Japan's national pastime

Posted: Aug 20, 2002 12:00 AM
OSAKA, JAPAN -- Barring a minor miracle, American Major League Baseball players and owners are hurtling toward an Aug. 30 strike date. But here at Koshien Stadium, baseball life goes on for the fervent fans of the Hanshin Tigers. Fans at this 55,000-seat ballyard wear karate gi (END ITAL) (robes) and headbands in the yellow and black Tiger colors. White-gloved cheerleaders lead the crowd in vibrant chants and rollicking songs. Fans learn different songs for each home team batter and greet favorites with homemade banners. One fan greeted a player from the United States with a huge banner made up of many American flags. And fans sing the Hanshin fight song, "The Wind of Mount Rokko." Here's a rough translation of one stanza: "Powerful bats and skillful pitch achieved a thousand times/ Trained with every discipline here at Koshien/ Crowned with constant victory glorious, matchless feat/ Always proud, invincible Hanshin Tigers/ Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! Hanshin Tigers/ Hooray, Hooray, Hooray, Hooray." Some children learn the song before they learn Japan's national anthem. The enthusiasm is great even though the words are hype. Forget about "constant victory": The Tigers almost always finish behind their Central League nemesis, the Tokyo-based Yomiuri Giants. And "matchless feat" my foot: In the past 35 years, Hanshin has won the pennant only once, in 1985. This year, after early success, Hanshin is once again well back in the standings, 12 games behind first-place Yomiuri (the Yankees of Japan) on Aug. 16. Nevertheless, the Tigers represent tradition. Koshien Stadium opened 78 years ago and is now the oldest ballpark in Japan. Almost 75,000 fans in 1934 crammed Koshien to see Babe Ruth and other American stars who were touring Japan. The stadium still has real grass to go with its ivy-covered walls. All Japan hangs on the high-school baseball championships played here annually. Tigers fans, like Boston Red Sox boosters, tend to be pessimistic about their team's prospects, but they still enjoy individual victories when they come, and they love their local heroes. Fan interest here still seems high, players' salaries are still modest by American standards, and no one's going on strike. Players, corporate owners and fans all have a shared sense that the sport is more important than their individual desires, and they won't mess with it. The excitement of fans here brings into sharp relief the disaster that another baseball strike in the United States would be. Even strike-less baseball has trouble holding onto the interest of kids entranced by faster-paced football or basketball. High ticket prices exile children from the ballpark, and late-night playoff and World Series games deprive them of baseball-bonding memories. The players are refusing to accept what in essence would be a salary cap. Believing that rich owners who cry poverty are liars, they say they don't want owners to receive a windfall. But players could become heroes by agreeing to a cap on the condition that the dollars owners save go not into their pocketbooks but into reducing ticket prices for children, and making sure that post-season games are played early in the evening (that would mean sacrificing some revenue in future TV contracts). Maybe that's too much to hope for, but Western culture emphasizes hope, not fatalism. And it's wonderful that here in Japan baseball still is beloved. I hope for the work of grace that will keep American players and owners from committing hari-kari, but in this meantime I'll keep an eye on the Japanese standings to see whether the Hanshin Tigers can keep from falling behind the Chunichi Dragons and the Hiroshima Toyo Carp.