALLY there. I haven't been to a postseason baseball game since 1983 and I'm really hoping to change that this year.

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