JBall: A Real Japanese Pennant Race

JBall A Real Japanese Pennant RaceIt was the middle of a heated pennant race, and there were only three games left in the season when we decided take in a Japanese baseball game. We boarded the train to the Tokyo Dome (aka The Big Egg) with no tickets and no plan. The trip to the stadium itself was more complex than usual. A half a dozen transfers later, we arrived at the Big Egg and were immediately engulfed by a seemingly endless sea of baseball fanatics. We had no choice but to follow the crowd and hope we were headed in the right direction.

We arrive at the box office just 10 minutes before game time and attempted to buy tickets. It was all the attendant could do to keep from laughing at us. SOLD OUT! Of course! What were we thinking?!

We’re from Los Angeles, what do we know about locals supporting their home team?

Dejected, we found what must have been the only isolated spot outside of the Tokyo Dome and sat outside admiring the extremely cool neon sign and wondering where we’d gone wrong. It was our last night in Tokyo and we had lost all hope of actually seeing a Japanese baseball game. In a matter of minutes the sea of fans vanished into the stadium and the steps just outside the stadium were almost entirely abandoned. At that point it was just us and the scalpers.

SCALPERS! It suddenly dawned on us. Japanese Scalpers! We might have been naive about purchasing tickets in advance, but there was still some hope for us.

Of course the prospect of dealing with Japanese scalpers was less than promising. Three weeks of Power Japanesedoes not prepare someone to negotiate black market transactions outside the Tokyo Dome (it barely prepared us to negotiate the subway system). Deficiencies in the language notwithstanding, we quickly developed a strategy. Well, in reality, I decided we should wait. It was obvious who the scalpers were and their potential market was shrinking by the minute. We’d just sit on the steps outside the Tokyo Dome, take in the perfect view, and see what happened.

About ten minutes later we heard something that vaguely resembled a national anthem. The game was about to start and almost no one was left outside the stadium. This was our signal to move in on the scalpers. Surely they would be desperate to unload any tickets they had left.

Japanese Scalpers

There was just one problem. A serious language barrier prevented us from initiating the transaction. It isn’t until you face a situation like this that you realize there is no international sign for ticket scalping. After a few false starts we managed to attract a small group of scalpers who understood that we were interested in purchasing tickets to the game. At this point they actually outnumbered us.

First they offered us seats behind home plate. A mere 25,000 yen each! That’s about $250 for a baseball game! At this point it was clear that they were somehow under the misimpression that we were wealthy Americans. I quickly made the international sign for “we have no money” and they began to lower their expectations. The next offer was a bit better, but not much. 5,000 Yen for seats in some undisclosed area of the park. That’s still $50 per seat. Not only is it a lot of money for a baseball game, it’s actually more cash than we had between us.

I quickly lowered the scalpers’ expectations even more by pulling change out of my pocket and counting it carefully (mostly single yen pieces – practically worthless in Japan . . . or any other country for that matter). At that point the scalpers figured me for a total loss and began to scatter.

It didn’t take long for them to realize that the game had already begun and their options were limited. I then pulled out my wallet and showed a few thousand yen notes. Suddenly we were back in business again. I emphasized that I had more American money than Yen. I showed them a twenty dollar bill. They all shook their heads knowingly. This was something they seemed to understand.

Ultimately they sold us a pair of seats in right field at face value (2,000 Yen each – a little less than $20, a bargain in Tokyo). We were in our seats before the top of the first inning was over. In fact, there was only one out — although there were three runs. Apparently we missed some serious Japanese baseball action during our negotiations. Not much however, because in Japan most of the action at baseball games is in the cheering section. And our seats were right in the middle of the home team’s cheering section. If you’re ever in this situation, be forewarned, these people are serious about baseball and cheering (not necessarily in that order)! Every one of the approximately 2,000 people in the cheering section had a loud noise-making device; some of them had multiple devices. And believe me when I say they did not hesitate to use them (although they did so in an orderly and polite manner).

That’s OK, Try Again!

The cheering section was lead by a band of long hairs in orange and black yutaka with the Yomiuri Giants mascot (a large, goofy rabbit) on the back. They had some very elaborate cheers that everyone seemed to know by heart (except us). Our favorite was repeated whenever a Giants batter swung and missed. It sounded something like “That’s OK, try again!”.

There was also a horn section. Lots of trumpets. Real trumpets, not toys. Real trumpets blaring what sounded like cartoon theme music from the 1940’s. And drums! Big bass drums. More chanting and flag waving. And all of this racket never stops. My ears are still ringing. We were literally in the middle of all of this.

The rest of the crowd outside of the cheering section was surprisingly sedate. It’s almost as if the cheering section is the only area authorized to make any noise. Or perhaps they were making noise, but I was temporarily deafened by the noise around me.

The excitement of the cheering section is fueled by a group of very happy young Japanese women with kegs of beer strapped to their backs. They race up and down the aisles desperately trying to make eye contact with the crowd. If you look at them, they smile and hold up a beer glass. Actually, what they really do is more along the lines of a model displaying a new automobile. Their every action seems to say, “this irresistible beer could be yours”. Simply nod your head, and they’re at your seat pouring a fresh draft beer, right from the keg mounted on their back. American Baseball could learn a lot from the Japanese.

This all seemed strangely dangerous. At least for the traveling American.

Ultimately, the Yomiuri Giants lost the game (and the pennant race, and the title, but that’s another story entirely and will be written when some great Japanese sports writer writes the complete history of Japanese baseball — sign me up for the first copy please). By this time, we were such diehard Giants fans that we were shouting nasty comments about the umpire’s eyesight. We are not gracious losers.

Oh sure, there are more glamorous things to do in Tokyo. But my point is this: don’t pass up a chance to see a Japanese baseball game. You’ll witness a part of Japanese culture that isn’t readily apparent in any other public venue (except maybe at a Sumo match). And if you don’t have tickets, don’t let that stop you. Negotiating with those scalpers is at least half the fun.