There is a basic and thorough love of the game of baseball in Japan, regardless of who might actually be playing, and that love keeps growing.
NISHINOMIYA, Japan — All that remained for the hometown Sumoto High School team after the biggest game of their lives was to drop to their hands and knees.
Win or lose in Japan’s annual high-school invitational baseball tournament, the most important thing is to come home with a container of dirt. That’s because Koshien Stadium, the 47,900-seat venue where the nation goes crazy over its high-school players every March and August, is something akin to sacred ground.
Everyone wants to take dirt home from the country’s oldest ballpark; Ichiro even has a container on display in the museum his parents set up in Toyoyama. And so, the defeated Sumoto players, knowing it was likely their final time here, knelt in unison along the first-base line, and began scooping feverishly.
“The dirt of Koshien is sacred for Japanese baseball players,” said Yuko Tsujinaka, one of the tournament’s staffers. “High-school baseball players think the dirt of Koshien is a precious thing, a treasure.”
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And in a country where baseball is revered with a passion and zeal normally associated with religious themes, the sacred stuff can’t be overlooked. Americans like to talk about their passion for the game, but in Japan, they show you first.
Their fans wear themselves out as much as the players do by cheering nonstop from the stands during the most mundane regular-season games. Adult autograph-seekers stake out sidewalk space for hours, not to score money off a signed item, but simply to have something to take home.
And people will stop what they’re doing on a cold, windy Saturday morning and show up to this 88-year-old ballpark, partway between Kobe and Osaka, by the thousands. Or listen on radio or watch on television by the millions, to a game being played by teenagers they don’t know. Not because they once went to the same school, or lived in the same prefecture as the squads on the field, but simply for their love of the game.
The two baseball cultures collide this week as the Mariners play a pair of exhibition games against Japanese clubs and two regular-season contests versus the Oakland Athletics at the Tokyo Dome. Fans here have waited 20 years to see the only Japanese-owned team in the majors play on Japanese soil.
During that time, their country won the inaugural two World Baseball Classics in 2006 and 2009 and saw a plethora of their professional players — Ichiro the most prominent — make their mark in North America. It’s a far cry from the country that didn’t launch professional baseball until a major-league all-star team led by Babe Ruth was invited over in 1934 and demolished some homegrown Japanese selects on a tour that stopped right at this ballpark.
Within two years, seven Japanese teams were formed and their first pro league was under way. Rather than be humbled by the thrashing that Ruth and company dealt out, the Japanese seemed to revel in it.
They had played baseball in Japan since an American teacher named Horace Wilson introduced it to his students at what later became Tokyo University back in 1872. But the country’s fervor for the game really took off when Ruth and his team demonstrated how the game was played at the top level.
Ruth has one of his bats from that series on display at the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Tokyo. The sport has grown such since then that there are now 173 members enshrined in the Hall, which notes proudly that the Nippon Professional Baseball League has maintained its current 12-team format since 1956.
It’s there that Sadaharu Oh has a plaque honoring him for setting a “New World Home Run Record” with blast No. 756 in 1977. The museum is where a group of four Japanese visitors in their 20s can be found watching a television screen, mesmerized by the replay of the final innings of the decisive game of the 2009 Japan Series. Where children can take practice swings with a plastic bat in an interactive showdown against the Japanese pitching legend of their choice on a giant video screen in front of them.
The first thing to greet visitors upon entering the museum is a glass-encased 2009 WBC trophy and a game jersey autographed by the title-winning team from Japan. In fact, the largest display — other than the long corridor of busts devoted to those enshrined — is the back-wall case with jerseys from the entire 2009 WBC squad, complete with one of the empty champagne bottles they celebrated their title with.
But even so, there is still room made in the museum for recognition of Americans like Ruth and Lou Gehrig, teammates on that visiting 1934 squad, as well as Jackie Robinson, Ken Griffey Jr. and others who played a part in shaping Japan’s baseball history. It’s as if the country’s baseball community has achieved a balance of celebrating its biggest victories within the context of its humbling beginnings.
The same mentality exists, to a degree, in fan attitudes toward some of the biggest names to have played in the majors. Fans are aware of the struggles of Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Kenji Johjima and even Ichiro last year.
They’ll nod knowingly in discussions about the shortcomings of those players. Even offer up a critique or two. But they’ll still root like mad for them.
Such passion for the game — in victory or defeat — might help explain why losing players gather the Koshien dirt. Why they seek a bit of something bigger than the outcome of any one particular game.
“Koshien is a dream for many high-school players,” Ichiro said, when asked later in the day in Tokyo about playing at the stadium twice in the August tournament as a pitcher for Meiden High School. “It’s a simple target that we can all have to look forward to and to dream of. And I thought that was very important.”
And the dreaming doesn’t stop with the players.
While the tournament this month is by invitation only, the August event takes on a larger, more open field of about 50 of the top performing schools from among the 5,000 or so in Japan. Both events have become Japan’s version of “March Madness,” with games televised.
There were 13,000-plus in the stands here Saturday morning, despite frigid wind blasts. The rains that forced the rare postponement of three scheduled games Friday managed to hold off a bit, but every one of the plastic seats was soaked before the first pitch.
The weather kept the crowd unusually small — they can easily be two or three times that size — and yet, smiles abound in the damp surroundings.
They were seen in the special, fenced-off “Alps” sections of stands — so dubbed for their steepness — down the left- and right-field lines. This is where the most fanatical supporters gather at opposing ends of the park in school colors as bands lead them in chants and songs while the game is going on.
The music stops only when a ball is put in play and the ensuing cheers drown out even the most fervent tuba players.
The fans here are color-coordinated, with the green-and-yellow clad Sumoto supporters forming a perfect version of their school logo when viewed from a distance. In many ways, the fans in these sections are like a college football crowd that never stops cheering.
One side plays when their team is at the plate, then the other takes their turn. There is no interrupting; no fighting in the stands.
Nobody whose turn it is to cheer tries to get up to buy a local Asahi beer. Only when the other team hits are the die-hards tempted to knock back some suds, or head to the concession stand for a bento box.
Those in the general seating areas cheer as well, but are intently focused on the action. They don’t do “The Wave” here — in fact, stadium signs expressly forbid it — because nobody wants to miss a single pitch with a blocked view.
“I come here because I love to watch baseball,” said Kenji Ono, 44, a Tokyo camera shop owner who made a weekend pilgrimage to watch the action. “I’m a grandfather now, and I hope one day I can see one of my own play here.”
Ono was seated well down the left-field line, in a near-empty section, shivering from the cold but intently pointing one of his cameras at the action. He sat there so he could be only a few feet away from the Alps section belonging to the fans of Naruto High School.
He likes the music and cheering of their blue-and-white-clad supporters.
Ono has nothing in common with either of the schools, simply a love of the game. Just like the taxi driver with one eye on the action being carried live on the satellite television box next to his meter.
“They are very good games,” he said encouragingly in halting English.
And indeed, this one was.
Naruto had been held to just two hits through nine innings of a 1-1 game, but led off the 10th with a single. One sacrifice bunt later, a drive to the gap in left-center ended the contest and sent the Naruto players leaping from their dugout.
But rather than celebrate their walkoff victory, they simply formed a line facing the Sumoto players, who had done the same on their side of the field. The explosion of cheers that had greeted the winning hit all but died off as soon as the decisive run crossed the plate.
There, in near silence, the two sides bowed respectfully to one another.
Only then did the cheering recommence, from both sides of the grandstands. It continued as the players jogged to the outfield, tipping their caps to the crowds in the farthest reaches.
And the fans cheered back, not seeming to care who had won. It was about respect; for the players who had provided the show, the fans who had such an active role and for the game itself.
And then, it was about the dirt.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @gbakermariners.
Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners