Japan Ball Game 6: Hanshin Tigers vs. Yokohama DeNA Baystars

After zipping back to Tokyo, checking out of our apartment, and having a lovely meal of soba noodles, Clint and I bid farewell to Yalina at Tokyo Station as she boarded the Narita Express. We made our way to the upper platform to buy some beers and await our southbound train.

I was excited to visit Osaka. I’d been told that things there were a little less polished and a little more free-spirited in the Kansai region. We were slated to make camp there for two days and had a trip to the Yamazaki whisky distillery sandwiched between the two games we’d attend. It was going to be a busy couple of days, and the first thing on the docket was a visit to Koshien Stadium, home of the Hanshin Tigers.

Our hotel was a small businessman’s joint located near Shin-Osaka Station on the north shore of Yodo River. The closest subway station to our hotel was, no kidding, Nishinakajimaminamigata Station. We caught our train there and alighted two stops later at Umeda Station where we caught the Hanshin Line to Koshien Station. Much like in Saitama, the station is located right outside of the stadium.

Koshien Stadium is the oldest stadium in use by an NPB team. Built in 1924, its primary purpose was as the venue for Japanese national high school baseball tournaments. To this day, during the tournament seasons, high school games are given priority over Tigers games. This leaves the Tigers adrift to either compete on the road or secure another suitable venue. I love this fact. Baseball’s deep history appeals to me and a commitment to preserve tradition is a rare thing.

Even as a self described Yakult Swallows fan, I’d committed to buying a Hanshin Tigers jersey. The fans we’d seen at the Swallows vs. Tigers game back in Tokyo had on the best gear and I wanted to fit in on the night I’d be cheering for their side. We popped into the gift shop outside the stadium and I found my treasure: a pinstriped yellow alternate with stitched on lettering and tiger arm patch. It’s a sweet piece.

Dressed for battle, we grabbed our tickets from the kisosk using a QR code. We hadn’t used Voyagin to book seats for this game. Clint and I met months earlier and followed this step by step guide to purchasing tickets directly from the club. The seats are priced broadly by section which makes it easy to know what you’re paying for. Our seats, down the third base line, were in the section called the Alps and clocked in at about $25 a piece.

As we entered the stadium, we discovered it was jersey day. Upon tearing our tickets, attendants gave Clint and I each a pinstriped yellow alternate replica jersey. It didn’t come with the stitched on patches or letters, but it was a damned good giveaway that ended up in Yalina’s side of the closet.

When we got to our seats, the outfield and Alps stands were completely mobbed with fans. The “luxury” seats near home plate were largely unoccupied. Though they would fill in later, it was inspiring to see that so many people had piled into the cheap seats before the first pitch. Even the away fans, immediately identifiable as a small cluster of blue in a sea of yellow, had turned up early and occupied a single section in the deepest part of the outfield.

Stay in your lane, blue!

Koshien was my favorite ballpark we visited. It has a very specific energy and feel that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. There’s perfectly manicured natural grass instead of turf, the advertisements feel more subdued, and there are few frills to distract from the game. Adding to the atmosphere is the all dirt infield. It’s a striking site that draws focus to the players and the ball as the game unfolds.

Koshien Stadium.

Things got off on the wrong foot for the Tigers as pitcher Minoru Iwata coughed up a couple of hits which turned into a double steal. A wild pitch later and the BayStars were on the board with a run. The next inning saw the Baystars get another man across after the type of small-ball antics prized by Japanese teams.

Clint and I settled in and chummed it up with a few fans in our vicinity. A couple of girls lent me their cool cowboy hat for a photo op and we made friends with the old dude sitting behind us who was thrilled to learn about our reason for being in Japan. All the while, the beer girls were in steady rotation as we loosened up and cheered like crazy people.

Dressed for success.

Things popped off hard in the bottom of the fourth inning as a walk and a single put two men on for Masahiro Nakatani. Nakatani took one deep and I thought the whole place was going crash down. Fans were beside themselves as he crossed home plate. Flags unfurled, songs were sung, and not one person (save for the poor blue clad folks) was in their seat as the Tigers took a 3–2 lead. The offense petered out for the next little while but the crowd stayed pretty hyped.

The skies had been threatening rain all day. It had been spitting here and there for a couple of innings, but with two gone in the bottom of the seventh inning, the heavens unleashed. Rain was pouring down in buckets and as the players were called off the field, the grounds crew ran out to put a cover over the mound and the batter’s box. I was stunned that they weren’t in full panic mode trying to cover up all of that infield dirt, but no giant tarp was never deployed.

Despite the rain, almost nobody left. Comparatively few people even bothered to seek shelter in the concourse, but Clint and I did. Unwilling to call it until the officials did, we lingered indoors with our beers and dabbed at ourselves with paper towels in an attempt to get dry. At this point, I noticed a familiar face in the crowd about 50 yards down the way. Dressed in full Tigers gear and grinning ear to ear was none other than Colonel Harland Sanders.

No chicken in sight, but the Colonel’s still got mad flavor.

The Colonel holds a special place in the hearts of Tigers fans and is the source of my all time favorite sports curse. You can keep your Bambinos and billygoats, The Curse of the Colonel is the best.

To re-tell it briefly, following the Tigers’ lone Japan Series victory in 1985, fans took to the streets in celebration. In the nightlife district of Dōtonbori, a crowd gathered around the Ebisu bridge and fans that resembled the players took turns shouting the players’ names jumping into the canal. When it came time to celebrate Randy Bass, an American and one of the biggest stars on the team, a suitable lookalike could not be found. The next best thing to a living doppelgänger was a statue of Colonel Sanders from a nearby KFC. Fans ripped the statue from the ground and heaved it into water below. Enraged at having his likeness desecrated, the Colonel has seen to it from beyond the grave that the Hanshin Tigers will never again taste the eleven secret herbs and spices of a Japan Series victory.

There is so much more to the story and I highly encourage you to take the time to read the rest.

After about a half an hour, the game resumed. Clint and I watched as the grounds crew emptied bags and bags of dirt onto the infield to make the surface playable. It took a little doing, but I was impressed that they were able to bring things back to a semi-normal state after such a downpour.

The bottom of the seventh inning resumed and quickly came to a close. The top of the eighth didn’t see any additional scoring by the boys from Yokohama. In the bottom of the eighth, the fans who stayed got what they paid for.

The Tigers opened things up with a single, a sacrifice bunt, and a home run by Yusuke Ohyama to send the drenched crowd into another frenzy as two more crossed the plate. The next two batters, Jason Rogers and Nakatani, hit back to back singles, followed by a walk, and then a single by Yamato brought home one more. Next, Shun Takayama stroked a bases clearing double and was eventually brought home, himself, by Shunsuke Fujikawa. All in all, it made for a seven run side for the Tigers and brought the score to 10–2.

The top of the ninth saw one more run, a solo homer, for the visiting side. Otherwise, it was a trouncing of the highest order by the Tigers.

I assure you, my note taking abilities are not that good. As this was unfolding, I was busy screaming my head off, drinking beer, hugging fans, and generally acting like a fool. I’m only able to piece the names together after the fact using NPB box scores and Japan Times sports page archives.

After all the rain, the evening took a turn for the pleasant as we departed the stadium. At the station, things were flowing smoothly despite the crowds. As we got closer we found that the turnstiles had been left open granting us a free ride back to Umeda station. I don’t know if this is a courtesy that the team’s parent company provides when they secure a victory or if it’s an everyday tradition on game days, but it was a nice gesture.

On the train back to our hotel, boozily exhausted after a mostly sleepless night in a pod, traversing the country by train, and burning my reserve energy screaming like a mad man for the Tigers, I didn’t have the customary level of excitement for the next night’s game. After each preceding stadium visit, I felt like I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do. After my Koshien experience, all I wanted was more Koshien.

Of course, with three games left to go, I would overcome this brief moment of nostalgia. In the end, I know I got the best that Koshien has to offer and I’m thankful for it.

Here’s to you, Koshien!

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