Saturday, July 30, 2011

Upper Montclair

On… The Jackals

Yogi Berra Stadium
Yogi Berra Stadium, 2011

Saturday, July 30, 2011
Yogi Berra Stadium
Can-Am League
Upper Montclair, New Jersey
6:45 PM


Outside of the Game:
I had been home from Japan for nearly a month, I didn’t have another ticket purchased for a game until August, and I was getting itchy for baseball. I also realized that while I had to gone to see every pro team in Japan, I had not yet seen every team in my state. So I started doing research to get together every active professional team in New Jersey.

I wasn’t feeling too ambitious this particular weekend, so I decided to go see the New Jersey Jackals in nearby Upper Montclair, New Jersey. I had visited them a couple of times years ago when they first opened their doors, but I hadn’t been back since I started my baseball trips.

The game was at 6:35 PM, so I planned to get there about two hours early to visit the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center, which was located behind home plate and had just undergone a renovation of its own. It was a quick drive from Hoboken in the middle Saturday afternoon, but once I got there, I was surprised by a game already in progress.

Some quick inquiries later, I discovered that because of a rainout on Friday the night before, they were playing a double-header today, and the first game was the one currently underway. Not wanting to try and keep track of a game half over, I bought my ticket for the double-header and kept to the plan to go visit the museum before going in for the second game.

The Yogi Berra Museum had just re-opened this summer after renovations over the winter. A busload of tourists was visiting, packing the place beyond what I would assume its normal pre-game crowd to be. I had been in the museum years ago when I visited the Jackals last, and the place really had gotten quite a facelift. A new theater showed a continuous loop about Yankee Stadium, and the theater itself was dressed in stadium bunting with World Series pennants from all the times Yogi participated, as well as a faux scoreboard. The main exhibits about Yogi’s life before, during, and after his baseball career were now in a hall also designed to resemble the old Yankee Stadium. In the back of the museum remained the entrance to the “luxury box” that looks over the right field of the park. After visiting for a while, it was time to go to the second game, so I made my way outside and down into the stadium.
After the game, I didn’t stick around for the fireworks display, so I made my way out as the winners for the tennis ball toss were announced. As I weaved my way out to the main roads, the fireworks rocked the night sky behind me. It was early enough that traffic into the City wasn’t that bad, and I had a quick and uneventful ride back to Hoboken.


The Stadium & Fans:

Home to center, Yogi Berra Stadium
Home plate to center field, Yogi Berra Stadium

Yogi Berra Stadium is an A-AA level park located in the back of the Montclair State University campus, affiliated with the independent Can-Am League. The entrance, right next door to the Yogi Berra Museum, is above the stadium proper, and visitors have to climb down one set of stairs to get to the promenade that wraps around the top of the seating bowl, and then down one or two more flights of stairs to get to their seats, depending how close they are sitting to the field.

The various concessions, merchandize stores, and party areas all line the main promenade. As with many low minors stadiums, there are no outfield bleachers, but there is bleacher seating along the baselines, and a combo kids/picnic area out in right field that is a popular running-around destination during the game.

While the afternoon make-up game was sparsely populated at best, the regularly scheduled evening game was about 2/3rds filled to capacity with families looking for some cheap summer fun and fireworks. They were as into the game as possible, as action bereft as it was. The Jackals ran the regular minor-league events between innings, with the dance contests, birthday announcements, bat spin races, and various and sundry events and abuse involving the mascot, the unimaginatively named Jack the Jackal.
Two after-game events were a tennis ball toss, where you buy a numbered tennis ball for $1 and then try to throw the ball from the stands into various hula hoops labeled with different prizes on the field, with the best prizes the furthest from the stands. If your ball stays in the hoop, you win the prize. After that was the obligatory weekend fireworks display that is always a big hit with families for some reason.

The stadium MC had an annoying habit of doing a dramatic pause before saying the name of the team, which prompted the title for this entry. It was clearly on purpose, and I seem to remember them doing this years ago as well, and frankly, it was still just as annoying. A representative example was along the lines of, “And after the game, be sure to stay in your seats for our fireworks spectacular, brought to you by… the Jackals.”

I visited on a special night, as the Jackals were retiring the number of one of their players in a modest ceremony between the games. After the marketing folks set up a podium and several folding chairs, the MC introduced several Jackals luminaries, both present and past. The Jackals had already retired two numbers: the stadium namesake Yogi Berra and another former player, who was also in attendance.

The event was quite interesting in giving the scope of the indie ball experience. Six years is not what you’d call a long career in the majors, but it was one of the longest on the Jackals, where anyone good enough eventually gets another shot back at the majors or gives up and has to get a “real” job out of frustration or necessity, and it takes an exact certain level of sort-of good to have a longish career in the indie leagues. And Zack Smithlin was just that sort-of good. He ended up on the Jackals after getting cut loose by the Cardinals system, and his excellent performance on the Jackals got him another invite to the Padres camp, where he was once again unable to figure out major-league level pitching, even in the minors.
After testimonials from former and current managers and players, the man of the hour laid out his history in very plain, real terms, but clearly loved what he did for so long, even if it meant that he was still struggling to make his rent this month. It was a very genuine thing, and more “Bull Durham” than “Bull Durham” ever was. His retired number was revealed from under a tarp on the left field wall, and the grass on both baselines had his name and number spray painted on for the occasion.


At the Game with Oogie:

Scoring
Indie scoring

Leaving my fate to the Montclair student in the ticket booth, she put me in a seat in the first row behind the Jackals dugout. This left me at front-row center for many of the between-inning minor-league games that usually happen in front of the home dugout or on the top of said dugout. The home dugout at Yogi Berra Field is untraditionally on the third base side, and why becomes readily apparent on hazy days such as this, as the third-base dugout is mercifully out of the sun and under the protection of some shade trees behind the promenade, while the first base dugout might as well be directly on the surface of the sun.

There were a group of four or five teenage boys sitting in my row with an unofficial upgrade who got bounced two or three times when the actual seat-holders showed up. Two or three families were arrayed around me, including a grandpa with his grandchildren sitting right behind me. He spent most of the game talking to his grandkids about the game and baseball in general, or prompting his wife to help him remember something.


The Game:

First pitch, Patriots vs. Jackals
First pitch, Patriots vs. Jackals

Things were weird for this one from the start. Since this had become a double-header, it used a common minor-league rule for double-headers: both games would only be seven innings. This makes sense in the minors when you don’t want to over-tax developing talent, and in the indie leagues, where the rosters just aren’t extensive enough to support swapping out most of the players in a late second game.

Although I believe heartily that the pace of modern baseball has slowed down far too much, I’ve never understood people who complain about individual games going too long. While there has been some times on my trips where time constraints and travel situations make me hope a game doesn’t last five hours, nearly every long game that I’ve been to has been worth every last second I’ve invested in it.

I mention this because even considering that this was only a seven-inning game, it went by in a blink. It was about 1:45 start to finish, and even if it had gone regulation, it would likely have been under two hours. Perhaps both teams were completely tuckered out after playing the makeup game in a blazing afternoon with next to no one in the stands; the offences were both anemic.

While the Colonials went down in order in the first and managed only a weak, two-out single in the second, the Jackals showed some early life. The leadoff batter got plunked on the first pitch and went to third on a one-out single. A two-out walk loaded the bases, but a weak ground-out to second ended the opportunity. A one-out single and walk in the second got two on the basepaths, but two more outs quickly followed. The Colonials had their best opportunity in the third when a two-out walk and a blown pick-off throw got a runner to third before a grounder to short closed the inning.

After that, the Colonials went in order for the rest of the game. And the Jackals didn’t manage much better against the Colonial’s new pitcher who came in for the bottom of the third. The bottom of the third started with a walk, and then the Jackals, too, went in order until the bottom of the sixth. Perhaps it was because it was the second time through the order, but the Jackals seemed to finally solve the Pittsfield pitcher. A hard single to left had a baserunner making only a brief stop before he was blasted home by a line-drive homer to right-center, finally scoring some runs. The next two outs were hard-hit flies that barely stayed in the park, before a strikeout ended it.

The Jackals “won” the nightcap, 2-0.


The Scorecard:

Patriots vs. Jackals, 07-30-11. Jackals win, 2-0. Patriots vs. Jackals, 07-30-11. Jackals win, 2-0.
Patriots vs. Jackals, 07/30/11. Jackals win, 2-0. 

The Jackals don’t sell a scorecard as part of their $2 program, or even at all anymore, although they did many moons ago when I first went to the park. On a side note, however, they do sell a scorecard book in their team store, which is some kind of first. As I’m more and more noticing, there is the dedicated batch of scorekeepers in the handicapped seating at independent parks, not because they needed the seats, but because they offer the most felicitous place to keep score. Most of them come with their own devices, so maybe selling scorecards isn’t a going concern anymore at these parks. It wouldn’t surprise me.

At any rate, as per usual these days, I had the Eephus League Official Scorebook with me, and since the Can-Am uses the DH, I was feeling on comfortable ground, space-wise.

As we’ve seen, I needn’t have worried. The 7-inning pitcher’s fest went by at a sprint, and the only scorekeeping of note happened in the bottom of the fifth. It seems that the Jackals started to worry about wasting the pitching performance of their starter and were going to do anything to jump-start their own lagging offense. They started the inning with two attempts at bunt singles, which I’ve never seen before. Both were failures: the first was fielded cleanly by the third baseman and the second was picked awkwardly by the first baseman, who had to make a diving tag to get the runner. They were appended “b” and “bt” respectively in the scorecard.


The Accommodations:
Just Hoboken


2011 Stand-Alone Trip

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Hiroshima

On the Anti-Disneyland


Atomic Bomb Dome
The Atomic Bomb Dome


Friday, July 1, 2011
Hiroshima, Japan

Outside of the Game:
This was another travel day for me, as I had to get my butt all the way down to the other end of the island and Hiroshima for my final game of the trip the next day. I had not one flight, but two to get, and even though I had been assuredly baffled by the previous flight experience, my first flight this day was going to be leaving during rush hour to the busiest hub on the island, so I wanted to give myself time, just in case the first experience was a fluke later in the day.

Flight to Tokyo
Flight to Tokyo

I got to the airport, and it was no fluke. Once again, there was a bevy of counter people and no lines to speak of. I went up to the counter and did my check-in in under five minutes. I had stripped down everything not clothes from my big carry-on, so now it would meet the regulations. I trusted Japan, I did, but as soon as that bag leaves your sight, any manner of things can happen to it, especially with a connecting flight. She had me put my bag in the measuring device, saw that it fit, thanked me, and gave me my boarding pass.

I went to security again for the non-existent line. Used to the spiel by now, I scanned my boarding pass, put my bags on the belt and went on through. On the other side, the officer pantomimed for me to wait, and so I stood there trying to look as non-threatening as possible. Another attendant came out with a tape measure and took the specifications of my bag, put a blue “approved” tag on it, and apologized for taking up my time. Trying to pick up the pieces of my mind, I grabbed my bags and went in search of something to eat. Did she really just apologize?

I had some breakfast at one of the food court things, and then went to wait for my flight. If I had really wanted, I could have showed up about fifteen minutes before my flight and everything would have been fine. I also saw a liquid scanner that they had at the security points I hadn't noticed before. No stupid rules about no unopened liquids or anything like that. If you have a bottle of water or whatnot, they take it, put it in the bottle-shaped slot and hit a button. If the result (which is nearly instantaneous) is a green light, they give you the bottle back. Can absolutely anyone explain to me why we don't have these machines in America, but we do have X-ray body scanners that are causing cancer groupings in deserving TSA workers?

So it goes.

The flight experience was nearly identical to the one from two days prior. When my first flight of the day landed, I got shunted off into a transfer area that allowed re-entry into the other terminal gates. I gave my ticket stub, it was scanned, and it gave me a gate change and entry to the transfer area. I found my second flight, got a drink, and participated in other amazingly painless boarding and flight experience that actually made me tangibly angry when I thought about what we had to go through in America to do the same thing.

Narita domestic terminal
Narita domestic terminal

Nonetheless, I eventually got dumped off on-time at Hiroshima airport, and not surprisingly, there was a convenient JR express train to take me to the downtown station. Once again, I had a hotel right down the street from the train station, so a short walk later, I was all checked in, dumped off my bags, and went out to see the sights.

Hiroshima trolleys
Hiroshima trolleys

And in Hiroshima, there is one that is inescapable and synonymous. Unlike most other Japanese cities, Hiroshima has a streetcar system instead of a subway, and I had to navigate a tricky underground passage to get on the right side of the train station to catch them. A nice little ride later dropped me at the Atomic Bomb Dome station.

You really can’t help but get philosophical at moments such as these. You read about things; you objectively know things; but to be confronted with them in person is an entirely other thing.

The Atomic Bomb Dome is one of the only buildings by the hypocenter of the atomic bomb attack that survived more or less intact. A combination of solid cement construction and a metal roof allowed it to exist after the bomb went off. Everyone inside was vaporized, of course, but that’s probably to be expected.

It was something to be confronted. I’m not sure what it was about it, but it dared you not to be contemplative about the situation. You just thought about it. And the thoughts weren’t what you’d call happy ones. But it was just beautiful in its own way.

A small cemetery that survived the blast and the marker for the location in the air of the hypocenter of the explosion are nearby, and across the river is Peace Memorial Park. This was an entertainment district before the bombing that was utterly leveled, and after the war, turned into a memorial area. The area is dotted with various monuments to the different groups of fallen, with the main memorial being a peace flame by the memorial cenotaph that looks out to the A-Bomb Dome.

Just behind it is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, and never have I been so sad that an audio tour was available as here. Because the museum is just utterly overwhelming to begin with, and the added commentary and descriptions just made it soul-crushing.

The Sword of Damocles
Sword of Damocles

The museum deals with the bombing and its aftermath, and it was so unremittingly grim just by relating the facts of the event. The historical background on the lead-up to the attack was pleasantly even-handed. It did not absolve Japan of any guilt in the lead-up, although through carefully contexted American documents, it showed that the attack itself was not an absolute military necessity and may have been a play against the post-war Soviets as much as the Japanese.

The museum was just a spiral down into deeper hells, as it started with details of the attack itself and then further into the aftermath, both short and long term. It was just a pathos bomb of unbelievable described horrors and unimaginable situations. You can keep it together yourself, perhaps, when hearing a mother mad with grief because she survived the attack because her infant son on her back shielded her from the worst affects of the blast, but when an elderly Korean visitor breaks down crying in the middle of the exhibit hall, you just need a little time out.

Perhaps most depressing was that there was no happy ending to any of these stories. The victims (who universally describe the incommunicable experience as “meeting the bomb”) who seemingly escaped with minor injuries or unharmed were the most likely to develop the secret hells of leukemia or other genetic horrors later on. Everyone who met the bomb lived and lives with the uncertainty that some hidden aftereffect will pick that day to manifest. Because, at its core, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were also mankind’s first experiments at mass radiation exposure on populations. The exhibit describing these effects was perhaps the hardest to get through.

Just to cap off the experience, a last hall talks about how much worse it would be if any of the modern nuclear weapons were used, and potential effects of that. For some reason, the mayor of Hiroshima sends a letter of protest to the responsible power ever time there is a nuclear test somewhere in the world. In the face of this unrelenting despair, the only minor amusement was the clear point of pride noting that street car service was restored in certain parts of the city three days after the attack.

I blundered out into the fading day just about as depressed and low on the concept of humanity as I’d been in a very long time. At this point, I noticed a young boy playing in the park when some of the local feral cats ran into the area, scaring the boy so much he just stood stock still. His slightly older sister called after him multiple times, and when he declined to move at all, she walked over, picked up his mannequin form, and dragged him awkwardly back over to his parents. This critical infusion of adorable helped snap me out of it.

I wandered the park for a little more, visiting the various monuments, before heading back north over the river. I was also right near the remains of Hiroshima Municipal Stadium, the former home of the Hiroshima Carp that was in the process of being demolished now that the shiny new Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium was in full swing.

Hiroshima Municipal Stadium
Nature reclaims

Much of the park was blocked off by construction barriers, but I was able to walk around the façade that was slowly being reclaimed by the decorative topiary that was no longer being meticulously groomed. Looking for a way to look into the remains of the stadium, I went to a shopping center across the street and managed to make my way out onto a bus station landing to get one or two decent shots into the seating bowl. Curious bus workers followed my actions closely, but didn’t prevent me from doing anything as long as I stayed safe and out of their way.

After this, I headed back to the hotel to wash up. For the second night in a row, I was able to see a game played from my window, as the evening’s contest at Mazda Zoom-Zoom stadium was visible (though father away) from my hotel window.

Feeling particularly warn out, I was only looking to get some dinner and hit the sack. I went out to a restaurant complex just across the street from the train station to get a savory pancake dinner, and headed back to the hotel just as the game let out and disappointed Carp fans were flooding the station area on their way back home or to further Friday-night frolicking.

The Accommodations:

Hotel Urbain Executive
Hotel Urbain Executive

I was staying at another business hotel down the street from the station in Hiroshima. One of the only positive residuals from the events of the spring (which went nearly completely unmentioned in the local media and was only in evidence at all in the energy saving measures that were advertised everywhere) was that I was able to get excellent rates on higher-end hotels convenient to where I was going.

The Hotel Urbain Executive Hiroshima had some interesting architectural elements. As with most Japanese hotels, it was built on an oddly-shaped small footprint, but the hotel’s center atrium well was opened to the sky. From the top floors (where I stayed), you could look unobstructed up to the sky and down into the lobby.

My room was a Japanese-style business room, on the small side by Western standards, but quite comfortable. This room had several interesting features, including a vanity sink worked into the desk by the bed, and instead of the standard “control panel” on the headboard of the bed, there was a “control alcove” to the side of it, with light controls and a convenient place to drop glasses and such. Instead of the expected yukata, the hotel provided full-on, two-piece pajamas for guests.

The hotel offered free laundry machines, and, especially key, was a free drinks station open to guests in the lobby. This helped save some money instead of buying liquids during my stay.


On Not Getting Everything

Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium
Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium, 2011

Saturday, July 2, 2011
Tokyo Yakult Swallows vs. Hiroshima Toyo Carp
Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium
Central League, Nippon Professional Baseball
14:00
Hiroshima, Japan

Outside of the Game:
This was the first day where I really had to drag myself out of bed. I had slept a long while and was perfectly content to sleep a bunch more. I didn't even make it out of bed before I was flipping through the channels on the TV to find a simulcast of the Yankees-Metropolitans game that was doing little to convince me to get out of bed.

Subway Series
An ocean away

But there was an afternoon game calling that would be the culmination of this project, and I finally managed to peel myself out of bed, get cleaned up, and go down to the breakfast buffet.

Suitably fortified, I took the tram back out to the Bomb Dome station to check in with the tourist information center there about night cruises to Miyajima. A helpful attendant gave me absolutely everything I needed (maps, schedules, costs, etc) in less than two minutes and sent me merrily on my way.

I had a little time before going back for the game, so I went to the National Peace Memorial Hall to the Atomic Bomb Victims to get depressed again. This museum was focused more on the people than the event – the known casualties and the survivors. It was another somber affair, but desperately interesting nevertheless. The first section was dedicated to the identified dead, while the second was first-person accounts of survivors. It was just harrowing, harrowing stuff, but you couldn't stop reading or listening.

National Peace Memorial
National Peace Memorial

Once again morbid, I was rescued outside this time by a small girl gleefully chasing birds around. I had to wonder at this point if the city fathers didn't constantly stage adorable things outside the exits to those museums for just such a purpose. Given everything else with the state of planning in Japan, I doubt it would surprise me were it to be true.

I spent a little more time in Peace Memorial Park to see all the memorials I had missed before heading back for the game. I switched out kits, and then walked back to the stadium from the hotel.

After the game, I had just planned to go back to the hotel, dump off the baseball bag and go out again, but seeing as I was drenched in sweat and perhaps about to die, I decided to take a quick shower before heading out again for my good as well as the good of all those around me.

I took a tram out to the JR Train station, and then boarded the train out to the dock for Miyajima. Once at the dock, I realized that I read the schedule incorrectly, and it was a half-hour until the next 10-minute ferry to the island, While there was still one more boat tour of the island that night, and I could technically get the last ferry off the island and the last train back to town if I went, I wasn't feeling particularly lucky that night, so I just decided to take the next ferry over, see what I could see, and then take the next-to-last ferry back, as well as the penultimate train. With a half-hour to kill, I jumped into one of the many tourist restaurants by the pier for a quick dinner, and then came back for the ferry.

Miyajima at night was an interesting thing. It is primarily a tourist attraction, and nearly all of the restaurants and shops to serve them were closed at this hour of the night. Besides a few that were holding what appeared to be special dinners and events, it was all closed up. In this eerie quiet, I made my way out to the temple.

It was at this point I met my first deer. I had vaguely remembered reading something of tame deer being all over this island, but I hadn't thought of it again until one actually walked into me, and then clearly gave me a “watch where you're going” look. This was a deer not only unafraid of people, but also a little annoyed by the stupid ones.

Tame Deer
Tame deer

This was my first encounter, but not the last. The island was lousy with deer, and I couldn't go more than a block without seeing some of them. Most of them just sort of sat there doing deer things and didn't pay any attention to me when it was clear I didn't have any treats for them. So it goes.

I made it out to the torri gate, which is the second-most photographed place in Japan or some such. The base of the temple gate is underwater during high tide because normal folk were not allowed to approach the temple on foot and had to take boats in through the gate. Such restrictions have been relaxed in modern times, but the floating gate remains a powerful tourist attraction. However, most people come during low tides, when the gate is not majestically and perhaps magically floating on the water, but merely standing rather pedestrian in a mud flat.

Generational
Generational

I went out and took my pictures, as I've been trying to work on my night photography. After much cursing (which I endeavored to do in Italian as much as possible to avoid offense, as the rapper in Tokyo showed that English curses were largely universal) and as many attempts as the ferry schedule permitted, I made what shots I could and then headed back to the dock to catch the boat to the mainland. A quick train ride took me back to the station, and I walked back to the hotel and quickly collapsed into unconsciousness.

The Stadium & Fans:

Home to center, Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium
Home plate to center field at Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium

The unfortunately named Mazda ZOOM-ZOOM Stadium opened two years ago to replace the aging Metropolitan Stadium just across from the Atomic Bomb Dome. The new facility was right by the main JR Station, and subsequently right by my hotel, which made it an easy walk.

Mazda Stadium is a two-decked ringed stadium, with a central promenade level ringing the entire structure. From the train station road, there is a large ramp walkway leading up to one of the main entrances directly on the promenade, and a lower-deck entrance by the main facade leading to stairs up to the same. There are a few “dugout” seating areas behind home plate and the by the player dugouts that are eye-level with the field but with the seats below field level, as it were.

There are upper-deck areas behind home plate and in left and right fields, all raised and separate from the main seating bowl and the other upper deck areas. The one in left is the de facto rooting area for the visiting team, while the one in right was the rooting area for the home team. The center field walkway has a bamboo-covered concession area, right next to a fake outfield wall with two Carp player statues making imaginary catches on it.

Mascots
Punching the clock

The stadium had more “Western”-style concession stands, with a repeating pattern of concession stands at orderly intervals along the promenade walkway. There was even a team store located by the main entrance that was popular not only for the gifts it enclosed, but also a misting fan located at one of the entrances that was getting heavy use on this sweltering day.

The main scoreboard had an interesting feature in that it not only listed the lineups of both teams and indicated the active batsman for the team at the plate, nut it also highlighted in green any players that were on the basepaths at the moment, something I don't think I've seen at any other ballpark in the world.

Mascot violence
Mascot on mascot violence

The Carp were accommodating to the visiting mascot and fans to a large degree. There was some pre-game frolicking between the two, including some mock sword fighting with oversized bats to the tune (and I'm not making this up) of “Kung-Fu Fighting.” The Swallows mascot was also given time to do some between-inning cheering, and at the top of the seventh inning, they were even allowed to lead the Tokyo Swallows traditional umbrella sing and dance to “Tokyo Ondo.” The Carp followed with a balloon launch at the middle-inning break.

Balloon launch
Balloon launch

The Carp fans were loud and energetic and packed in the Saturday-afternoon game. The upper-deck cheering area was filled to the brim, and unlike other teams, the entire home team side of the field was largely full of boisterous supporters. The visiting Swallows fans didn't fill quite as much of the third-base side, but the cheering section was packed, and the fans made a showing of themselves.

At the Game with Oogie:

Stadium grub
Hot dog on a stick and fries

I was sitting right behind third base on the visitor's side of the field, which was appropriate as the Swallows were the visiting team for this game. I was among a bunch of Swallows fans in my general area, and I sat right in front of an older gentleman who was singing and cheering along with the main cheering section located in the upper deck behind us. We were slightly apart from the other group, and with him right behind me, I could clearly hear his reactions as they happened.

Other than being intoxicated, this was the most in-tune I'd felt across language barriers. Alcohol and baseball: Bringing different cultures together. And this was because whenever I reacted to the action on the field, he would also have the same reactions, but in Japanese. “How in the hell do you give up a two-out triple?” has apparently some universal deportment that transcends language. Similarly, “For the love of god throw a strike,” and “Swing you useless piece of crap” can also be discerned quite easily.

We were also in a sun field for most of the game, which was beating and merciless. Nearly everyone in the area, including myself and the gentleman behind me, has fashioned desert hats from baseball caps and towels to keep the sun off of us. I had also covered up my very black camera with a towel when I nearly singed my finger trying to push the very metal shutter release.

When the shadow of one of the upper deck overhangs finally reached us in the third, the sigh of relief swept gently across the path of the darkness as it became slightly less hot to the people stewing in their own juices.

One of the concession stands sold a hot dog on a stick, which I purchased, because how can you not get a hot dog on a stick in Japan? Exactly.

The Game:

First pitch, Swallows vs. Carp
First pitch, Swallows vs. Carp

As the Swallows were involved, I had a rooting interest, and it looked good for that interest as the game hit the middle innings. Beyond some minor Carp threats, there first two innings were gone fairly quickly.

The Swallows broke it open in the top of the third. A lead-off walk was followed by four straight hits, bringing in four runs before the heart of the batting order went down in a row to kill the rally. The Carp tried to get something going in the bottom of the inning, only to have it snuffed out by a 1-6-3 double play.

The Swallows went quietly in the top of the fourth, but the Carp came alive in the bottom of the inning, with a back-to-back singles after an initial fly out to left. A pop-up to the catcher seemed to put a damper on things, but the Swallow's Yamamoto couldn't keep a lid on it and gave up a walk and a two-run single before being pulled for a reliever who got the final out, leaving it 4-2 Swallows.

The Swallows again went meekly in the fifth, but the Carp managed another two-run rally in the bottom of the inning. A strikeout was followed by a single, followed by a fly out to center. Again, another inning that looked to be in hand got away as a single was followed by a bases-clearing triple that tied up the game at four, before a fly out to center mercifully ended the inning.

Beside a hit batsman, the Swallows again went in vain in the sixth, and the Carp kept on their two-out scoring ways. The Carp lead off with a fly out to left, but a double then came that left the runner on third after the right-fielder bobbled the ball badly. A ground-out to short brought the run in. That could have been all the damage, but a double and a single sent him home, giving the Carp a two-run lead before the final out was grounded to the pitcher.

Now down two runs, the Swallows seemed to finally wake up. A new pitcher for the Carp walked the first two batters in the seventh before unceremoniously getting yanked for another reliever. But a Swallows pinch-hitter wiffed, and the next batter erased the runner on first with a fielder's choice to second, and it looked like the rally was all but over. The Swallow's second baseman came through with a single to bring one of the runs home, but the two runners got stranded on another pinch-hit strikeout, leaving the score 6-5. A leadoff single for the Carp was erased by a double-play, and a subsequent walk didn't turn into anything, as the Swallows finally found a way to make the Carp stop scoring.

The Swallows made a move in the eighth, where a pair of two-out walks had the go-ahead runs on base before the inning ended with another strikeout. And that was about it, as the Carp and Swallows in turn went 1-2-3, and the Swallows blew an early lead to lose 6-5.

The Scorecard:

Swallows vs. Carp, 07-02-11. Carp win, 6-5.Swallows vs. Carp, 07-02-11. Carp win, 6-5.
Swallows vs. Carp, 07/02/11. Carp win, 6-5.

I once again dug out the Scoremaster for this final game of my journey. With the exception of the Lions (who had their own scorecard), and the second Swallows game (where I used the Eephus League Official Scorebook), I had all my Japanese games in this book, plus the one game in the Mexican Pacific League from my birthday trip last year.

Outside of two double-plays involving the pitcher and an instance of the much-underloved 3-6-3 two-outer, the only real scoring matter of note was the Carp double-switching for the pitchers slot in the seventh inning, and then double-switching the slot again back to the nine hole in the eighth. Oh, you wacky Japanese.

Also, for the second game a row, I was able to properly identify the entire umping corps.

Pitching line of the trip goes to the Carp's Nagakawa:
Null innings pitched, zero at bats, zero Ks, two walks, zero hits, 1 run, 1 earned run, infinite game ERA.

The Accommodations:
This was my second day at the Urbain Hiroshima. Nothing much of note above the previous day occurred except that the housekeeper only left me one set of everything when they saw it was only person in the room.


On Being Amongst My People

Maid cafe
Maid cafes abide 

Sunday, July 3, 2011
Tokyo, Japan

Outside of the Game:
Having achieved all I set out to do, this was kind of a wash day. I decided to spend it going back to Tokyo so I wouldn't have a long train trip on the same day as the longest plane ride that mankind has conceived. If I couldn't find something to occupy my time tooling around Tokyo for an afternoon and evening, frankly, I wasn't trying all that hard.

And trying too hard was something beyond my grasp anyhow at this stage. It was the last full day of the trip, I was beat down by the constant travel, and, god help me, I was thinking with great happiness about spending some alone time in my apartment, where I hadn't spent a weekend at home since early last month.

I dragged myself down to the breakfast buffet one last time to find it mobbed with people from South Asia to the point where there was a line not moving all the way through the lobby. Thinking better of that, I took a walk down to the train station to get a ticket on an earlier train to Tokyo, went back to get some  breakfast at the now much-shorter line, and then grabbed my bags and went out to the station to catch my on-time train.

Bullet train
The train, on time

Without spending money for a super-bullet train upgrade, the trip to Tokyo from this far south is in two segments: to Osaka, and then to Tokyo. For the first, shorter leg of the trip, I spent my time cleaning up my disappointing scorecard from the night before, and then I spent the second leg catching up on this thing. Welcome to stream of consciousness.

A couple hours of naps and typing brought me back to Tokyo into the enormity of Tokyo Station. My hotel for the last day was two stops north of the main station in the no-man's land between Akihabara and the Tokyo Dome. I got in right around check-in time, so I dumped my bags at the hotel and went back out in the world.

I had no real plan for the day outside of hitting Electric Town again and swinging by the Tokyo Dome. I started with the latter, a few stops up a Tokyo Metro subway line. There was a Sunday afternoon Giants game in progress, so the area around the dome was quiet except for random tourists, early game bailers, and the packed smoking areas right outside the stadium proper. I did some shopping at the main Giants store right next door to the Japanese Hall of Fame and then against my better instincts, I went back to the Baseball Cafe a short distance away in Tokyo Dome City. Considering the fact the only two restaurants I visited on both trips were the kobe beef place in Kyoto and the Baseball Cafe I'm sure reveals some pretty disturbing strata of my consciousness.

LaSorda
Not weird at all

It was “American Steak” month according to the menus, and I ordered up a garlic teriyaki steak with home fries as I watched the last of the Swallows-Carp games play out on the many TVs in the restaurant. This year, I was seated at an “Astros” table, but at least my waiter had a Mets jersey. And it looked like the Swallows won their game, so there's that.

After eating, I decided to wander through a bunch of the specialty shopping districts in the area around Akihabara. The first was an area for music and music instruments, and it was filled with the least-reputable people I had seen in Japan up until that time, and it was strangely reassuring. One of the newer products that all the guitar stores seemed to be carrying in their front windows was these half-sized electric guitars that if I had to guess, I'd label as electric ukuleles. I'm not sure if I want to be right or not.

Music district
Music district

I then went to the used bookstore area of the city. It being Sunday evening at this point, many were closing up, although since all of the used books were in Japanese, I'm not sure it was much of a loss to me. I wandered through some of the ones that were still open, because, well, books are books. Some places even had limited foreign language sections, and it was with great effort that I managed to drag myself away without buying anything, because I am a sucker for the book-things.

As the sun started to go down, there was nothing left but the main event: Akihabara, Electric Town. Although I had visited last year during my second run through Tokyo, it was only during the afternoon, and I figured that this was a place best visited at night for the full effect.

Walking through the endless string of stores specifically geared for nerds, geeks, and dweebs, it was hard not to buy something. I mean, 100 yen for a power cable? I could probably use a spare power cable, and it was only 100 yen. An original-series model of the Starblazers for 2,000 yen? That's a damn bargain. Once again, the restriction of luggage space is the only thing that likely saved me.

The hostesses for the maid cafes were still out in force, although there were a couple of hosts for the butler cafes out as well, you know – for the ladies. I actually saw one or two transactions happen this time, and for the life of me, I still couldn't figured out how scantily clad women propositioning men on street corners and then bringing them back to their place wasn't prostitution. I mean, yeah, no sex, but it still didn't feel exactly wholesome, especially with so many of the maid cafes themselves being next door to “adult emporiums.”

Adult emporium
Your adult stores are small and unimposing

Eventually and inevitably, I went into one of the many arcades littering the Akihabara landscape. As I figured, they were packed to the gills at night, even if it was a Sunday night. The areas with the newest multiplayer games were filled to capacity, and there were even “observation stations” on the floors where you could watch the action in the games being played on monitors for that purpose. Games requiring card interaction were still all the rage, and there were lines of geeks moving cards around play areas to make dragons fight monsters and so on.

That was all a little beyond my ken, but I found a floor in one of the arcades dedicated to retro-gaming, with wall-to-wall machines that let you play one or two different classic games for 100 yen a shot, and it is there that I planted myself for most of the evening. There was a “Splatterhouse” game that I don't think was released in America, as its hero was a Jason-like monster who fought other monsters while walking through eight-bit disemboweled corpses and other gruesomeness. There was a sequel to “Elevator Action” that I also had no idea existed. In addition to those new-to-me games, I spent a bunch of yen on the various Metal Slug games, the D&D game, and Gauntlet and all its sequels. Eventually a combination of exhaustion and my eyes trying to scratch their way out of my head because of the cigarette smoke led me blinking and bleary into the Tokyo night. If you are going to cater to geeks, you are going to have a bunch of cheap grub around, and I had my last dinner at some rice bowl shop in the street, elbow-to-elbow at the counter with two guys who I'm pretty sure were taking about Dr. Who. My people, indeed.

I had one last thing I wanted to achieve before calling it a night. There was the Kanda Myojin temple in the area, and it was dedicated to business prosperity, family health, and finding the future. Given that to which I was returning, it seemed like a not bad place to visit. It took a bit of wandering around some dimly lit streets, but I eventually reached my goal in the deepening night. I paid my respects, took my pictures, and then went back to the hotel for a soak and my last night of sleep in Japan for this trip.

The Accommodations:

b ochanomizu
b ochanomizu

I was staying for the night at the b ochanomizu, an apparently hip little line of hotels scattered around the Japan landscape. Despite that, they still let me stay there. It was tucked in a side street just outside the exit of a Tokyo Metro station, and had an entry decompression chamber of two half-circle sliding doors at the entrance. The design was all very modern, and the boutique hotel had one elevator leading up to the room floors.

My room was Japanese-style, but not too small, with the standard bed and command console set-up, and a desk along the wall and the bathroom off in its own little world. They did have a full-sized Western tub, which was appreciated as it let me soak up to my very sore neck and relieve some of that pain, at least.

This being my last day in-country, I finally took the opportunity to use some of the “advanced” features of the Japanese toilets, and I will say only this: after using one, I felt like I needed to go tell an adult.


On Being a Sucker

Flight home
The way home

Hoboken, NJ
July 4, 2011

Outside of the Game:
Again it came: the last bit of sand tumbling out of the Japanese hourglass. That fact did not prevent me from dragging serious ass in getting out of bed that morning. The prospect of missing my free breakfast and being late with checkout were about the only final motivators that had any affect on a body that was fully in “let's just lie here and see what happens” mode.

I destroyed the breakfast buffet, which had a good selection of things not likely to kill me, and I went up to finish packing up. Since checkout was at 11:00, and I didn't have to be at my train to the airport until 1:00 PM, I stowed my bags in a convenient locker at the hotel and then went down to Tokyo Station for an hour or so. In all of my times through the station, I hadn't even begun to scratch the enormous surface of the thing. So I took the subway down, identified where I needed to go for my airport express train, and then just headed off in a random direction.

There were various upscale restaurants, but I eventually took the twists and turns necessary to dump me in the toy store section of the shopping center. And this was some bad news for my self control. I knew exactly how much space I had left in my luggage, so I had to use money to keep me in check. I was in the process of spending off all of my Japanese money, and so I wasn't going to go and get more money just to buy toys. Because that would be nuts, even for me.

What I did instead was find a happy medium, in that most of the toy stores also had vending machines on the premises selling little things for 100-300 yen, and I got rid of all of my change while still getting toys that would fit in my bags, because why shouldn't I have toys?

I had to eventually go back and get my bags and come back to the station to get my Narita Express train that would inexorably take me towards home. The train ride was my last fully Japanese experience, as once I was at the airport, I would again be at the tender mercies of Continental Airlines and the American travel authorities.

I got to the airport and checked in with little incident, and then I took the time to enjoy another experience for which I had waited a year. With two 100-yen coins I had squirreled away for just this occasion, I made my way to the area by the observation deck and found the massage chairs that had kept me sane during the four-hour delay last year. And for 200 yen, the robo-chair manhandled me in ways that would have left it subject to arrest had it been human, but it wasn't, and I wouldn't have pressed charges if it was.

Massage chair
A true friend

Security remained in the Japanese vein, so it was quick and without incident, and similarly, I breezed through Japanese customs. With some time to kill before boarding started, I went to the duty free store and talked myself out of buying some Japan whiskey. Ah, who am I kidding? I bought a bottle of the Nikka Whisky that I had drunk in Sapporo. That’s how I roll.

I almost made it on the plane before American stupidity caught up with me. I got “randomly” picked for extra screening upon boarding. At least the Japanese people who had to do the search and pat-down had the decency to be embarrassed about it. And I sat there shoe-less as a nice older Japanese lady prodded her way through my dirty underwear and various baseball accoutrement. Duly safe from radical Islam, I was allowed to board the plane.

I got my seat and stowed my gear and sat down. Up until the very end of boarding, it looked as though I might have the entire row to myself, and then a family with a disabled daughter came in and made me feel extremely guilty about my row greed.

About a half hour into the trip, they started the regular reboots of the entertainment system because some of the units were having problems. And that's great and all, except they apparently need to reboot the entire system every time there is an issue with an individual unit, which started to royally cheese off people who had the movies they were watching turned off twice, forcing them to fast-forward to where they were when the system came up again. After the second or third time it happened, people visibly gave up on the system and whipped out laptops or portable DVD players until the geniuses up front got the whole entertainment system thing worked out.

The older Asian lady seated behind me seemed to be new to the whole touch-screen experience and the fact that the buttons weren't actual physical buttons that needed to be depressed forcefully. I try to be as live and let live as the next person, but I swear to god, after the fifth round of her prodding my chair worse than a bored five year-old for minutes at a time as she tried to get a movie or something to play, I was ready to shove that finger someplace very dark and unpleasant. But we persevere.

As before, seat prodding aside, the trip back home seemed to go much faster than the trip out, and the copious naps can only account for so much of that. But it seemed like a relative blink of the eye until we were getting our customs forms for re-entry into the US. Of course, it was a blink of an eye where I managed to watch about four feature films, so it was a pretty lengthy sort of blink.

And so again I performed the nifty bit of time travel where I left a place at one time, traveled thirteen hours, yet landed about five minutes before I left. The TARDIS has nothing on me. I like to imagine that the plane takes off and then just hovers for thirteen hours as the world revolves underneath us. No, that's not actually what happens, but I think we can all agree it would be much cooler.

The Accommodations:
I found myself once again back at apartment, for better or worse, there and back again.



Swag II
Swag II

And there we are. Two years, and I had every team in the Nippon Professional League under my belt. The speed at which this is happening is a little disconcerting, to be sure, but it has picked up its own momentum, and I’m not sure I can stop it. I’m already looking into Korea for next year, because, well, why not?


2011 Japan