A sea of bodies paced through the underground tunnel that connects Nagoya Dome Maeyada Station to the stadium itself as if all part of a single, larger organism. The inner sides of the tunnel are covered with informational posters about the hometown Chunichi Dragons, the Japanese characters unintelligible to me and the numbers inconsequential because of the metric system. The hoard walked, exiting the tunnel to be assaulted by the bright sun of spring. Amidst the throng of to-be spectators was me, blending in as much as a gaijin* with blonde hair can reasonably be expected to blend in a sea of homogenous Japanese. We were all on our way to watch the lowly Chunichi Dragons (Nagoya) face off against the mighty Yomiuri Giants (Tokyo), often referred to as the Yankees of Japanese baseball.
We eventually reached the entrance to the outskirts of the dome itself, the ground covered with food vendors, attractions, moon bounces, and general merriment. I’ve often heard the term pregame festivities used, but rarely have I found the term festivities to be accurate; in this case, it was. At the very moment the crowd reached this expanse of entertainment, we scattered, each of us becoming individuals once again, with singular minds and singular agendas.
My first task was acquiring a ticket, not an easy task considering the enormous crowd already at the game and my complete lack of Japanese language abilities. I approached the ticket vendor, after several stops at other, wrong places, murmuring to myself a sentence I had memorized in Japanese asking for the cheapest ticket available. I then repeated this sentence out loud to the ticket attendant and, not understanding a word of what was said in response, replied “hai” to everything she said until I was given a ticket (a surprisingly effective strategy if you aren’t overly picky). For those curious, the ticket cost 3900 yen.
I next picked one of the seemingly endless food vendors surrounding the dome at random and ate a lunch of what I thought was fried chicken and was actually fried octopus, washing it down with a beer. Afterwards, I meandered around the outside of the dome for a while, drinking beer and taking it all in. There was a parade of garishly dressed women playing instruments in a sort of mini-parade, a moon bounce in the shape of the Dragons mascot, and an extraordinarily large number of people dressed in black and orange, the color of the away team Giants (apparently 22 Japan Series championships is helpful towards gaining popularity among fans).
About twenty minutes before the game began, I entered the dome, disappointed I would be spending the rest of such a beautiful spring day indoors, at a baseball game nonetheless. To make matters worse, I noticed people being allowed to bring outside drinks inside (provided you poured them into the cups provided by the stadium). But it was too late for me to do so, and I would be stuck paying stadium prices for beer unnecessarily.
As I walked around aimlessly inside the dome, having no idea where my seat was because the ticket was in Japanese, the first thing I noticed was the merchandise vendors selling gear from both teams, not just the home team, and, more importantly, jerseys with the last name Abe on the back. Abe is the name of the prime minister and I was ecstatic about the prospect of baseball jerseys with the name of the prime minister on them.
With the help of several separate extremely kind people, I eventually found my seat. I immediately realized this must not have been the cheapest ticket available, as I was about 15 rows back of the field in shallow left. I was also sitting in the away team section of the stadium. Maybe my plan of saying “hai” forever and always wasn’t as flawless as I thought. On the other hand, I had a good seat and I was now sitting with the fans of the team that was likely to win, so things were looking up.
I sat down next to a middle-aged couple on my right and an extremely old man on my left. The seats were a little small, though I wasn’t uncomfortable, nor was I intruding on the space of those sitting next to me. Now seated, I was able to get a good look at the dome from the inside.
Even outside of the sacrilege of an indoor baseball stadium (a common view among American baseball fans), the dome lacked distinguishing features. It was perfectly circular, geometrically in sync, and lacking in imagination. From the inside, the dome looked like how I imagine it would look inside a turtle’s shell, with high, expansive walls and filled with grass (get it? because turtles eat grass…). Actually, the playing surface was turf. The Nagoya dome seats 38,414 people and, on this day, with the lower deck packed to the brim and the upper sections moderately attended, I would estimate there were somewhere around 31,000 people.
I also noticed the clear-cut distinctions between the two teams’ fans, with the orange and black clad Giants fans occupying the left field side and the blue and white clad Giants fans on the right field side. Much more than at an American baseball game, which often feels like an outdoor picnic until someone is on base, at which point the fans start actually paying attention, the fan sections were always engulfed in each pitch, with each team performing prepared chants while their team batted, complete with plastic noisemakers in the shape of tiny baseball bats. It was during one of these chants that I first heard “A-be! Shin-ose-ke!” being repeated by the Giants faithful, with even more noticeable fervor than their other chants. It turns out that the Abe jerseys being sold were not in reference to the prime minister, but to Giants legend Abe Shinnosuke, The 2009 Japan Series most valuable player and fan favorite.
This would probably be a good place to point out differences I noticed between baseball in America and in Japan. Of course, this was only one game, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. I am always amazed by the sheer velocity with which major league players throw the ball, even when just warming up before innings. In particular, the outfielders are able to throw balls over one hundred feet on a line and with perfect accuracy with no apparent effort. That was not the case in this game, as there was a notable lack of zip in the arms of most of the players. However, to make up for this dip in arm strength, the footwork with which the fielders worked seemed a step up from the major leagues, where pure athleticism is relied upon moreso than perfect technique. Additionally, the Japanese game moved much faster, with pitchers taking much less time with each pitch than their American counterparts.
For the first three innings, very little happened. In fact, there wasn’t a single base runner for either team. And when there finally was a base runner in the top of the fourth inning, he was promptly picked off. Nonetheless, I was enjoying myself, ordering beers from the young girl vendors with mini keg backpacks that walk amongst the spectators (one of the few things I can do in Japanese). At one point, the middle aged couple to the right of me (Giants fans) gave me one of their noisemakers, beginning an odd sort of nonverbal communication between me and them that is hard to explain if you’ve never experienced it firsthand. At that point, it felt disingenuous, while sitting next to my new friends who had had given me noisemakers, to cheer for the Dragons, so I tilted slightly towards Giants fandom.
In between innings, they had similar promotional events like you might see at an American baseball game. There was fan cam, which, like in America, skews heavily toward attractive women and adorable small children. There were cheerleaders for each team, who would dance amidst the shenanigans of each team’s respective mascot. At no point in my time in Japan did I feel more like Japan and America are the same as when the t-shirt cannon made its appearance (and, much like in America, I left the game empty-handed).
By the time the ninth inning rolled around, the Giants led 2-0 and the Dragons were down to their last out with men on first and second base. The Giants had in their Dominican fireballer closer, Arquimedes Caminero. While at this point I was on the fence of which team I should cheer for, I was hopeful the Dragons would be able to avoid being shutout. The winning run stepped to the plate and dug in, Caminero reared back and fired. The Dragons batter took a big hack and with a crack, the ball exploded off his bat, unfortunately on the ground, right at the shortstop, who scooped it up and threw it to first ending the game. Giants 2 Dragons 0.
* Gaijin: "foreigner"