SPORT TALK: Baseball – Japanese style!

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As you may have noticed, there has not been a new column in a couple weeks and there was a good reason for this. I was on vacation! Not simply any vacation, I actually spent the better part of the past two weeks in Japan, touring the country and, most importantly for this column, watching baseball. While everyone at this point knows, they play a solid brand of baseball in Japan, there were some things that jumped out at me during my time there, that I figured I would share with you, right here. So, let’s go ahead and jump on in.

For the most part, Nippon Professional Baseball, which is what Japan’s top league is called, is pretty much just like the brand of baseball we watch here. The stadiums are smaller, the players are less talented and the fans are a lot different, but what takes place on the field, between the foul lines is basically the same as what we see in MLB. As I said though, there are some striking differences that are obvious after just a short time spent watching a game.

The first thing that caught my eye was the way the fans take part in the game. They wave flags and sing songs, making noise for basically the entire game. I particularly enjoyed the songs. It reminded me of watching European football (soccer). As I don’t speak Japanese, I had no idea what they were singing about, but the fact that they sang for most of the game was simply delightful to yours truly. Another thing that I noticed is the fans never boo or yell or say anything negative about the opposing team (or their team either). All the noise is positive. They cheer on their team with all their heart, but they do not ever utter even the slightest unfavorable noise.

This seemed to be a recurring theme with baseball in Japan. Everything seemed to stay positive. Of course, if you’ve ever seen the Tom Selleck movie “Mr. Baseball” then you probably already know this. If you have not, then you probably should watch it. Besides Magnum P.I. and “High Road to China,” it is my favorite thing Selleck has ever done. But I digress. During all the baseball I watched in Japan, I never saw a player argue balls or strikes. I never saw a manager run out and yell at the umpires and I never saw a hitter, or a pitcher, show up the other. If you are into sportsmanship, then it was all very glorious.

This positive atmosphere extends to the way the players deal with each other. When a relief pitcher is going to enter the game, his fellow relievers will gather around and watch his final warm up tosses and then cheer him on as he leaves the bullpen to head for the mound. This was one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen when watching a baseball game. It was equally strange to see the same relief pitcher return to the bullpen when his team was hitting so he could continue to pitch. There was no rest for these guys in between innings. I suppose it was so they could keep their arm warmed up, which we all know is something that would not go over at all in MLB.

As I mentioned earlier, the lever of play in the game was not on par with the majors here and I expected that. After all, most of the best Japanese players are here playing for our teams. It would be silly to expect the guys remaining in NPB to be as good as Yu Darvish or Ichiro. This does not mean they aren’t good though. I saw some great hitting and even better defense during my time watching NPB. Certainly, enough to keep me glued to the games.

I probably don’t have enough space to get into all the other minute differences. They do not sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the seventh inning stretch. In case you were wondering. And there are lots of strange and exotic ballpark snacks. Although they do still have the helmet ice cream sundae, which made my daughter happy. While the differences are there, the things that are the same certainly outnumber them, and I believe that was why it was so easy for me to jump right in and enjoy the NPB without even knowing the names of 99 percent of the guys who were playing. Ultimately, baseball is baseball, even when it’s being played in a completely different country. And if you love the game one place, chances are you’re going to love it no matter where you’re watching.