Black Sabbath, the spaghetti junction, HP Sauce, a balti and naan, a 13 year old mother pushing her baby around in a pram while chuffing on a Benson and Hedges - these are some things that spring to mind when one thinks of England’s second city, Birmingham.
Baseball is absolutely not one of those things, given that baseball is not played in the U.K. Bring up the topic of baseball in Brum and you’ll most probably get the response – “What? You mean that gay rounders?”, with rounders being the English forerunner of baseball, still played in some schools in England today. In fact, when I left the city of Birmingham in early 2001, bound for a Japanese adventure, I too knew absolutely nothing about the sport of baseball, and little did I know how much that would change over the coming years.
Before leaving England, I was, and indeed still am, an avid follower of football (or soccer for my American chums). I like to follow a team, it makes life more interesting. It’s like a soundtrack to your life, following the highs and lows of your chosen team. It has a yearly cycle: hopes and dreams at the beginning of the year, usually shattered as the season progresses, until the season ends and the slate is wiped clean for the new year, whereupon the hopes and dreams start again and the cycle continues, for life. I guess it helps distract from some of the more harsh realities of one’s own life, kind of (I guess) like a form of religion, only for the more intelligent and free-thinking individual (though the intelligent part is highly debatable in some cases…..).
Being from Birmingham, my team of choice is Aston Villa, and has been for quite some time. For those who don’t know, Aston Villa are one of England’s most storied and successful football teams, even if their successes are more historical in nature (i.e. their last League Championship was back in the early 1980s and the bulk of their silverware came pre-WW1!).
So when I arrived in Japan, I had to search for a local Aston Villa substitute. A team that I could follow day in day out, a team whose games I could view live and in person and not just by means of satellite TV. And not just that, a team that felt natural for me to support. So naturally, being a football fan, I first turned to J-League soccer. But I tried a few games and all it did was make me yearn for the football of home, plus the fans in Japanese soccer stadiums seemed to create an atmosphere that was a strange, slightly unreal facsimile of a European football crowd. Nothing about it attracted me to spend my time and money following this brand of football.
So I decided I’d give this strange uniformed version of rounders a go. At first one of the factors that appealed to me was the fact that baseball was very much Japan’s traditional team sport in the way that soccer was not. It has a long history and foothold in the culture of the nation, in a similar way to that of football in the UK.
So I started to watch some games on TV. Of course, the only games I could really watch on regular TV were the Yomiuri Giants games (as they were/are the only team whose games were/are nationally aired), but at that point I didn’t really have any idea of who they were. So I started to watch games on the telly, pretty much oblivious of which teams I was watching. The first major problem I encountered was that I simply didn’t have any idea of the rules, apart from the “need to be on a base or you’re out” thing, and the concept of scoring runs, both learned from playing rounders at school.
The major thing that stumped me at first was the concepts of balls and strikes. It may sound strange but that was one of the biggest things to get my head around. This difficulty comes from exposure to the game of cricket which is popular in England (and other commonwealth countries). In cricket, the pitcher (known as a bowler) tries to knockover three wooden stumps or “wickets” that stand directly behind the batter. If he hits the wickets then that batter is out. Any ball that is too far away from the batter is called a “wide” and is penalized to the tune of one run. So bowlers are always trying to pitch as accurately as possible so that they can hit the wickets. So the fact that when watching a baseball game, I would see so many balls being pitched out of the strike zone puzzled me to no end. How could these presumably highly paid pitchers, whose only real job was to throw strikes, throw so many non-strikes? It took me quite a while to understand the ins and outs of pitching in baseball, of trying to get the batter to swing at something not in, or at the edge of the strike zone. That concept took a long time to grasp.
But I soon got to grips with the generalities of the rules. So next I had to choose a team to follow. One day I was watching a game on TV, of course it was the Yomiuri Giants again, but the other team I hadn’t seen before, nor the stadium that they were playing in. I remember noticing the dinky nature of the park, and the big retro looking scoreboard behind centrefield. I noticed this other team, who appeared to be the home team, playing in a white uniform with redpinstripes. Their caps were navy blue, with a large YS on the front of it. At the time I couldn’t read a lick of Japanese, so I couldn’t figure what this team was called. The onscreen scorebox abbreviated their name as “ヤ” but that meant nothing to me, apart from resembling a scythe. But they couldn’t be called the Scythes though, surely? For some reason I didn’t twig that the team name was written in big letters across the uniform’s jersey, or possibly couldn’t make it out due to the funky font. So I presumed they were called the Ys (pron.”wise”).
So this “Ys” team were presumably at home, as this wasn’t the Tokyo Dome, but by the looks and sounds of it, their fans were greatly outnumbered by fans of the Giants, so much so that they might as well have been the away team. This appealed to me right away, as I (like many British folk) have a love of the underdog, and the most popular football teams in England, such as Manchester United, often fill up opposing grounds with their own glory-supporting fans, outnumbering fans of the home team, and boy do I hate teams like that.
I continued to watch the game between these two teams on the TV, transfixed by this apparent David and Goliath battle. In the end the Ys prevailed, I don’t recall the score. But what I do recall is how overjoyed the players were with the victory, how silent three quarters of the stadium seemed to be, and indeed that the commentators didn’t sound so happy about the result either, and that I thought it must have been raining due to the fact that a lot of fans were holding umbrellas……
I then tried to do a bit of research on the teams to find out who these mysterious Ys were. After talking to a few friends, it seemed like they were the Yakult Swallows, based in Tokyo. The “ヤ” stood for “Ya” of ヤクルト/Yakult. So I bought a Wayne Graczyk English Language media guide to the 2001 season from a local book store, and found out more about these Swallows. I discovered that they played their games at the Meiji Jingu Stadium. That the guy with glasses who seemed to be their most popular player was called Atsuya Furuta. And that their pock-mark faced member with tree trunks for arms was Venezuelan Roberto Petagine, and the other foreign bearded guy seemed to be a certain Alex Ramirez.
So I found an upcoming game at Jingu, versus the Chunichi Dragons, and went along with a couple of friends. We found our way to Sendagaya station, and walked past the Olympic stadium to the comparatively tiny Meiji Jingu Stadium nice and early for my first ever game of baseball. We took our seats in the leftfield bleachers, as they looked less busy than the rightfield ones, sat down and bought beer. As time got nearer to game time, we noticed that our position was slowly being surrounded by blue clad Dragons fans. A little strange we thought as we continued to sup our beers.
As the game began, and the Swallows got on the scoreboard, I jumped up in celebration and wondered why no one else did around me, and indeed, were now all staring at me. It was then that we looked over to the fans in the rightfield stands, who were all dancing with what appeared to be green umbrellas, the same as I’d seen on the TV that game against the Giants. We were in the wrong section. I knew nothing of the Japanese baseball tradition of home supporters in the rightfield stands and away in the left, similar to the home and away sections of football stadiums in the UK. But by that time, we figured that it was too late to change seats, so we vowed to try to be respectful of the Dragons fans if Yakult scored again and not cheer too much. However, as the beers flowed, poured by young girls with beer-kegs strapped to their backs, this became more difficult to do in practice. The game finished an 8-8 tie, the highlight of which was an Alex Ramirez grand slam. The grand slam was difficult to restrain myself for, so I started dancing around cheering like a drunken buffoon, and found myself joined by an equally drunk Japanese fellow who started to hug me. It turns out that he was here with his friend who was a Chunichi fan, but he wasn’t a fan of any team in particular. But what he was was an “Anti-Giant” or hater of the Giants, and as Yakult was shaping up to be Yomiuri’s main contender for the pennant that year, he was happy to celebrate the home run with me, and indeed buy me more beers!
And so that was the beginning. After that I started to go regularly to games if I could find anyone to drag along (one of whom was a certain Mr.Pellegrini…), this time sitting in the right place of course, complete with umbrella in hand!
Now, I love the rightfield stands at Jingu. It’s one of my favourite places to be in the world. Friendly people, alcohol aplenty, umbrella dances and of course the Tokyo Ondo, which never fails to freak out/delight (delete as appropriate) new visitors to Jingu’s bleachers (see video below). I love Jingu’s relaxed atmosphere along with the passion the fans show for their team. I love the uniforms, especially the navy blue and red road one (which has unfortunately been retired for 2009). I love almost every one of the players I’ve seen don that uniform over the years, from Atsuya Furuta, Satoshi Iriki, Shugo Fuji, Akinori Iwamura, Shinya Miyamoto……there are so many. I love the fact that nobody really likes us, that the response of the average Japanese when they find out you’re a Swallows fan is to ask…”Why?!??”. I love the fact that the team has survived in the NPB in the same city as the omni-present Giants for decades, and has not just survived but given a bloody nose to the all-powerful Yomiuri on many an occasion, and been successful despite the odds.
Now several years on, and what must be hundreds of games watched later, I am as much a baseball fan as I am a football fan. The Tokyo Yakult Swallows mean (almost) as much to me as Aston Villa do. But the game of baseball I love is yakyu, simply because my baseball education was in Japan and everything I’ve learned has been learned watching yakyu. It is a love that is unclouded by a prior history with the sport, and by prolonged exposure to another way of doing things. I love the history, the teams, and the deep sense of pride the players and fans alike have in them.
So for as long as I remain in Japan, my outlook on life will be affected by how my Swallows perform, they have become my team. Though there are good seasons and bad (and indeed more of the latter with Yakult), I wouldn’t change them for another team. Not for all the beer girls in Japan.