As of today, the Chicago White Sox are one game below .500 (that means they’ve lost one more than they’ve won). And the Chicago Cubs? One game below .500. Both total surprises. The Sox were expected, in the first year of a rebuild (when clubs sort of intentionally stink to get good draft picks) to be god-awful, not mediocre. The Cubs, defending champions, were expected to run away with their division again.
It’s taken most of this past week for me to catch up to baseball and settle back into old routines, including checking game scores and box scores and standings and trade rumors. My 10-day trip to Japan wasn’t that long, but our nephew Brian and I were constantly on the move, and Japan is just a dizzying tableau of things completely familiar to this American and things completely bewildering and incongruent. It’s really one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, good for the spirit and for one’s perspective. I highly recommend you go, even if it has not been on your list.
If you do go, get thee to a Japanese baseball game. I think you’ll enjoy it, whether or not you’re a diehard baseball fan.
At one level, the Japanese professional game completely resembles its American counterpart. There are some minor rule differences—if a Japanese game goes into extra innings, for example, it will be called a tie if the game is still even after 12 innings. But otherwise, the game is completely recognizable and enjoyable—there are lots of very good players, including some former MLB players: We saw former Cub Kosuke Fukodome hit an RBI double at one of our games, and we watched former White Sox Dayan Viciedo manning first base on a televised game.
Everything else, everything, is vividly different. For example, Brian bought our tickets at a magic ticket machine at a 7-11. (Yes, that 7-11, but like everything else in Japan, it really wasn’t what you think of when you think of the U.S. version. More later.)
Click to see and hear Yomiuri Giants fans cheer on American transplant Casey McGehee.
Inside the stadiums, there are formal, specifically designated cheering sections for both the home and away teams. And an etiquette around sitting in these sections that includes a prohibition of wearing the other team’s regalia or cheering for the other team. Don’t like it? Don’t buy a seat in that section.
At the two games we attended, each team had a pep band. Heavy on the horns and percussion, they were at it every time their respective team was at bat.
So were the cheering sections. Every batter brought a rousing banter of encouragement, including some in English: “Let’s go, let’s go Mah-Gay-Hay” was the cheer for American import Casey McGehee. And some players warranted their own original songs, which the entire section would break into, on time, precisely, as if there were a conductor.
And there were conductors of sorts. I don’t know if these guys had been elected or if this organically sorts itself, but two leaders—one up high on the concourse behind our seats and one several rows down in front—seemed to be coordinated. And every base hit brings a roar American fans would associate with a walk-off homer.
The result is a more or less constant roar the entire game. It’s more like a World Cup soccer match than a baseball game.
You can get a hot dog at a Japanese game. But, why would you, when you can pick up a bento box, a tasty bowl of fried yakisoba noodles, a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich, a big bowl of ramen, or … you get the picture.
And of course, there’s beer. Except it doesn’t come from burly guys who stomp up and down the steps, lugging trays of cans of beer, growling out their own signature beer-hawking schtick. No, it comes from delicate girls with silk flowers in their hair, wearing dainty outfits, carrying mini-kegs on their backs, and pouring beers into cups on order. They wave one hand in the air. They smile. They pour. They bow. They smile. They climb up. They climb down. They move onto the next section. They smile. They pour. They bow. Their makeup never runs and their legs, impossibly, never give out.
Maybe the best thing about the experience for a fan who dearly loves the game is learning that halfway across the world, fans love the game every bit as much. Just differently.