Take Me Out to the Japanese Baseball Game

Go BayStars!

On Sunday I went to my first Nippon Professional Baseball game, cheering for my (yes: “my”) Yokohama DeNA BayStars as they comfortably took down the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. My dad has been nagging me for nearly the entire summer to go see a game, something I had always intended to do, but it has been difficult to do until now. I was in Kyoto for so long, and the nearest team to me there, the Hanshin Tigers, are located in Kobe — about an hour’s train ride away. I would have had to stay the night in Kobe, and the stars didn’t align for that. Then I considered attending a Hiroshima Carp game, possibly the *team* I was most interested in before coming to Japan, but again, there wasn’t enough time during my quick sojourn out there. Nor was there time in Sapporo to watch the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. So Tokyo and Yokohama were my only choices: I wasn’t going to go and support the Yomiuri Giants, the New York Yankees of Japan, and the Yakult Swallows are even more of an afterthought here than the Mets are back home. So I chose Yokohama, a city I really quite enjoy. Moreover, it was convenient, since I had butoh class there early in the afternoon.

A beautiful night for baseball

It wasn’t as exciting as the rumors might lead some Americans to believe. Or rather, it’s really just quite similar to an MLB game. I think the Koshien tournaments would be wild to experience — impressive energy, choreographed routines by each high school, the attention of the entire nation, etc. — but the professional level games are fairly tame. No costumes or face paint in the crowd, no clever home-made signs. One thing that stood out, however, were the designated cheering sections. Both the home and away teams had one, around the opposing foul poles, and both were replete with miniature marching bands:

Swallows’ cheering section. Not sure if you can spot the band here — they were pretty far away.

The cheering sections keep up their cheers constantly. It’s much more common in America for a chant to continue right up until a pitch is thrown, at which point it ceases, as the spectators await the result. It may build again in time for the next pitch, or it may be some time until a new refrain is picked up. But in Japan the cheers go on for the entire half-inning without rest. The patterns are easy to pick up: typically a combination of “go”, “let’s go”, and “ganbatte” (“do your best”), like “go…go…let’s go…go-go-let’s go-let’s go-ganbatte”. And they’re flexible enough to accommodate different players’ names by just speeding up or slowing down the syllables in the relevant name. So Kuwahara would be chanted more quickly than Maeda, to maintain the rhythm.

This woman was *not* an active cheerer, and in fact was watching the game being played in real life right in front of her on delay on her tablet.

Speaking of names: my favorite name I encountered is Wladimir Balentien, who unfortunately plays for the opposing team. I looked him up after the game, and he’s a Curaçaoan-Dutch, former MLB-prospect who never panned out in the States (plenty of power, not so good contact rate). Most significantly in 2013 he broke the NPB single-season home run record with a total of 60. However, this stat comes with an asterisk because during that season it was uncovered that the league had actually introduced a juiced ball to bump home run rates, and this became such a scandal that the commissioner resigned at the end of the season. Definitely a good peek into sports culture in Japan: I could not confirm for lack of English-language sources, but my guess is that it was the dishonesty that did him in. If the league had announced at the beginning that they were updating the equipment specs, I’m sure some fans would have groaned, but it would have been accepted. Deceiving everyone, however? Not so popular a decision. All that said, 60 is still quite a lot of home runs, and it’s far more than anyone else hit that year, so Wladimir should still get some credit.

The fans are also better at dressing in team colors than what one might see even at MLB playoff games: almost every single person was wearing a team jersey. I looked into getting a hat for myself, but to my continuing dismay all of the NPB hats are either boring or half-mesh. So no BayStars hat for me.

The stadium is small, but attractive. It can hold 30,000 people (for comparison, the smallest MLB stadium, the awful Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay, can fit about 31,000, which is fitting because no one ever goes to Rays games), and was maybe 90% full. There is netting all along the foul lines, which is good for protecting fans from hard-hit balls, and bad for anyone hoping to see diving catches into the stands. The field is turf and there is a huge electronic scoreboard, so it feels pretty familiar in those respects. Relief pitchers ride in actual cars from the bullpen to the mound (lazy bums), and the dugouts are curiously not *dug out*. Or rather, the bench is not in the dug out. All the players sit in an above-ground box next to the dugout, which I assume is just where the manager stays and where the tunnel to the club house is.

Swallows’ dug out

Small fireworks are set off after home runs, and after the seventh inning stretch (wherein we all sing the team fight song), all the BayStars fans release balloons they’ve blown up into the air at the same time. I didn’t get a balloon when I entered the stadium, but one landed on my arm as it descended from the heavens, so I call that a personal win.

Only beer is served in the stands, no Cracker Jacks or peanuts, and it is exclusively served by young women in color-coordinated outfits (sneakers, skirt, shirt, baseball cap): yellow for Yebisu beer, red for Kirin, etc. They don’t call out their wares, but instead turn to face the stands and raise a hand in a wave; one merely raises a hand in return and the young woman will approach. Must be good exercise carrying a keg on your back and doing so many stairs every night. A bit hard on the knees perhaps, but otherwise good exercise.

Nothing more Japanese than a ballpark frank and a cold brewskie

Inside the stadium, the food is, well, very American. Hot dogs, pizza, fries, beer, hamburgers, popcorn, and, the only outlier, curry. I went full Yank on the night. Prices are thankfully very reasonable, which is very *un*-American, as far as stadium food goes. Perfectly satisfying, too.

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Finally, a rumination or two on Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll, Part 2”, which is ubiquitous in sporting events across the States, and as such was clearly eagerly adopted/aped by the Japanese for their baseball league.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-hB1TzoG7M

This song always fascinated me from a songwriting aspect. It’s so incredibly simplistic, and while technically there is a Part 1, Part 2 is what really persisted and found a life as a sports stadium pump-up song. Probably in part *because* it’s so simplistic (one only needs to remember to say “hey”), and there is an upbeat, propulsive energy to it. But it’s strange to think of it as ever existing as something other than that. Gary Glitter wrote this and thought to himself, “Yeah, that’s good enough to publish.” And I guess, technically, he was correct to think so, but almost incidentally so?

Aside from its questionable artistic merits, it’s also well past time we (the collective “we”. Sports fans? Teams?) take this song out of rotation due to the horrifying criminal record Glitter has as a serial sexual abuser and pedophile. It’s the “era of #MeToo” — which is a phrase that’s quickly becoming over-used because we shouldn’t need to rely on the increased awareness of systemic issues stemming from this movement to hold people in power accountable every time some scandal or incident related to non-consensual sex (or even just violence) comes up; indeed, the breadth of the movement is growing and it is continually redefining itself (or resisting narrow definition) because at its heart it is just that: a call to hold people in power accountable for their actions — and so it seems a more than appropriate time to inform professional sports teams that by playing this song in their stadiums, they are providing licensing fees to this awful human being; to inform fans that their beloved teams are essentially gifting money to Glitter. And since this song is in no way remotely worth it (nothing is “worth” sexual assault of a child (looking at you, Woody Allen), but in the sense that some people want to continue to cherish art that’s important to them, despite its creator’s sins, I don’t think anyone feels that way about this song because it’s not really a song, after all, just a weirdly ubiquitous sports stadium cliche), I think we can probably move forward with this quickly and painlessly.

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I had a lovely time. It was nice to watch with low stakes. Sure, I was supporting my BayStars, but I’d only become a fan that very night, and it wasn’t going to break my heart if we (“we”) lost. The weather was great, Yokohama is a beautiful city, and it was just an overall very pleasant and relaxing experience. I don’t expect I’ll become invested in NPB any time soon, but I’ll check in on the BayStars once in a while, and maybe come back again some day. I definitely want to watch the Koshien, too, and see whether that lives up to the legends.