Friday, March 28, 2008

"Hit it hard!"


Something momentous happened last week. No, not the revelation that Hillary Clinton can dodge bullets, but rather the historic clash between the world's two best baseball teams.

That's right, the Boston Red Sox took on Japan's Hanshin Tigers.

Sadly, the most important game of the season neither came during the World Series nor was it televised in the United States, mostly because I'm possibly one of seven people who found it meaningful.

While some small country was deforested for the sake of dedicating the necessary print to Boston's meteoric rise from perennial goat to pennant favorite, the Tigers, and Japanese baseball in general, has received less ink than Jonathan Papelbon's dance moves. Well, unless you count Tom Selleck's Oscar-worthy turn in Mr. Baseball.

However, moving from Boston to Japan, I felt an immediate affinity for the Tigers, as the similarities to my beloved Sox were too obvious to ignore.

Both have a diehard fan base, the majority of whom might actually be clinically psychotic. Both have villainous, well-funded arch-enemies in the form of the New York Yankees and Yomiuri Giants. And both have classic stadiums in Fenway and Koshien.

However, it was my first trip to the latter that truly made me appreciate the unique and often hilarious approach to our nation's pastime.

Just like stepping off the Green Line in Kenmore Square and heading past the Green Monster to Lansdowne Street, the approach to Koshien Stadium, which lies right between Kobe and Osaka, seethes with an excited anticipation. To put it less succinctly, it's the complete opposite of the atmosphere before entering any movie starring Ben Affleck.

But this is where the differences start appearing, and some wonderful differences they are.

While food, beverage and souvenir vendors surround both stadiums, only one of them offers heaping bowls of noodles and beers the size of small children. I just recommend you stay away from the fried octopus balls.

However, the hunt for the once-mighty buck, or yen in this case, has been tempered to a degree that not only can a family of four afford to buy tickets without having to sell any organs on eBay, but spectators are actually allowed to bring in food. And I don't mean sneaking a bag of peanuts in the waistband of your underpants. Instead, you can bring in an entire cooler chock full of sushi.


As remarkable as this may seem, it pales in comparison to what transpires during the game, and I'm not talking about on the field.

While Fenway's bleachers enjoy an infamous reputation for the decibel level resulting from rowdy intoxication, this is a mere whisper relative to the non-stop chanting that takes place whenever the Tigers are at the plate. Of course, as soon as the Tigers are back in the field, their fans sit quietly and nary a heckle is heard throughout the stadium.

Strategically positioned around the stadium are white-gloved maestros who conduct an impromptu performance that is at once both stirring and bewildering, as it seems kind of difficult to actually watch the game while trying not to forget the lyrics and coordinated hand gestures. I had trouble enough with the inspiring "katto basei," which roughly translates to "hit it hard."

Best of all, though, is the seventh-inning stretch, where "Take Me Out to the Ballpark" is replaced by "roketto fusen," a tradition that sees nearly every fan blowing up an abnormally long balloon and releasing it at the same time to create a colorful racket that likely would have sent Jimi Hendrix into stimulation overload.

So while I wasn't able to scrounge together the several million yen it would have cost to cross the Pacific to catch the recent game, I could at least relish in the fact that David "Big Papi San" Ortiz did indeed katto basei.

Jon Duval is a staff writer for the Idaho Mountain Express.

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