On the train to the Osaka Dome, Jevon warned us that Japanese baseball tends to be a more conservative game—more cautious teamwork and mutual support, less grandstanding. “That’s fine,” I said, “I wouldn’t know the difference anyway.” I’d been to maybe two previous games in my entire life, and honestly they felt pretty prudent, especially when compared to Canada’s greatest sport (Curling, obviously. What game did you think I meant?).
The Osaka Dome is home to the Orix Buffaloes, and that night they were playing the Chiba Lotte Marines. Both teams have been around since the 1950s, although Japanese baseball is even older than that. But the Dome is less than 20 years old, a metallic closed-roof structure with a fat silver snake coiled around its brim. It seats 36,477, but that night it seemed almost empty, except for two sections of the stands, both of which were arbitrarily packed.
Arriving at the bottom of the first, we found everyone in the stands were on their feet. Did the national anthem come late in Japanese games? Or had they stood up to welcome the five tardy foreigners? Neither one; in this stadium at least, when the home team is at bat, the fans stay on their feet.
The game slogged through the second inning with 0 hits and 0 runs, so after I finished my marinara burger, I took a closer gander at the crowd’s distribution. In the quadrant over centre field, a few hundred white-jerseyed fans were chanting, led by a cheerleader in a red silk robe. This fellow was a literal “cheer leader,” mind you—as opposed to the women who took the field after the fifth inning, to wiggle their hips half-heartedly—and he screamed himself hoarse, leading the hardcore fans on each of the players’ individual chants as they came to bat. It’s not quite as impressive as it sounds—most of the lyrics amount to “Let’s Go, Yoshida!” or whatever—but then the leader would whip out his trumpet, and the fans would wave their scarves or bop their plastic bats together or break out their SUV-sized flag, and I’d think, these guys are making an effort.
Unfortunately, two sections over near the home stretch, another sizable crowd was making an even greater effort. Turns out the visiting team had their own militant fan club, all seated in a designated area, and led by their own barker. The Marines groupies also had two snare drums, four trombones, and much more coordination; often, when their favourite players came to bat, they would hop up and down in syncopation, creating their own, friskier take on “the wave.” Jevon said that some of this crowd were paid groupies, but they couldn’t all have followed the team from Tokyo. Whatever their motives, they were winning the cheer game by a mile.
I don’t know if it was the sparse crowd overall, or the loud cheering of their rivals’ fans, or the fact that they get paid their $1,000,000 salaries regardless of their performances, but the Orix Buffaloes were buffaloed badly that night. After reaching the top of the 5th with a score of 0-0, the Marines hit three runs, then the Buffaloes match them run for run at the bottom of the 6th. For one brief shining inning, the game has some drama. Then it’s three more runs for the Marines in the 8th, including a humiliating double which makes the foe-fans so excited they almost lose their rhythm. The Buffaloes never bounced back, and their fans’ energy petered out until even the cheer leader sounded dejected.
Dejection was not on the menu for Hanshin Tigers fans the next evening. Their field is in the open-air Koshien Stadium, and on the night they swallowed the Yakult Swallows, nearly all of its 47,757 seats were filled. The pro-Swallow crowd was there too, cordoned off in their neon green shirts and chanting as loud as they could; but it was free jersey night for Tigers fans, so the rest of the park was a human tide of roaring black and yellow. It was the opposite of the dynamic in Osaka Dome, and the Tigers grabbed that goodwill and ran with it all night.
As I established, I’m no expert on the game, but it was clear to me immediately that conservative was not in the Tigers’ playbook that night. Following a swift string of strikeouts at the top of the first, they took the plate and hit a run, a walk, two steals (resulting from the Swallows’ catcher missing a pitch)…but ultimately a strikeout to end the inning. At the top of the 2nd, the Swallows got the bases loaded with only one out, but the next batter hit into a double-play, as the Tigers threw swiftly to home and then to first base. If you’re not a fan and you can’t follow the description, don’t worry; I was one or two steps behind the action too, but I could still sense the tension rise and fall, and when sharing it with 40,000 other people in a single environment, it’s impossible not to get swept up.
The bottom of the 4th was epic. Fumihito Haraguchi hit a three-run homerun—picture-perfect, the ball slipping just past the outfield fence—and then followed it directly with six more runs, sealing the game for the Tigers. Still, the crowd waited patiently until the “Lucky 7” 7th inning to inflate and liberate their long yellow balloons, because that is how it’s done. That’s the beauty of the crowd phenomenon here, and perhaps the beauty of the game as well: there’s a structured energy, a boundless enthusiasm somehow bounded anyway by acclamation. Even when things get epic, nobody rocks the boat. And a good time was had by all.