Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Craziest Day Ever, or Takayuki Makka Saves The Day

What a day. I'm still having a little trouble believing that it actually happened.

Well, let me start from the beginning.

I woke up at 6:30am on Sunday and went back to Baystars Kyujo, their minor-league and practice stadium, for Rookie Training. It was my last chance to try to meet rookie pitcher Kisho Kagami and ask him to sign the special jersey I'd had made with his name and number on it. I'd be leaving Japan on Tuesday; I'm actually in Seattle as I write up this post.

I'd been told that if I showed up by 10am, it'd be possible to talk to some of the rookies and maybe bug them for a signature. That was patently incorrect. When I arrived at 9:50am, the rookies were nowhere in sight and various other players were jogging on the field. And rather than gathering near the bullpen, as they had been on Thursday, this time the fans were all standing by the outfield wall. One lady comes up to me and says, "Oh! It's you! From the other day! The Kagami fan! You came back!"

I ask her what's going on, and she's like "Oh, you can't talk to the rookies now... but they're going to jog by here in about 10 minutes. You should hold up your uniform and yell good morning to Kagami so he notices you, then maybe you can tag him later."

So we do that. The rookies jog around the field twice, passing us twice. She helps me hold up the jersey and we both yell "Kagami-kun, ganbatte kudasai!" The first time, he looks over with a look that can best be described as "WTF?"

The second time, I hide behind the jersey because I'm embarrassed, but I help yell. Another fan tells me, "He was smiling as he came by this time... the player next to him was also pointing at you as they went by."


Then the rookies all gather together to do rookie practice... as far away from fans as humanly possible. No, seriously. They basically do their workouts in left field. Fans are allowed to stand behind the fence in right field, or be up in the stands behind home plate, or can stand outside the 3rd-base bullpen. That's it. You can't see left field unless you're in the stands or in the outfield, in which case you are VERY far away from the players.

On the other hand, a bunch of Baystars players, almost all pitchers I believe, also gathered... to play soccer! That was really funny. Kenjiro Tanaka set up some orange cones to be goalposts and by the time their game got underway they had around 10 players out there. Atori Ohta, Yataro Sakamoto, Kentaro Takasaki, Daisuke Hayakawa, Kota Kobayashi, Takayuki Shinohara, and one or two others I couldn't figure out who they were.

I realize it's hard to imagine the layout if you haven't been to this stadium before, so here's a (crappy MSpaint) diagram of the Google Maps satellite image:

The blue lines are where fans were allowed to be, outside the right field fence, and along the 3rd-base line (behind fences and netting or up high in bleachers behind home plate). The red square is where the players set up their soccer game, relatively close to us. And the green dots are where the rookies were doing most of their training, in left field. The green lines are the bullpen.

Here's kind of what it looked like from afar -- the rookies doing some weird stretches/jogging warmups by the training building in LF.

Around this time another lady standing there with a camera came up and introduced herself to me -- turns out she's a friend of Kobayashi's and she used to see me at Jingu a lot because she's also a big Kagami fan. Her name's Yuka and I completely do not ever remember meeting her at Jingu, which makes me feel kind of bad. She even gave me a photo that she'd taken of me and Kobayashi from the final Hosei game this past fall. She apparently lives near Toin Gakuen HS and cheers for their baseball players.

So I ended up sticking with her for most of the day. It was her first time at Baystars Kyujo and she liked talking about Kagami, so we got along okay.

Anyway, we watched soccer for like half an hour. It was really funny. Some of the players are clearly better at it than others; Kenjiro Tanaka is really good ("It's because he's from Shizuoka," Yuka said, "Oh right, Tokoha Kikuchikawa?" I replied.) and so was Atori Ohta, but Teikyo HS also has a strong soccer program in addition to baseball. Some players were clearly just kind of playing for fun and/or to keep warm and/or to look cool in front of the fans. There were a few times where we'd all either be yelling "nice goal!!" or "OH MY GOD BE CAREFUL DON'T GET INJURED!!!"

Atori Ohta (from Teikyo).

Kenjiro Tanaka (from Tokoha Kikuchikawa).

Yataro Sakamoto (formerly Yakult and Fighters) joins the fray.

Daisuke Hayakawa (formerly Lotte) making a big kick.

Kota Kobayashi and Kenjiro Tanaka.

Atori Ohta and Kentaro Takasaki.

Akiyoshi "Hossha" Toyoshima... lefty pitcher released by the Fighters this off-season, is now going to be a batting practice pitcher for Yokohama. He's only 21 years old -- infact Sunday was his birthday! So the other young players just acted like he was one of them, basically.

Takayuki Shinohara (from the Hawks) as goalkeeper.

(and a little bit of video I took. Yataro Sakamoto kicks a goal but Atori Ohta makes the save!)

Then there was bullpen time for the rookies! I went over to see Kota Suda (JFE East, but formerly Waseda) and Kagami pitch, throwing to rookie catchers Tsuruoka and Matsushita. Matsushita, I mentioned before in my pre-draft catchers roundup; he went to Kansai Gaidai and supposedly speaks fluent English from having lived in London for several years as a kid.

Kota Suda. The last time I saw him this close up was the fall of 2008, he was wearing a Waseda uniform, and I was still somewhat surprised he wasn't drafted. (Now he joins his classmates Hosoyamada and Keijiro with the Baystars, I guess.)

Kisho Kagami, the entire reason I went to Yokosuka in the first place.

Rookie catchers Ichiro Matsushita and Kenjiro Tsuruoka.

Matsushita supposedly speaks really good English, but of course I wasn't able to get anywhere near him to actually find out... to be fair, I suppose if I was a lot more outgoing and didn't mind having a lot of people staring at me and thinking I was obnoxious, I could have called out to him in the bullpen, but just like with Kagami, it's just really hard to yell out to one player when there's a whole group of 9 of them there and they are ostensibly "working" at their job, and I hate to be a loud obnoxious gaijin since there's such a ridiculous stereotype here.

Just because you're a pro player doesn't mean you get out of smoothing the grounds out afterwards.

Okay, so that was all well and good and exciting and takes us up until around 11:30am... the rookies all disappeared at that point and went indoors, ostensibly to eat lunch, or to get out of the cold for a bit, it's not really clear what.

I went up into the stands to sit with some of the other fans and watch the other players still playing soccer or running around or whatever.

Eventually the older players settle into a game where Daisuke Hayakawa and one of the other guys hit fly balls to the outfield and the other players have to chase down the fly balls. The rookies came back outside a little while later and started doing some more exercising and some throwing in left field again, once more far away from everyone.

Hayakawa hitting a fly ball out.

The rookies finishing up and coming in.

See... around 12:30pm the rookies just headed indoors, never to return. I guess it was just like Thursday. They might have had some indoor training to do or whatever, but they never did come out to talk to the fans or anything, which actually surprised many people -- Saturday was a day off from training and Sunday is one of the few days most normal people have off from work and can come to the stadium to watch training, so a lot of people expected the rookies to come out and talk a little and sign stuff. Apparently they'd done that on the first day of training, on Saturday the 8th or whenever it was.

On the other hand, the non-rookie players were still all running around shagging flies and playing catch and whatnot. They eventually gathered up all their stuff around 1pm, bowed to the fans in the stands, and ran off the field, done training for the day.

I was already starting to freak out a little like " mean practice is over for the day and we had absolutely no chance whatsoever at all to talk to players?"

One fan told me, "Well, you can go wait by the entrance to the stadium and hope some of them come out to go to convenience stores or shopping or whatever... or if you wait by the parking lot you'll sometimes see players coming out to their cars and can call out to them then..."

"I have to be home by 4pm to get a delivery, I can't just stay here all day. Plus it's so cold!" It was seriously around 6 degrees Celsius out (low 40's), which actually wasn't so bad in the sun but was pretty brutal in the shade or when the wind was blowing.

Atori Ohta decided to come out and throw about 30-40 pitches in the bullpen. I like Atori a lot (no, really) so that was at least a nice distraction for a while. He's fun to watch throw, and actually, he kind of resembles Kagami. It's kind of crazy that he's already got 3 years pro experience and is still a year younger than Kagami and this year's college grads, though...

Atori threw for a while and then just basically ended practice and also disappeared inside.

And then a groundskeeper came out and started hosing down the bullpen and taking in the leftover equipment and stuff. Which seemed pretty ominous. Yuka asked him whether practice was over for the day, and he basically said straight out, "They're not going to be coming back out on the field today, no. That's why I'm cleaning up. Sorry. You should probably go home."


That sucked.

One of the other women who was out there by the bullpen was like, "Oh, how terrible for you, it's such a shame that you came all the way out here twice and still couldn't meet Kagami... it's all about timing you know... maybe if you had been able to get his attention when the rookies were still out there... can you come back another day? Or come to spring camp in Okinawa?"

"I can't," I said, feeling pretty hopeless, "I'm going back to the US on Tuesday and I won't be back in Japan until mid-March. I can't even stay much longer today because it takes me almost 2 hours to get home and I have a delivery coming after 4pm."

"Wow, that sucks. What about in March?"

"I'll only be here for a week or two then, and anyway, by March, I'm hoping he'll already with the ichi-gun team. I'm really afraid that basically there's no day but today, for me. I really failed today. Big failure." 大失敗。

And well, I couldn't help it, I started crying. It was really brutally cold and I was already kind of depressed that this would be my last baseball-related thing I was doing in Japan before leaving, not to mention being depressed about leaving Japan in general. (It's such a catch-22. I can't leave, and yet I can't stay.) And I mean, I'd basically wasted 6 hours coming there on Thursday, and another 8 hours today, time that I should have spent packing suitcases, and was really really cold and really really sad, and had absolutely nothing to show for it.

Everyone was telling me "don't cry, don't cry", as we went from the infield bullpen area towards the outfield and to start walking back to the train station. Yuka also had to get home by a certain time so she had already planned on leaving around 1:30-2pm to begin with.

If you look at the map above, I drew a little yellow smiley face near the outfield gate. That's where the next part of this story takes place.

See, practice was over, but we saw a whole bunch of fans still hanging out there by the gate... around two players. I couldn't tell who they were at first, and I was still all red-eyed from crying, so I hung back a little. The two players turned out to be Takayuki Makka and Taketora Anzai, both 2nd-year pitchers, both pretty young, both very tall.

Takayuki Makka.

I listened to them talking for a while. Taketora is very quiet and a little bit shy; Makka was even riding him for not having a girlfriend and for being so uptight around fans. Makka is ridiculously outgoing and funny, he was telling jokes and laughing with fans, and saying how Taketora should be leveraging his uniform number of 48 to get some kind of tie-in with the AKB48 girls since they're so cute. It was almost like watching a manzai comedy duo. Taketora mostly just kind of smiled and nodded and talked a little.

Even though there was a crowd around them, occasionally people would go up and ask for signatures, so once my eyes had dried up some, I got out some of my shikishi (those Japanese autograph boards) and got Makka and Taketora to sign them... as I said to Yuka, "Well, they're not Kagami, but I mean, I came all the way here, I might as well bug some baseball players... y'know?" and she said "Yeah, these two seem like really nice young guys, even if Makka is a bit crazy." And so I said "I wonder if I could get a photo with them? But they seem happy talking to everyone."


Yuka finally asks one of the women gathered around the two players whether it'd be ok to take a photo, so the woman's like "oh, that poor American girl, she didn't get to meet Kagami, right?" So SHE actually asks Makka and Taketora on my behalf if I can take a photo with them, because I'm leaving Japan soon and all. And they say sure, of course.

OMG these two are really TALL. You know that I'm 5'7" or so and that I often end up getting photos with Japanese players who are barely taller than I am!

But, it's right before taking the photo that the craziest thing happens.

I have a little stuffed Fighters BB mascot bear hanging off of my bag, you can even see it in that photo. While I'm lining up to stand with Makka and Taketora, he looks at my bag, sees the Fighters bear, and is like "Oi, what's this? You a Yuki Saitoh fan or something?" 「お~い、これ。斎藤のファン?」

"No!" I say. I pull my Baystars Kagami jersey out of my bag. "I'm a Kisho Kagami fan dammit!"

"Whoa! That's crazy! You had this made?" says Makka.

We take a photo together. I thank them and try to explain, but start stuttering (this happens to me sometimes in Japanese when I'm either very excited about something or very stressed about something, and at this point I was both). Fortunately, pretty much every fan there that day knew my story, because I'd either met them on Thursday, met them that morning, or they'd been like "What the hell is the white girl doing here?" to each other, so it got spread that way. Even earlier that day when I stepped down from the stands at one point, one of the little boys saw me and was first surprised like "Oh!" and then in English, "Hello, Kagami fan!"

So the rest of the fans step in and explain. "She's going back to the US on Tuesday... she was a big Kagami fan when he was at Hosei... she used to cheer for the Baystars a few years ago... she promised to come back and cheer for Hichori later this year since he came from the Fighters... but she got this uniform made right after the uniform numbers were announced so that it'd be ready for rookie training, and she really wanted to meet Kagami and get his signature on it before she goes back to the US... but the rookies haven't been coming out... she came on Thursday too, all the way from the north part of Tokyo, but didn't get to meet him then either... isn't it a shame?"

Makka and Taketora look at each other. Makka says, "Want us to go see if we can get Kagami to sign this for you?"

My jaw drops. "What? Really?"

"Yeah. The rookies should still be doing some kind of indoors training right now, maybe weight training or some other stuff like that. It shouldn't be too hard to bug him for a second."

"You'd really do that? Oh my god thank you."

Taketora takes the uniform and my marker. "Where do you want it signed?"

"Uhh... under the uniform number, I guess? On the back?" I gesture.

He smiles and says something to the effect of "We can't really make any guarantees but we'll see what we can do. Be back soon."

And I'm just about ready to faint. All of the other fans are also like "OMG CAN YOU BELIEVE THEY'RE GOING TO DO THAT?"

So we wait.

About 3-4 minutes later, we see three people walking across the field...

Let me zoom in on that a second:

Makka. Taketora. And KAGAMI!

Yes, Kagami himself actually came out with the uniform to give it back to me. All the fans just went crazy like "OH MY GOD HE ACTUALLY CAME OUT HIMSELF TO DELIVER IT, WHAT AN AMAZINGLY NICE GUY!"

I'm about ready to faint by this point anyway. I'm not sure what the appropriate reaction would have been but he comes out and hands the uniform back to me and kind of nods to me in a gesture I can best describe as "Yes, I remember you. Yes, I appreciate you being crazy enough to get this uniform made, and I know you're a huge fan of mine, but OMG WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?" I mean, he didn't seem angry exactly, but I mean, he wasn't smiling either.

So I just bow like "I'm so sorry to bother you like this! Sorry! Thank you so much!" And he's just kind of like "Hey, it's no problem." I said "I'm going back to the US on Tuesday so there was no day but today. I'm really hoping that by the time I'm back in March, you'll be with the ichi-gun team." And he kind of nodded.

A whole bunch of fans then swarmed the fence who ALSO wanted autographs, and formed a huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge line.

Bizarrely, a lot of the other fans had been out at Baystars Kyujo fairly often but hadn't had a chance to meet Kagami either. There'd been a short signing time after practice the very first day, but other than that, most of the only time people had really met most of the rookies had been when the fans were standing out there just loitering by the stadium gate and various rookies came out to go shopping or whatever. (Which is really kind of stalkerish.)

So, I felt really bad for causing him trouble and making him come all the way out of the indoor training to stand in the cold and get stuck signing stuff for everyone (and Kagami being the way he is, he stood there and signed for every single person who asked, just like he used to do in college, when his entire team would have already gone home and he'd still be stuck there outside Jingu talking to fans and signing things).

I got him to sign the front of my uniform too (people were like "shouldn't you get it signed there too? And wouldn't it be nice to see him sign something in front of you?" to which I was like "I don't want to be a bother," but Kagami himself was nice enough about it).

But I still felt like crying afterwards. I was happy, but really felt kind of bad and embarrassed for causing such a thing.

I thanked Makka and Taketora profusely and told them they were really awesome. And then Yuka and I walked to the train station.

Another female friend of mine (one of my college ball friends) later basically told me that I should stop feeling so terrible and realize that I did a really great thing for many people.

She said that I did a great thing for Kagami, because I provided an opportunity for him to get to interact with the fans a bit, and because the fans could talk to him a little and get to know him a little, and see what a great guy he was for coming all the way out there to sign something for this crazy gaijin fan, they will become bigger fans of his. (This kind of interaction is really important in Japan, see, and often you'll see players with huge fan followings which have non-Japanese people scratching their head like "Why does such a mediocre player have so many damn fans?" but then you find out that the guy is a really nice dude who's always out running and stretching and training at the stadium even on off-days, and always talks to fans and signs stuff and takes pictures with kids and bows to the field and to the ouendan and is just a Quintessential Good Guy.) So she said that I raised Kagami's value in the eyes of the fans, and maybe even hopefully in the eyes of his coaches, since the Baystars ni-gun manager Shirai is big on the "fan service is important" aspect of being a ballplayer.

She said that I did a good thing for Makka, because now everyone's going to be telling stories about what a great guy he is too. So his value also goes up in the eyes of the fans -- and the fact that now I, and she too, wants to support him for being a Good Guy, also means a lot.

And she said that I also did a good thing for the fans, since a lot of them really DID want to meet Kagami and/or get his signature, but of course none of them on their own were able to call out to him... so I also gave all of them a good eperience as well. And since it was such a long and cold day and a Sunday at that, and half of the universe (no, really, 11000 people) was out at Kamagaya for Yu-Matsuri as they were calling the Fighters rookie unveiling, it meant that we also had a really amazing thing happen at Baystars Kyujo, so I made the day special for a lot of people.

I still feel kind of bad -- I mean, being a gaijin in Japan often has its pluses and minuses. Sometimes crazy things like this will happen, and I don't know whether it happened because I'm a gaijin or it happened just because of the circumstances. So I worry a little about people thinking "Sheesh, he only came out because this crazy gaijin was here," and of course I also worry like "is he embarrassed that he has this crazy gaijin stalking him?"

But whatever. This may be the last time I ever actually meet Kisho Kagami in person. So I should probably be happy that it happened at all, really. "It's always a little sad when they leave Jingu, but they'll always be ours in our hearts," said one of my other friends.

(And it looks like he's changed his signature from the full "Kagami Kisho" he used to write out in college to just a scrawled version of "Kisho", basically.)

And in some ways, isn't this kind of amazing? I dunno, but I'm not sure I could ever imagine this kind of thing happening in the US. The fan-player interaction in Japan is just really cool. I'm already thinking I should get Makka and Taketora some sort of gift while I'm here in Seattle; I figure they're pretty young and still likely to be in ni-gun when I visit in March.

So, that was my crazy Sunday at Baystars Kyujo.

Thank you for reading.


NPB Card Guy said...

Very cool.

westbaystars said...

That was just an incredible day for you. I'm so glad that you shared it with us all.

Hmm. Must be late. My eyes are getting a little moist. Dry air, yeah, that's it.

Shin said...

Great to hear ur story, and congratz on this memorable experience. Just makes u wanna stay in Japan eh?

Anonymous said...

That's a wonderful story! Don't feel too bad about it. I'm sure Kagami appreciates your support. See, you never know, anything could happen if you just show up. What a great way to wrap up your time in Japan.

Shin said...

Speaking of Sakamoto, he just got traded to Seibu today. So no more footie for him anymore

Deanna said...

Nooooooooooooooooooooooooo :(

Man, Yataro has moved around a lot in the last few years. He came from the Swallows to the Fighters in the Fujii trade after the 2007 season, then moved to Yokohama in the 3-way trade after the 2009 season, and now this :(

At least he grew up in Saitama (he's an Urawa Gakuin boy), I guess he can be part of their whole Saitama promotion thing.

As for the other comments... thanks. It really was a crazy day and really does kind of highlight how different things really are in Japan. I'm already back in Seattle though :( I wanted to go to the other rookie training sessions but just didn't have time!

Andrew said...

Wow, what an amazing story!

Welcome back to the US!