Friday, February 24, 2012

Cue the ESPN Baseball Tonight Theme Music: Spring Training is Here!

There’s something magical about baseball. With the whole world swirling around us, there’s peace in sitting around a diamond, watching a game that has no time limit, enjoying good company, and (possibly) drinking a beer.
I grant that I am a product of the “Kevin Costner, love of the game, a woman will leave you but baseball is forever, its ok because he still gets the woman” genre of baseball movies. While sappy and generally long on the Costner soliloquys, Field of Dreams and Bull Durham helped me fall in love with baseball. On the other side of the movie spectrum, Major League consummated the relationship.

Having never played in Little League, I grew up only as a fan. My parents took Shula and me to Single-A Peninsula Pilot’s Baseball games when they still existed (Shula got a ball once; I’m still jealous). When they left town, we started driving to Norfolk to go to Triple-A Norfolk Tides games. So when Shula came to Okinawa last week, it only seemed fitting for us to see a game at Chatan Stadium – the spring training home of the Chunichi Dragons (Tom Selleck’s team in Mr. Baseball).

When I moved up to Maryland, I got to see my beloved Orioles play more often. If you’ve never been, I recommend a trip to Camden Yards. Nestled in factory Baltimore, the Oriole’s stadium is an oasis. Chatan Stadium…not so much.

Okinawa is the spring training island of the Nippon League (Japan’s Professional Baseball League); the Chunichi Dragons, reigning champions of the Central League (as opposed to Pacific League – think NL v. AL), use the stadium near “American Village”. For two or three weeks in February, baseball fever spreads over the island. People come down from all over Japan to scout the players, get their team paraphernalia signed, and just go crazy for their favorite teams. Or so I thought.

But, this is Japan – and the stadium was silent. It was pretty crowded, but you could hear a pin drop. There was certainly no going crazy.

When they read the starting lineup for the Away Team (how I ascertained that they were reading the lineups is another blog post altogether), it was dead quiet. I thought, “Ok, that’s the silent treatment. At Maryland, we pretend to read the newspaper during this time to show that we don’t care.” Alright. I can snub the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, too.

But then they switched to the home team, and there was nothing. Another Japanese gentleman a few rows in front of me gave a polite golf clap for some of his favorite players – but that was it.

Then the game started up. In the top of the second inning, the batter hit a line-drive foul ball directly at the first-base coach. The coach ducked in the knick of time. The stadium went crazy! A communal gasp, a burst of laughter, murmuring continue for another full minute before it was dead quiet again.

When either team scored, there was some polite clapping. When I go to games, I cheer when players on my team get hits, when there’s an awesome play in the field, or when I think something good happened for my team but it was actually something bad. That is not the Japanese way. I scream out “O” near the end of the National Anthem in support for my Orioles; they didn’t play any of the possible national anthems. I stretch in the middle of the seventh inning; the Japanese do not.

At some point, everybody started rooting for one player on the Away Team; every time he caught a ball, stepped up to bat, or stole a base, they cheered wildly for him. Neither Shula, Leora, nor I have the slightest clue why (I looked him up on Wikipedia, and he didn’t even have a page).

Reflecting on the game afterwards, Leora, Shula and I tried to figure out what the heck was going on in the stadium. Two theories emerged:

1. As a general rule, Japanese society demands winning. Second-best is unacceptable; outright losing is worse. To cause a player to err, to slip, to fail is not civilized.
2. In Japanese society, one must hold themselves with dignity at all times: screaming obscenities and making statements about the other team’s 1st baseman’s mother are not tolerated.

I think it’s probably a little bit of both.

That said: SS Tetsuya Tani is going to be making a name for himself this year, 2B Hirosayu Tanaka showed that he has the speed to lead the league in Triples again, and OF Lastings Milledge rode the bench. The game was free, the sky was clear, and the beer was Orion (“for your happy times!”). Happy Spring everyone!

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