So what happened last Thursday?
The Tsubamegun at Chiba Marine Stadium? Hostile territory, one might think.
Not when Mr. Larry Rocca is around.
First of all, Mr. Rocca wears nice suits. We were a bit taken aback when he appeared out of thin air in 90 degree sunlight wearing a blue and white striped three-button job with a crisp royal-colored tie. Yes, we were fantastically under-dressed and sweaty, but that will surprise few of you that have met us.
But we shook hands, he made fun of our baseball caps, complimented Ken from TPR (who was with us) on his Aoki towel-scarf, and we quickly strode off to collect our press passes and start our journey through the confines of the revamped and user-friendly Chiba Marine Stadium.
It was a bit of a haul out to Kaihin-makuhari station for us because we all live in western Tokyo. It takes a little over an hour to get there by train from Takadanobaba station and the Tozai line. We weren’t sure how long it would be until we could eat again, so we stopped at the Shakey’s pizza place in ‘Baba for their lunch buffet (never a very good idea) and then set out for Chiba.
We deprived Larry of the opportunity to show us the Chiba Lotte Marines Museum that is perched near the gates surrounding home plate by showing up early and touring around a bit. Lots of great pictures and multi-media detailing the meatmorphosis of the team from its days in Kawasaki to its current winning formula in Ichihara, Chiba. Larry didn’t mind that we had done a little snooping on our own, I’m sure he was hoping that we’d watch the dancers on the main stage out in front of the stadium for a little bit before we came out to meet him. There are lots of things to do at Chiba Marine Stadium before the game begins, including a merchandise selection that had us green with envy as we thought of the tent at Jingu and the hurdles through which one must leap to get his head into a fitted Swallows cap. No such shortage in Marine country. (And no prominent hawking of their arch-rivals’ gear when said rivals aren’t even playing, either. Maybe it’s their self-respect we envied, as much as their tat selection.)
Larry quickly led us out to the field where we saw the team going through some pre-game drills -soft toss, bunting, and fielding practice – and this is where we got to see manager Bobby Valentine for the first time.
Bobby came over for a quick chat, which began, true to his reputation, with him poking fun at us and his staff, then we were off to meet “Mr. Info”, otherwise known as Paul Pupo, who, along with Larry, told us a bit about the Marines’ progressive approach to statistical analysis and attention to detail. During every game, Paul oversees a “Mission Control”-looking operation, which greatly impressed us – almost as much as Paul’s stories of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle of his early years and philosophizing on the happiness that true love brings did. (If you want your lady to think you’re romantic, don’t let her hear Mr. Info on the subject – he’ll outdo you, hands down, unless your name is Keats.) This philosophical bent and a penchant for wit seemed to be the glue that held Bobby’s crew together. We’re all expecting a lot more out of our colleagues now. (Of course it would help if they had cool baseball jobs, too.)
Then it was off to see some more of the stadium. Bobby’s office was on the list of places that we were allowed to sneak a peak at, and we also got to sit in on Chiba’s official press conference announcing the three players, Nishioka, Satozaki, and Naruse, that would be on the Japanese national baseball team in next month’s Beijing olympics.
The Marines have made great strides in making the stadium a place that’s enjoyable for more than just the baseball. While we were duly impressed by the nice new skyboxes, which have hosted the likes of Tom Hanks, we thought the club’s attempts at emphasizing the history and continuity of the team were even better – just the sort of thing we’d like to see over at Jingu, if only the Swallows could do something about that lease.
The topper, though, was the bank of picnic tables with the truly thoughtful touch of an all-you-can-drink option. Not impressed? It starts three hours before game time. (We’re never missing an Interleague game out there again.)
Then it was off to the home team dugout where we were able to set up shop and interviewed a few of Chiba’s foreign players.
First was Benny Agbayani. The former New York Met (also under Valentine) talked to us about some of the differences between MLB and NPB, told of how he has tried to do everything he can to instill a winning spirit in the younger players on the team, and what he saw in the near future for himself.
Then we were able to meet Jose Ortiz who is one of the team’s most versatile players. He played first, second, and third bases during a game this past weekend, and he has been a key utility man in Valentine’s plans this season. Ortiz shared with us the difficulties of returning to top level form in Japan after surgery on his left arm and also expounded on some of the differences between the way the game is approached in Japan and North America.
The final player that we had a chance to talk to was Brian Sikorski, the former Swallow who is currently in his second stint with the Chiba Lotte Marines. Brian voiced praise of former Tokyo manager Atsuya Furuta and we discussed the differences between this and last year’s bullpens at Jingu stadium.
As game-time neared, the stands began to fill and an increasing number of VIPs filed in and out of the dugout. We, of course, felt very out of place and were sure we were about to be kicked out when Bobby Valentine walked into the dugout and agreed to talk into the mic for us.
We covered topics such as the Global MLB Draft and the idea of an Asian Baseball League. We also touched on doping in NPB and what can be done to eradicate it (although Bobby said he had a hard time convincing his players to even take anti-inflammatory drugs when they were actually injured – the only drug they need being a couple of post-game beers, which, he said, was the way in the States until BALCo replaced beer.) We also got to hear a little bit about Bobby’s many restaurants. Even when baited, though, he didn’t repeat his previous claim that Bobby V’s was the first restaurant to serve wrap sandwiches.
No sooner had we taken the mics off his jersey than the conversation turned to kanji. We didn’t really anticipate that happening, but that’s where it went, and that’s where it stayed, even after he was pulled away to turn in the line-up cards. This is about the same time that we were introduced to Bobby’s bench coach, Mr. Frank Ramppen, who, like everyone else on the staff, is one hell of a guy.
Bobby swears by Remembering the Kanji, a book by James W. Heisig, and he shared with us, while we were standing behind home plate, some of the examples of how the method works. Mr. Valentine has figured out how to remember, read, and pronounce 1,400 kanji since he started reading the book this year. That’s two-thirds of the way to being able to read and understand a Japanese newspaper…
Maybe Bobby should start his own language school, too.
Even as the time for the first pitch grew dangerously near, Bobby posed for pictures with us in his office and then insisted on telling us about a couple of the amazing photos and artifacts hanging on the walls.
This was a truly impressive collection of memorabilia, much of which Larry had shown us as he was giving us a tour a bit earlier – awards, medals, pictures with Presidents and of the celebrations after the Marines’ 2005 Japan Series win, copies of priceless photo albums of the New York Yankees’ tour of Japan in 1934 and other historical baseball events, Japan Series program covers dating back years, and Bobby’s first-ever baseball contract – $500 a week, if memory serves.
All in all, it’s safe to say that we were treated better than we deserved, especially when you consider that our site rarely mentions Bobby’s team anyway.
Next, it was time to enjoy the game versus the Orix Buffaloes. We settled into our “Bobby Seats” on the third base side of the stadium, eschewed our caps in favor of new Marines headgear, and enjoyed the game, which was exciting enough to serve as a climax to what had already been a day more exciting to us than we could get across here.
Down 6-1 as the end drew near, Chiba staged an impressive rally leaving them down by just one run with a man ready to bolt for home and only one out as Benny stepped up to the plate. Could it get any better? The guy who’d been so cool to us just a few hours before was now in position to win the game in dramatic fashion.
Unless, of course, he grounded into a double play.
Oh well, it happens to the best of ’em.
That’s what you get for inviting a bunch of Swallows fans around before the game, I guess. We were won over nonetheless and can say that we’d pull for the Marines in any game except against us.