Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Chin Music: Koji Uehara and the NPB

Ichiro and Hideki Matsui spearheaded the Japanese invasion in Major League Baseball. Ichiro was the MVP and Rookie of the Year in his first season, and Matsui proved valuable in his first few years in the Bronx. That success has been followed up on the pitching end by the likes of Daisuke Matsuzaka and even new Orioles acquisition Koji Uehara, an under-the-radar pitcher whom Major League teams have been after since the late 1990s. (Expect 22 year old Yu Darvish to make the jump at some point too). Uehara has a 4.34 ERA and a 2-3 record, but has a 4:1 K to BB ratio and a tidy WHIP of 1.17 to go with 5 quality starts already this season.

The 34 year old Uehara is one of the few Japanese players who, given the opportunity, actually reject offers from American clubs and opt to stay at home in Japan. It wasn’t until he finished off a successful career at home and became a free agent that he was able and willing to make the move half away around the world to Baltimore.

Thinking about Uehara got me to thinking about his old team and the chance I had to see the NPB is person. It turns out I saw Uehara pitch in Tokyo seven years ago. I had absolutely no clue who he was at the time, in fact I just happened to check my ticket stub and the box score or else I still would’ve had no idea that I even saw him play. Uehara spent ten seasons with the Yomiuri Giants, Tokyo’s hometown team, where he was teammates with Hideki Matsui, the only player I’d ever heard of back in 2002 when he hit an absolutely bomb to right-center that nearly landed in the Tokyo Dome concourse.

I was in Japan in 2002 for an entirely different sporting event, the 2002 World Cup, but everywhere I turned, behind the façade of Nike and Adidas soccer ads and the delirium that seems to accompany anything embraced by the Japanese (in this case the World Cup), there was baseball and it was everywhere. Baseball is embedded in Japanese culture and children play it much more than anyone in the United States. The sport there is like a bizarro mixture of American middle-upper class access to quality equipment mixed with the Dominican passion of always playing the sport, as if it was something fun to do, not something your parents signed you up for as something to do a few days a week. That said, these kids were like robots Honda was churning out at the local factory or something, there wouldn’t be an adult in sight and if they weren’t playing a game they were doing self-imposed drills or working on their mechanics.

Baseball is embedded in Japanese history. In Hiroshima I visited Atomic Bomb Dome (a hall that inexplicably survived the nuclear blast despite being just about right next to the drop zone) and the Hiroshima Peace Museum. When I heard a roar and what sounded like those annoying thunder sticks, I turned and looked across the street. Directly across from me sat the Hiroshima Municipal Stadium, home of the Toyo Carp. (They have since built a new stadium the opened this season). That’s when I decided that I’d come for the soccer and incredibly sights, but I had to get to a baseball game.

A few days later I was on the subway on my way to the Tokyo Dome. I mean this in the nicest of ways, but in terms of vocal support Americans are pretty lame compared to the rest of the world. All we ever do is the universal “Let’s Go _______” and even that usually only comes at crucial moments. The Tokyo Dome, despite being nowhere near filled to capacity rivaled the atmosphere of other stadiums I’ve visited abroad like Camp Nou and Amsterdam Arena (where, because I spoke English, they put me in the cordoned off Liverpool section…good times). On one side of the outfield bleachers were blue, the other orange and black as the two teams fans chanted, sang, and did anything but sit on their hands.

Meanwhile, all the beer vendors were women and carried mini Asahi kegs on their back (which I think is a brilliant idea even if I couldn't drink back then). You get a draught beer right at your seat, no opening bottles or cans and pouring them into a cup. Between innings there were strange on field promotions that make anything in an American minor league park look normal. The promotions ranged from a two-minute fitness class for a few select fans to the equivalent of one round of a Japanese game show, which are just remarkably strange in general. The game ended, I managed to find a McDonald’s (I hate fish), and then I headed back to the New Sanno to call it a night. Now, seven years later, instead of the efficiency of the Tokyo subway, I’ll hop on America’s oldest subway system (and also the worst subway system) and go see Uehara and Matsui play again, this time at Fenway Park.

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