C.J. Nitkowski pens a piece about interleague play in Japan for the AP. In Japan, the team with the best interleague record (all 12 teams play the same interleague schedule) gets a big cash prize.
(The photo is by Nitkowski via the AP)
Going into the final day of interleague play, there was a four-way tie for first place among two PL teams and two CL teams. My team, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, was tied with the Nippon Ham Fighters and the mighty Tigers and Giants.
Like so many other things here in Japan, the tiebreaker rules are quirky. Rather than head-to-head results or runs allowed, ties are decided by the previous year’s interleague play standings.
To make it more interesting, it just happened to be the Hawks were playing the Giants in the Tokyo Dome and the Fighters were playing the Tigers in historic Koshien Stadium. The way the tiebreaker situation was set up, we needed to win and also needed the Tigers to win.
Then we got the news: The Tigers had won 5-3.
Going into the ninth inning of our game, we were tied with the Giants 2-2. In true Japanese-style baseball, we squeezed out a run on two infield singles and two sacrifice bunts.
I got the call from the bullpen with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, trying to finish off the victory against a lefty pinch-hitter. Never in my life have I had to face one hitter for $500,000.
It was like something from halftime of the NBA finals or the Super Bowl—do what the pros do once and win a big prize.
Fortunately for me, on a 1-2 count, the hitter rolled over a cutter and grounded out to second base. The Hawks were interleague champs and to be honest, it was a lot more exciting than I expected it to be.
After all, it is only the middle of the season. But in front of a sold-out and extremely loud Tokyo Dome crowd (it’s like international soccer every night), it felt like the playoffs.
Midseason excitement is never a bad thing. And although it took them a while, Japanese baseball came up with a way to make interleague play not only interesting for the fans, but interesting for the players.
Hoisting up a trophy and a lottery winner’s-sized check for 50 million yen in front our approximately 10,000 cheering road fans in the Tokyo Dome was an absolute blast.
You’ll never hear me argue that Japanese baseball has a better product over MLB, they don’t. But I might give you an argument that they put on a better show.
Nitkowski mentions in the story that a CL team and a PL team merged two years ago. It was actually two PL teams, but he wasn't playing in Japan at the time.