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Stepping Up To The Plate

orixprofileHow much do you know about your local baseball teams? Brush up your knowledge in time for the new season with this quick guide.
 

Pass through Koshien Station on a Hanshin Line Limited Express train around 5pm on a Saturday and you may suddenly find yourself drowning in a sea of orange-yellow and black-and-white-striped shirts. From the end of March to late September Hanshin Tigers fans are a common sight on the trains between Osaka and Kobe as the baseball season gets underway. Though Tigers supporters aren’t exactly rowdy by the standards of sports fans in some other countries, you can usually at least tell from their behaviour whether their team won or lost!
 

Imported to Japan from the United States in the late nineteenth century, baseball inspires a devoted following among the Japanese population and is considered a national sport. Baseball-loving visitors and residents in Kansai are in luck, with two major local teams to choose from. The Orix Buffaloes, with ballparks in Osaka and Kobe, provide a counterpoint to the glamour and excitement of the eternally popular Hanshin Tigers, based in Koshien, though the two teams don’t compete directly in regular league baseball; the Tigers play in the Central League, which they have won a handful of times, and the Buffaloes play in the Pacific League. Together these two leagues make up Nippon Hanshin profileProfessional Baseball, Japan’s highest level of baseball, with the winning teams from each league facing each other off in the Japan Series – the ultimate baseball title in Japan.
 

But don’t expect a Japanese baseball match to resemble a US Major League clash. Though the rules are similar, the smaller pitch, smaller ball, shorter batting swing and limit on match length make Japanese baseball less about power and more about speed. Despite this, some Japanese baseball players have successfully made the transition to Major League baseball – notably power pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa, who this season is back with the Hanshin Tigers after his three years in the US was blighted by an elbow injury. The now-retired Hideo Nomo of the Kintetsu Buffaloes was an early pioneer in transferring from Japanese to US baseball, playing for many American teams over the course of his career, while Ichiro Suzuki, now at the Miami Marlins but for many years a Seattle Mariners player, started out at the Orix BlueWave. (The Orix BlueWave merged with Kintetsu Buffaloes in 2005 to form the current Orix Buffaloes.) And this trans-Pacific movement works both ways, with players from the US and elsewhere featuring on the squads of Japanese teams; new to the Orix Buffaloes this season is Erik Cordier, who played the 2015 season with the Miami Marlins.
 

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Orix Buffaloes mascots. Image © Orix Buffaloes.

With the 2016 season about to get going, both Kansai teams are under new leadership and each face different challenges over the coming months. Former Hanshin Tigers star player Tomoaki Kanemoto may have earned the trust of his squad and the fans over his twenty-one-year career at the club, but does he have what it takes as a manager to lead the Tigers to victory over long-time Kanto rivals the Yomiuri Giants, who dominate the Central League? Heading up the Orix Buffaloes is Junichi Fukura, entering his first season in charge, but will the Buffaloes be able to rise above the 2015 misfortunes that saw them come in fifth out of the six teams in the Pacific League?
 

Though diehard fans will live and breathe baseball for the next half-year, celebrating and commiserating the ups and downs of the season with their team, it’s not all serious stuff. Food, drink, cheering and singing creates a buzzing atmosphere, making baseball games great entertainment. Fans join in enthusiastically with the songs and cheers – with a different cheer for every player there’s a lot to remember. And then at Hanshin Tigers games there’s the famous seventh-inning balloon release, when fans blow up long balloons and launch them into the air (much to the annoyance of both teams, who lose their concentration).
 

A baseball game in Japan is a spectacle worth seeing, even for baseball novices and sports sceptics. This relatively recent yet deep-rooted and iconic tradition can be seen as touching on more than just sport. The modern baseball game is a way of expressing regional identities and retravelling long-established geographical divisions through rivalries such as that of the Giants–Tigers. An important aspect of Japanese culture that’s a lot of fun to observe!
 

Tickets
If you can’t get to the team’s ballpark to buy tickets, check the team website (see profiles above and on page 7) or the Ticket Pia site (t.pia.jp). If you don’t read Japanese, try using a Google Chrome browser with Google Translate enabled. Otherwise, there are ticket machines in convenience stores, where friendly staff are usually willing to assist. Prices start from around ¥2,000 and vary depending on seating location.
 


By Life in Kansai


 

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Orix Buffaloes game. Image © Orix Buffaloes.

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Life in Kansai

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