Tuesday, June 29, 2010

BCL Roadtrip: Hard-Off Eco Stadium, Niigata Albirex and Gunma Diamond Pegasus, June 26-27 2010: Part 1

I guess it's technically not a roadtrip if you take the train for most of it, but whatever.

I've wanted to check out the Hokushinetsu Baseball Challenge League for several years now; it was founded the year I moved to Japan, but for various reasons I just never could find a time to get out there for a game. The league started with teams in Fukui, Kanazawa, Toyama, and Niigata, and added Gunma and Nagano in their second year.

Last year, Niigata built a beautiful new stadium (named the Hard-Off Eco Stadium, which is amusing to native English speakers, but to Japanese people it's just sponsored by the Hard-Off second-hand appliance store chain). It seats 30,000 people and has a second floor in the infield, full outfield bleachers, beautiful turf and a nice scoreboard. Supposedly they even have full concessions for the NPB games there, although when I was there they just had a table or two of housewives selling yakisoba and whatnot.

Niigata would like to lure an NPB team to come there, but it doesn't seem all that likely to happen any time soon. So in the meantime they have a great new stadium there to play a few NPB "countryside" games, some high school and college tourneys, and the BCL Niigata Albirex team also gets to play a couple of games there.

Which is how I ended up going to see the new stadium, because the NPB games keep selling out.

The game at Eco-Sta (the Japanese abbreviation for the place, because I don't think I want to call it HOES, thank you) was starting at 1pm on Saturday, and doors were at 11am, so I headed up to Niigata on Friday night in order to get an early start, because I knew it was going to be an adventure getting there in the first place.

The stadium is about 2 miles from the main Niigata train station, and no other train stations are closer to it, so their main access page suggests either driving, taking a taxi, or taking the bus. Unfortunately, on weekends, the buses only come there like once an hour. You have a slightly better bet trying to take a bus to Miyamotobashi, which is about 5-10 minutes walk away from the stadium, and has maybe 3 buses per hour. Either way, you can catch the 530 bus to "Sonoki New Town" from the Niigata Station South Plaza -- right outside the big Bic Camera in the big bus turnaround. It takes about 15 minutes to get to "Sports Koen Mae" stop, which is right in front of the stadium.

I arrived at the stadium at 10:25am or so, and saw a handful of fans waiting outside, and a few players arriving as well. I bought a ticket and then walked around the entire stadium to see what it looked like. The infield is two floors, but the outfield is typical bleachers. There's a nice park-like area outside the outfield though -- you can go stand out there and take some photos, as I did:

I'm sure that for NPB games, they set up a whole bunch of food stands and whatnot out there, and it's probably a nice place to hang out and watch the game from the top of the hill and all, but for the BCL games they don't use the outfield, so I wasn't allowed to actually go in there. Still, you can see the mountains and the highway and all from on top of the outfield park, which I'm sure is very pretty when the place isn't on the verge of raining.

Park aside, I finally got bored and waited by the entrance, about 5-10 minutes before general ticket holders were allowed in. (It seems season ticket holders were allowed in a little bit earlier.) The nice people at the desk asked me, "Who are you a fan of?" and I said "I have no clue! This is my first time here! I came here for the stadium. Any suggestions?" and they told me that a coach/outfielder named Tomoshi Aoki was probably the most popular guy around, along with a DH type named Yuji Seino.

I figured I'd just let fate guide me into finding a few interesting players to cheer for, and sure enough, fate delivered some interesting players to me as soon as I got into the stadium. I sprinted up the stairs and first had to get through the team mascots and the Gunma Tourism bureau, and then there was a big Niigata Albirex merchandise table, and two random Albirex players were standing there, and one of them said "Good morning" to me, so I figured, what the hell, I would talk to them for a bit. One was Yuzo Hino, who is relevant a bit later, and the other was Masaki Kinouchi. I got a photo with them:

I didn't know it until I bought a meikan guide book that those two guys are pretty much the tallest guys on the team. No wonder they made me look so short.

And then another player came in and basically started talking to me. I talked to him in Japanese for about 2-3 minutes and then he comes out with "So where in the US are you from, anyway?" in English and I'm like "Wait, you speak English?" and he said "I played baseball in the US for many years, like in California and New Hampshire and such."

I've been teaching English here in Japan for three years now, so I can usually pick out people who just-studied-in-JHS as opposed to actually-speaks-fluently, and this guy was clearly off the scale in the fluent direction, so we chatted for a while in English. His name is Hideki Nagasaka and he really did play all over the place, including the Chico Outlaws and the Samurai Bears and so on. I really ought to do some more research on the Samurai Bears given how many of those guys are now scattered across the indie leagues here.

So I bugged him for a photo too:

He told me, "I'm a starting pitcher for the team but I'm not pitching today, I'll be starting tomorrow."

"Oh, that's too bad, I wish I could see you pitch."

Anyway, he had to go to practice, and I had to go find a seat. I picked a seat in the front row right behind the camera well. In reality, sitting about halfway back would have been fine too in order to not have a fence blocking me, but I have a crappy zoom lens so the closer I can get to the field, the better, so I sacrificed being able to see behind home plate in order to be about 40-50 feet closer to the field. Besides, I love sitting in the front row at a baseball game whenever I can.

This is the view from about halfway up the stands.

And this is the view from the seat I was actually in, mostly so you can see there's a fence and that the dugout prevented me from seeing any pop flies that went back to the net. But at least the bullpen was right in front of me, which meant I could see whoever was warming up. The bullpen is enclosed but open, if that makes any sense.

Also, that fence isn't actually THAT high:

This is the Albirex ouendan a bit later in the game, so you can see how high the fence is compared to the leaders.

Anyway, after throwing my stuff down on a seat, I went to wander around the park. Mostly I wanted to see what the food options and bathroom options were like, and go up to the second level to check it out.

Food: I get the feeling there is more for NPB games -- I could see alcoves that were clearly intended to be used for food stands that were empty for this game. There were also plenty of vending machines for drinks, which was nice, the stadium seems to be okay with people bringing in plastic bottles.

Bathrooms: They were awesome, very nice, though not as many stalls as you'd want there to be for an NPB game, I could see them getting pretty crowded with more people around. Looking at the stadium map it seemed like there's basically one main set of bathrooms in the outfield and then two auxiliary sets below on either side, which also seems like it might not be enough.

The upper deck doesn't actually have a concourse -- there are bathrooms behind the seats, but to get food and stuff it looks like you have to come down to the first floor. I don't think there was room for them to set up food up there even if they wanted to. I'm sure vendors wander around with food and drinks up there, though. Still, that might be a downside of sitting in the upper deck at this place, except that the view is pretty amazing. I took a few shots and made that poor man's panorama at the top of this post, and then I also bugged a random guy I saw sitting there to take a picture of me:

And as it turned out he was one of the ouendan leaders, I discovered later. Go figure.

Having explored the stadium, I ate some lunch, and then got some merchandise, namely a black Albirex t-shirt with the team slogan 一瞬懸命 on the back. The guy at the table explained that the t-shirt itself cost 3000 yen, or they were also selling it in a pack for the t-shirt, a plastic noisemaker, and a ticket to the July 3rd game, all for 3000 yen as well. I knew there was very little chance of me getting back up to Eco-Sta a week later, but figured I'd just go ahead and get the pack -- why not?

I also had a bag full of random stuff they gave out as you entered the stadium, which later turned out to mostly be advertisements from their sponsors, although there was a cool Shukan Baseball mini-magazine about the All-Star game being in Niigata, and then there were also two jet fuusen balloons -- a white one and an orange one. The orange one was for the Lucky 7 inning, and the white one was for the pre-game wedding.

Yes, you read that right. There was a pre-game wedding. Apparently this was mentioned on the team website but I hadn't bothered to read up on "game day events" because they're usually like, "kids will play catch on the field and we'll throw prize balls into the stands and stuff". Which was, of course, also included in this day's game, but yeah, there was also a wedding.

(Bizarrely, this is not even the wedding I have seen at a ballpark.)

It was really very lovely. I obviously have no clue who either of these people are, but even I found myself a little teary-eyed as they played "Every Little Thing Every Precious Thing" by Lindberg (aka the Kyuji Fujikawa song) over the loudspeakers and introduced the couple's history with photos on the scoreboard. If I understood correctly, the groom played high school baseball in Akita and even played at Koshien in 2003, and became a newspaper journalist and photographer in charge of covering the Niigata Albirex soccer and baseball teams. The bride was a huge baseball fan as a kid and grew up with the sport and became an announcer for Niigata sports as well, which is how they met. There were photos of them travelling together to the Tokyo Dome and even to the US to watch baseball together, so apparently given that their love for baseball and their love for Niigata brought them together, they felt that getting married at the beautiful new Niigata stadium was a good idea.

Their wedding certificate was written on the back of an Albirex jersey that had been signed by the entire team, and the officiant or witness or whatever was Albirex manager Shinya Ashizawa.

The Albirex mascot was the one to deliver the flowers and rings to the couple like a combined flower girl / ring bearer / bluebird of happiness, and after their ceremony they both made speeches to the assembled crowd, some of which were family and friends, most of which were just random fans of the team.

And for something that I am fairly sure is not standard for a wedding, after the couple kissed and were pronounced man and wife, the Albirex team AND the Gunma Diamond Pegasus players gathered and threw the groom up in the air in a celebratory wedding doage as the bride watched with her family in amusement. They threw him 5 times, though I am not sure I understand the significance of that:

And then with the help of coach/outfielder Tomoshi Aoki, both the Albirex players and the fans in the stands released the white balloons for the couple (but I couldn't get a good photo of it, sorry. I'm betting the Albirex player with the camera on the field had a better vantage point than I did.)

And then they marched off the field as newlyweds...

...though they came back to throw a matrimonial first pitch. She was the pitcher, he was the catcher, and she shook off his sign like three times before throwing it. And to her credit, she actually could throw all the way to home plate, even wearing a wedding dress and high heels. Pretty crazy.

The pre-game ceremonies also involved the playing of the Japanese national anthem (which is not done at most NPB games, actually) as well as the Niigata Prefecture anthem or official song or whatever.

And then there was a game. Takashi Amemiya started for the Albirex, and Masaki Tsutsumi started for Gunma. I realized pretty quickly that I was going to regret being on the 1st base side with two righty pitchers starting, but it turned out that both lineups were righty-batter-heavy anyway, so it wasn't as bad as it could have been.

Amemiya in the bullpen.

Tsutsumi on the mound.

Keep in mind that Gunma was the league champion last year and are also the champions of the first half of the league this year with a stunning 24-8-3 record -- they've pretty much stomped the entire league down. Niigata is actually the worst team in the league by win/loss right now, so really, Gunma was the favorite to win this game.

But strange things have a way of happening when I go to baseball games, and this one was no different. The scoreboard will show you that there was an 0-0 tie for the first 9 innings, but the game had its moments.

The Albirex actually managed to load the bases in their half of the first when Masashi Imai grounded to second but Hayato Furuichi beat out the force and both runners were safe, and then Shinya Matsuoka walked. Unfortunately, Kyoichiro Hojyo (his spelling, not mine) struck out to end the inning, and while the ball was dropped by the catcher, it isn't hard for him to make a force play at home on the runner coming from 3rd.

Hayato diving back to first base.

The fielder's choice that ended up putting both runners on base as Yasuyuki Shirahata jumps to save an errant throw.

Eco-Sta is nice enough to show batting averages, and it became clear to me soon enough that Niigata's main weakness is batting; they had several guys in the lineup who were barely batting .200 if that, and looking at their stats later I noticed that of the guys who have had a significant portion of their at-bats, only Hiroki Inaba and Tomoshi Aoki have an OPS over .700. Niigata as a team is batting .244, the lowest in the league.

As opposed to Gunma, which boasts a TEAM batting average of .316, the league batting champion (Inoguchi at .412), the home run king Francisco Caraballo (with 14, when no other TEAM has hit more than 7) and only one regular with an OPS UNDER .700, with 3 guys over 1.000 - Caraballo the HR champ, Inoguchi the batting champ, and former Fighters farmhand Ken Yamada who leads the league in walks.

In a word, ouch.

It was also kinda wacky to note the pitch speeds, which were generally in the 130's, a bit slower than I'm used to seeing in a pro game, probably more along the lines of a college game.

The batting leader for Niigata, leadoff man Hiroki Inaba.

Francisco Caraballo breaks a bat on the way to his first single of the day.

Caraballo would finish the day 4-for-5. It was kinda scary. I saw him play for the Kochi Fighting Dogs last summer as well.

After their "big" first inning, Niigata never actually managed to have two batters on base at the same time for the rest of the game. In the 5th, Iseda singled and was out on a failed sac bunt fielder's choice. In the 6th, Imai was hit in the arm by a pitch and left on base. In the "lucky" 7th, Hojyo walked and then got himself picked off first before Iseda singled again. Inaba also got himself picked off base after singling in the 8th. And that was it for Niigata runners.

Gunma got a lot more guys on base, always centering around Caraballo, but somehow couldn't seem to get them around to score. Caraballo and Niwa led off the 2nd with hits and were bunted up by catcher Seiya, and then left on base. In the 4th, Shido and Caraballo led off with singles and then Niwa FAILED to bunt them up and they were still left on base again.

Niwa fails to bunt.

Seiya bunted a ball up the 3rd-base line that literally just stopped rolling halfway up, for a hit... and then he got caught stealing shortly afterwards.

And so things went. There was a really long pause in the game after the 5th inning, where players came out with rakes and brooms to take care of the field. It was long enough for me to get up and wander back to the bathroom, and to go get another bottle of iced tea, and so on. I didn't time it, but it's useful to know for future games -- I never leave my seat during the game if I can help it, so knowing there is a long enough break for food and drink is useful to know.

Mascots from both teams came out for the Lucky 7s and greeted fans on both sides of the field.

Despite the weather -- a light rain was falling for most of the game from the 2nd inning or so onwards, and despite the pre-game wedding, the attendance was around a thousand people, or 1133 to be exact:

Keita Touji pitched the 9th inning for Gunma. Niigata starter Amemiya was still in through 9. And the game was still tied after all that, so it went into extra innings. Some of the ouendan guys were nice enough to explain to me that in this league, extra-inning games happen, but rather than there being an inning limit, there is a time limit on how long the game time can be total -- I think the limit was that when they hit 3 hours, that sets the end-of-game flag and that will be the final inning. Something like that, if I understood correctly at all.

Keita Touji.

So, extra innings, which is where things got messy.

Naoya Fujioka led off for Gunma and singled to center, and then Yuki Uchiyama grounded to the mound, only Amemiya bobbled the ball and so the runners were safe at first and second on the error.

Then something odd happened and I am still not quite sure. I think Ken Yamada sac bunted, maybe, although I thought at first that there was a double steal and catcher Kusaka managed to actually throw Fujioka out at 3rd. Maybe. I don't actually know. There was a huge fuss and the game paused for like 5-10 minutes while the umpires and the managers and the players all argued, and the eventual ruling was that the batter was out and the two runners were safe at 2nd and 3rd.

Niigata changed pitchers to Kohei Maso, who promptly gave up a single to Kiyotaka Aoki, which scored Fujioka and advanced Uchiyama to third. 1-0. Kyota Shido hit a sac fly to center which scored Uchiyama to make it 2-0, which is where the game would end; Masakazu Koshikawa pitched a perfect 10th for Gunma. I don't have any pictures of him because the Niigata ouendan people were talking to me for the entire thing and it was a fast inning anyway; Tomoshi Aoki pinch-hit for the last at-bat of the game and hit a pop fly out on the first pitch.

Fujioka sliding into 3rd.

Kohei Maso.

Final score.

The teams don't line up like college or high school games, but they do line up on the sides and bow to each other and then to the fans.

A few more shots from the game that didn't quite fit into the text:

Sho Iseda at bat -- he collected two hits in this game and was actually 5-for-9 over the entire weekend with me watching, go figure.

Another shot of starter Takashi Amemiya.

Shota Orikasa in the bullpen.

Yuzo Hino playing catch on the sidelines with Amemiya. I looked in the meikan and it turns out he went to Waseda, which I asked him about the next day.

So, the Niigata team lined up outside the stadium to say goodbye to fans; some people were asking for things to be signed or to take photos with players, but me, I actually just went and talked to Hideki Nagasaka for a while. He said he doesn't get to talk to people in English much anymore, and me, I was curious to ask him questions anyway. Like, where had he played in the US? (all over the place) and which did he like better? (Japan, because his family never made it to the US to watch him play, but they can see him here, he is from Kanagawa originally.) It turns out he even played for the Nagasaki Saints last year for a few weeks after I visited there.

Then he told me he writes a blog about his baseball adventures, so I was like "Oh, me too!" and I gave him a card with a link here, but something tells me this entry is going to be too long to bother reading, heh. (I would be surprised if anyone really reads all of this anyway, but I had such a crazy weekend that I certainly want to get as much of it down on "paper" as possible.)

I asked where the game was on Sunday since he said he'd be pitching, and he said it was in Gunma, but maybe about halfway between Niigata and Tokyo, so I said I would try to make it to the game and watch him. I had already been planning to try to find another independent ballgame to watch on Sunday anyway, and the weather in Toyama and Ishikawa was kind of turning me off to the idea of going there anyway.

So, yeah, that was pretty nuts.

I took the bus back to my hotel, got an adapter so I could actually use my laptop to research the Gunma game, and also looked around for something interesing to do in Niigata in the evening. I am not much for normal touristy stuff, and IMO it isn't worth spending a lot of money on fancy food when you are by yourself. I like to find tasty cheap regional food and weird local interesting baseball crap, as you might have guessed.

So I took a bus to Furumachi, where I wandered around until I found Dokaben Street! This is two blocks of a covered mall street where they have statues of characters drawn by manga artist Shinji Mizushima, who is best known for drawing baseball manga such as Abu-San and Dokaben -- heck, I don't even like manga or anime and even I have read a bunch of Dokaben. Mizushima is from Niigata, and he is one of the founders of the Baseball Challenge League, so he has done a bunch of artwork for the BCL as well -- my Gunma Diamond Pegasus ticket from Sunday features a cartoon by Mizushima, even.

I turned onto the block and the first thing I saw was a statue of Iwaki-kun outside the 7-11 and I totally freaked out. So I ran down the street taking photos of pretty much everything in sight. There were characters from Dokaben, from Yakyu Kyo no Uta, and of course at the very end of the street was Yasutaka Kageura from Abu-san. How cool!

I HAD to get a picture with Yamada Taro, the main character from Dokaben. I even asked a passerby to take a photo like "Can you take a photo of me with Yamada-kun, please?" and he laughed.

And here is me with Kageura. I haven't really read that much of the Abu-san comic, but it is also the name of a connected famous baseball izakaya in Yotsuya that pro and college baseball players go to from time to time (I went there a few months ago, not sure I ever mentioned it on this blog though), so I needed this photo to show some of my college ball friends. Abu-san has been running so long, and the main character is a Hawks player, so the Softbank Hawks actually retired uniform #90 for Kageura, who doesn't actually exist in real life. How crazy is that?

I wandered around town and eventually ended up coming back to the station and getting udon at a little place in the basement of a random building near there, and it was fantastic and cheap, just what I wanted.

And then I bought my train ticket to go to Gunma on Sunday morning. To be at Isesaki stadium with plenty of time for a noon game, I had to leave Niigata around 8:30am and get on a shinkansen. Turns out the Niigata team left Niigata around the same time on their team bus.

I guess since I mentioned the Gunma ticket cartoon and whatnot here, I will get slightly ahead of myself. I plan to split Sunday's game into a separate entry or I will never finish this.

But I got Nagasaka to sign my ticket on Saturday, and then on Sunday when the Niigata guys were loading their bus after the game, I tagged Yuzo Hino to ask him to sign my ticket, and also talked to him a bit like "Did you ever play at Jingu? I read that you went to Waseda and Soujitsu in the meikan... I watch Tokyo Big 6 all the time but I totally do not remember you!" He laughed like "Oh! Um, I got injured in college and never actually played in an official game, no, but I was in the baseball club at Waseda. Do you know Matsushita?" "Kenta? Now with Seibu?" "Yeah, him. We were classmates."

So that explains it. I'm kind of anti-Waseda as a team, but I support Tokyo Big 6 players in general. I'd cheer for Hino if I go back to see Niigata play again sometime. Plus I tend to always like catchers for some reason...

And thus is the end of my Saturday adventures. It's already Tuesday as I finish writing this. The Fighters should be starting a game against Seibu in about 2 hours in said Niigata stadium. I think I spend almost as much time writing about adventures as I do having them.

Either way, the upshot is, Hard-Off Eco Stadium is cool. Niigata is cool. Independent baseball is fun. You should go.


Anonymous said...

It's pretty neat that you get to go to these mini baseball trips all over Japan. How many prefectures and ball parks have you visited so far?

Deanna said...

Prefectures, I've spent time in 29, been through 4 more on the train, and never touched 14 others.

Ballparks I have actually lost count. I just did a quick total and I think it's 26 stadiums that I have actually been inside (not just to) though that feels like an awfully low number. I dunno.

I do these baseball trips just because it is what I enjoy! I like travelling, trains, and baseball, so Japan is an ideal place to be.

david said...

Appears to be a nice ballpark that deserves a NPB home team. Only problem that I would have is that "Eco-Sta" has an artificial turf, just like almost all the ballparks in Japan. Albirex Niigata from J-League has a nice soccer field with natural grass - why not "Eco-Sta" ?

westbaystars said...

Nice action shots with diamond dust!

While the "Amemiya in the bullpen" photo is very compelling, I think my favorite is the "fielder's choice" photo.

Parick said...

You are making me want to go to an Indy League game now :)

Patrick said...

Also my impression that douage's are pretty common at Japanese weddings (though usually not by a baseball team). The two that I went to each had one (and in the first one I had absolutely no idea what was going on), and a bunch of my wife's friends gave me one after we got married when we visited Japan shortly after getting married. And I had another one when I moved back to America from Japan. If there's one thing the Japanese love, it's throwing people up and down. It is pretty fun.

Phantom Dreamer said...

Nice modern stadium with beautiful synthetic turf.