My 8-day sojourn to Japan was capped off Sunday by going to see one of the last regular season games of the year in the Central League over at Meiji Jingu Stadium in Tokyo where the home team Tokyo Yakult Swallows hosted the Yomiuri Giants. It was the last game of the year for the Giants and the next to last for the Swallows.
Normally, a game involving the Giants would be sold out, but this year, after a hot start, the Giants finished in fourth place and came in to the game with a 65-78-2 record. The Swallows were in third at 69-72-3. The Chunichi Dragons of Nagoya had already clinched the pennant as the Central League didn't have any playoffs this year.
It was a cool and breezy night in Tokyo and at Meiji Jingu the wind was blowing straight in from center field at a good clip so I had a feeling that if anyone was going to hit a home run this night, it would have to be someone like Ryan Howard. And Howard wasn't there.
The Swallows ended up winning the game 2-0 although the field was littered with baserunners all game. The Giants stranded 11 runners and the Swallows left 12. The Giants were never retired in order and the Swallows went down in order just once and left the bases loaded twice.
Yakult (probably the only professional sports team in the world with an Esperanto name), scored in the second when first baseman Adam Riggs doubled and came around to score on a single by right field Ryjui Miyade. The Swallows picked up an unearned run in the eighth when a two-out throwing error by Giants shortstop Tomohiro Nioka extended the inning and center fielder Norichika Aoki blooped a single into left to score an insurance run.
Swallows starting pitcher Ryo Kawashima struck out 10 in seven innings of work to get the win and Shohei Tateyama picked up the save.
Yakult's player-manager Astuya Furuta gave a couple of his old stars curtain calls. Veteran second baseman (37 years old) Katsuyuki Dobashi got a start and singled in his third at bat. Furuta sent him out to his position in the top of the sixth and then replaced him to the wild cheers of the Yakult fans. Dobashi broke in with the Swallows back in 1987 and he ended his 20-year career with a hit.
Another big cheer came in the top of the ninth when Futoshi Yamabe came in (along with Furuta) and got a strikeout to start the ninth. Furuta then pulled him in favor of Tateyama and the crowd gave Yamabe a cheer as if they knew he wasn't coming back. He's 35 years old and was the team's #1 pick back in 1994 and is also retiring.
And so here I am in the Northwest Airlines lounge typing away, waiting to wing my way back to the US. No longer will the LCS games come on TV at 9 am. Back to the weird 5:05 starts.
I know that for a lot of people a trip to Japan seems quite intimidating. The language barrier seems impenetrable and the prices are supposed to be astronomical. Well, the language barrier can be passed if you just try to learn to say "please" and "excuse me" and smile and be polite. The average Japanese person will go out of their way to help you find your way to where you're going. And the prices aren't all that outrageous if you know where to go. You can buy meals in Japan for a similar price as you would in the US as long as you go to the right places. Or if you want, you can go to McDonald's. It's basically the same thing as it is in the US although my Filet O' Fish had shrimp in it.
One good thing about Japan is that it is a very safe place to visit (provided the North Koreans don't lob a nuke in.) And by all means you have to go see a baseball game. It's an experience you won't forget. Even a fairly dreary game between two teams playing out the string had a lively crowd. You may see a scoreboard filled with Japanese, but once the game starts, it's baseball. It's still a pitcher versus a hitter. It's the game people in the U.S. know and love and it's the game people in Japan know and love.
And the most unforgettable experience for me on this trip was my good fortune of seeing the Pacific League playoff series. In the two games, there were three complete games by pitchers. No team had an extra base hit in either game. It was almost as if I had stepped back in to the Deadball Era except I was in a domed stadium with artificial turf. And in the final game, the last play still seems to exist now in my memory in slow motion. The grounder up the middle smothered by the second baseman. The throw to the shortstop in a desperate attempt for a force out. The umpire calling safe while the runner on second steamed home and realized that once he touched home, his team had won the pennant. It happened so fast, yet it know seems to be replayed in my head slowly.
I can only hope that there will still be a playoff game in the US that will match what I saw in Sapporo for excitement. I will check in on Monday night.