2016 has been a big year for baseball-related traveling for me. In March, I attended Mariners Spring Training in Peoria for the first time and got to lurk hard on the practice fields. This weekend I'll be in Cooperstown, NY, to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame for the first time and see Ken Griffey, Jr's induction. But first, I’d like to reflect on my visit to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame back in June during a whirlwind two-week work trip to China and Japan.
My knowledge of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) is fairly entry-level and has been filtered and informed by the handful of Japanese players that have broken into MLB over the years. As a huge Ichiro, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Dae-Ho Lee fan, I did as much research on NPB teams as I could before I left. Quick fun fact: NPB team names go “city name, corporate sponsor, team name,” so the Mariners would be the Seattle Amazon.com Mariners or something like that. But, it’s common to drop the city name, which can lead to some confusion when you start trying to find the city of Lotte or Nippon Ham on the map (by the way, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters have the best name in NPB, no contest)
We had time in our trip schedule to attend part of a game at the Tokyo Dome featuring the Chiba Lotte Marines versus the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants. Walking into the stadium was a mesmerizing experience. It was at once familiar and completely foreign. It was familiar because it’s the game I know and love and it’s in a place that was eerily reminiscent of the King Dome, but it was totally different because you are instantly inundated by sound when you walk in. The crowd does chants and sings songs during every pitch like you’d experience at a soccer game. They bring trumpets, horns, whistles, thundersticks, banners, and flags. The visiting team has their own section of 300-400 strong that’s chanting nearly as loud as the 20,000 home team fans. You can buy everything from fried octopus dumplings (takoyaki) to premixed mojitos and boozy sodas. And it’s not like all of this distracts from the game. The crowd is living and dying with every pitch. Japanese baseball fans found a way to make the game experience more engaging and lively without detracting from or denigrating the integrity of the game on the field. It’s like a civilized and sanctioned way to yell and vent in unison during a baseball game with thousands of your closest friends.
When I was doing research, I came across the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, located within the Tokyo Dome. How convenient! Hit up two Hall of Fames in one year? Sure, why not?
The history of baseball in Japan began earlier than most Americans would commonly assume. The game was introduced by Horace Wilson, a professor at Kaisei Gakko (now Tokyo University). The first professional team was founded in 1920 and the NPB as it exists today started in 1950. The Hall of Fame moved into its current facility in 1988. It definitely feels like an 80’s building, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I found many buildings in Japan that were clearly from that era to be so well constructed and taken care of that they seemed much more charming and avant-garde than most American buildings constructed in the 80’s. The Museum is fairly small, but you can easily spend a few hours there if you're a big baseball nerd like me.
When you walk downstairs into the museum, you are immediately greeted by a display from my guy, Ichiro Suzuki. Ichiro fever seems to be back on the upswing in Japan since he recently topped Pete Rose’s career hits record and is rapidly approaching 3,000 hits in MLB alone. I’m not sure where I stand on the validity of NPB hits versus MLB hits, but they are both incredible accomplishments regardless. I had the chance to converse with a few Tokyo locals while I was in Japan and they all spoke of Ichiro in hushed tones of awe and supreme respect. He is an unassailable hero in Japan and a huge point of national pride.
The bulk of the museum is dedicated to the history of NPB, starting off with all the uniforms from all the current teams and then going through the decades with an impressive assortment of equipment, memorabilia, and jerseys. Sadahura Oh (he of 868 career home runs!) is prominently featured throughout.
Then there is the actual Hall itself, featuring the busts of 192 players, managers, and front office executives. It’s an inspiring and impressive sight, beholding the history of a game that exists apart from the one I know and love, yet boasts such incredible talent and dedication. The most recent inductees to have also crossed over to MLB are Hideo Nomo and the former Mariners All Star closer, Kazahiro Sasaki. I can only imagine the fanfare that will ensue when Ichiro is inducted in the Hall, that is, if he ever decides to retire.
Beyond the Hall, there is a library full of Japanese baseball resources, a delightfully outdated “interactive” batting cage, and a viewing area playing the 2015 Japan Championship Series featuring my dude Dae-Ho Lee (series MVP!) on the eventual winning team, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.
I had one more baseball related stop while I was in Tokyo. I made my way to Selection Sports where they had a huge stock of MLB and NPB gear, as well as their own little shrine to Ichiro. One thing I found curious about Japanese baseball culture is that there isn’t really any “throwback” aspect to their merchandise. There’s no Japanese version of Mitchell & Ness. All their team merchandise is very streamlined and current. So that’s an interesting wrinkle to their fan culture, whether it’s intentional or not. I was looking high and low for any Orix Blue Wave Ichiro gear, but it proved very elusive.
I had intended to see more games while in Japan, but was constrained both by time and by the NPB midseason break. All the more reason to hopefully return someday with family, buy a rail pass, and go all over Japan watching baseball and learning more about the culture.