Two-parent perspective: This is what happens when both of us carry cameras. Kevin was lucky to meet one of the Orix Buffaloes who was walking from the training area to the stadium in Miyako-jima. I’m pretty sure this was Takamiya Kazuya, a pitcher who joined the Buffaloes last year after five years with the Yokohama Baystars.
Misako lined them up quickly for a photo looking straight ahead at her. You can see me in the background, over Kevin’s left shoulder, with the camcorder with nothing better to do than snap a picture of her shooting a photo.
Now look at the rear-view shot from my angle, and there is Misako, also over Kev’s left shoulder, smiling as she clicks her shot. Same scene, same moment. Two angles.
Tiger Tempo: Every sports team in Japan needs its own rooting section. They are usually led by a person (or two or three) wearing gloves and tooting actively on a whistle. Being part of a section like this takes endurance. You can’t ease up. When you team is up to bat, you’re going to be making coordinated noise.
This is the group in the left-field slope watching their Hanshin Tigers play in an exhibition game against the Yakult Swallows. I think you can find the fellow with the whistle. Several guys in the back also had trumpets, but they were thankfully quiet as I shot this.
Given that these rooters probably flew in from Osaka, we can forgive them for not having more members. They did OK and showed the usual sporting attitude.
One cultural practice hard to overlook — and emulate — is the ritual of taking turns. No need to shout over the opposing fans. Each side takes its turn when its team is hitting. In some cases, the sporting spirit extends even further. At the end of a game, the winning fans will send a well-coordinated cheer to congratulate the opposing rooting section. With cheers and bows.
The flip side, of course, is that almost no one seeks to holler independently. Folks will exclaim for a good play, and voices often rise in anticipation of a fly ball. But the role of filling a stadium with noise and energy goes to the official group.
Okinawa is busy with baseball lately. This is what baseball folks like to call spring training, even though it isn’t spring yet. But it did rain, which is a little too normal.
After a couple of weeks of workouts, 10 of Japan’s pro teams played on the island today. We watched the Yakult Swallows of Tokyo edge the Hanshin Tigers of Osaka, 3-2. The score was tied at 2 when an odd play occurred.
With the bases full and one out, a Swallows hitter lofted a fly ball to foul ground near right field. The outfielder caught the ball and zinged a throw toward home plate. The runner at third did not try to tag up, but this came as a surprise to the runner on first, who took off for second. One problem. A runner was already standing there, foot on base.
The first basemen cut off the throw to the plate. Spying the runner from first in a vulnerable spot, retreating in a panic from second, the first baseman began to run at that runner to tag him for a problem-solving double-play. Ah, but just then, the runner on third shrewdly took off in full sprint for home plate. If he could touch the plate before the first-sacker tagged the retreating runner for the third out, the Swallows would tally the go-ahead run. If nothing else, this stunt would at least complicate things for the first basemen. And it did.
Seeing the guy streaking for the plate, the first baseman pivoted and began to throw home, to the catcher. But then that runner hit the brakes on the chocolate brown, slightly wet infield, and tried to scamper back to safety at third base.
It was a lot to process in a hurry — for the first baseman and for the rest of us. It also was one of the few times all day the game moved quickly.
The runner retreating to third was looking stranded. A good peg (throw) to third would catch him base-less. And since he was closer to home, he was the important one to stop. The first basemen launched a hard, low throw to his teammate at third base. But throwing as he ran, he wasn’t too accurate.
The runner lunged for third base. The ball arrived first, but it skipped into the dirt on the wrong side of the runner. The fielder couldn’t reach it. It bounced past third base and up against the wall near the dugout. In great danger a second earlier, the risk-taking now jumped to his feet and took off for home, scoring gleefully. His little stunt had succeeded. The other runners moved up, too. And the first baseman just stood there, shocked by his own rotten throw.
That was the how the Swallows took the lead and how the Tigers lost. Bad base-running yielded a run when the throw was even worse. This is not what we expect from Japanese baseball teams, famous for their technical skills.
But we can be generous in rainy February. Bad throws occur best in exhibition games, when they don’t matter so much. I’m sure the first baseman will realize that later, after he practices that running throw a few hundred-million more times in practice, at the urgent request of his manager.
The game was a worthy experience. First, we waited in line in the typical way at a ball game, in a line that wrapped around the outside of the stadium. Then we watched an impressive show of warm-up drills by both teams. No bad throws then. After that came local cultural flourishes when youthful eisa groups performed across the outfield and local beauty queens presented the team managers with flowers in a turnabout of gender roles as an American understands them.
The hitter above is Lastings Milledge, 26, an American who signed with the Swallows two months ago. See more on him below.
Not Swinging in the Rain: We were interested to see Lastings Milledge playing left field for the Yakult Swallows in the exhibition game in Okinawa. In this video, he draws a walk during a rainy at-bat.
Milledge, 26, signed a contract in late December paying him a reported one-year salary of $570,000, with bonuses possible. We’ll enjoy the chance to track MIlledge’s progress in Japan after several years in the Major Leagues with the Mets, Nationals, Pirates and White Sox.
Always fun to see whether the American players learn to blend into this more considerate culture. Helps if they do. Milledge may need to cease his spitting, a standard habit in MLB but not appreciated in Japan. Notice he takes off a pad and flings it on the ground as he runs to first after a base-on-balls. Japanese players usually hand such gear to an appreciative bat boy or lay it on the ground. He may get that message later.
It’s a big shift to play in Japan. Lots to think about.
You can hear in the background, by the way, that some fans in the Swallows section were chanting USA, USA! That might help him feel comfortable. I spotted just a handful of other Americans at the game, and three of those sat on the Hanshin side. The chant came from Japanese fans.
In American baseball, Milledge’s busiest year was 2008, when he played in 138 games, hitting .268 with 14 homers and 28 stolen bases for the Washington Nationals. In 2010, he hit .277 for the Pirates.
Milledge was a first-round draft pick for the Mets in 2006, 13th overall, and reached the big leagues quickly. But he played mostly on weaker teams. After joining the White Sox last year, he spent most of last year in the minor leagues, at the triple-A level with the Charlotte Knights, where he hit a respectable .295.
He needs a break, and Japan offers him a shot at a resurgence. He batted third in the hitting order today, and he’ll be a big name here. Can he handle the changes?
He managed a single to right and a walk today and also hooked a fly ball straight to the left fielder. He looked good as a runner on a couple of attempted hit-and-run efforts, even though the hitter fouled off pitches.