Sunday, May 24, 2020

Despite Summer Koshien's cancellation, hope arrives for Japan

This past week, the Japan High School Baseball Federation announced they cancelled the Summer Koshien tournament for 2020, which was a huge blow the baseball in Japan.

Understandably, it would be impossible to organize games and travel for all schools while the Coronavirus pandemic is ongoing. Some prefectures are not as heavily affected, but several were still in a state of emergency and even students have been living an irregular life.

From schools meeting online to practices done differently, there have been too many problems to solve in order to have a Koshien tournament, which includes how prefectural tournaments can't take place everywhere.

In what has been a year of non-stop COVID-19 coverage and discussions, Japan has hit some good news when some state of emergencies were lifted in various prefectures. From a sports standpoint, the joint task force of NPB and the J-League were given the green light to have fan-free games.

The state of emergency in the Kanto area looks like it will be lifted, according to several reports. With the result of this, NPB announced their Opening Day happening on June 19. 

Since our last post on this blog, the only significant sports league to resume play is the Bundesliga in

NPB's initial goal was thinking about the economics as they already saw a loss in revenue playing preseason games with empty seats. However, it's clear today that NPB Commissioner Atsushi Saito is in the process of announcing a season and organizing 2020 waiting for the state of emergency to be lifted.

As already mentioned, both the J-League and NPB were cleared to resume activities with both leagues having different resume/start targets in mind. The J-League paused their season on February 25 while NPB began playing without fans in preseason on the 29th of the same month.

The only significant NPB cancellations are the All-Star game, Farm (Fresh) All-Star game, Interleague play, as well as any irregular locations for the ichi-gun and ni-gun games.

It's very likely that the Climax Series will be cancelled in the Central League, where the first place team will face the Pacific League CS winner in the Japan Series. Rumor has it that the Pacific League will have a shorter regular season in order to keep their CS intact.

While three Hanshin Tigers players tested positive for COVID-19 and had the initial scare, all of them have been discharged and recovered since.

It was on May 19 that teams began practicing in a full manner while the COVID-19 cases have continued to go down. June 19 has been announced as the Opening Day for NPB.

With the state of emergency soon to be lifted, NPB players, coaches and fans can be ready for games to count once again. NPB and the J-League returning doesn't save everything given the how the Summer Olympics were put on hold to 2021, but having games again provides hope and a sense of normalcy for what has been a 2020 year of awkward pauses in life.


Follow us on Twitter @GraveyardBall

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Lions were the perfect choice, even in retrospect

It's been a long time since updating this blog thanks to a delayed season and the Coronavirus hitting the world. At the time of this writing, baseball is only active in Taiwan, South Korea and Nicaragua.

Rather than report the same delay of news and other stats about COVID-19, I've spent time reflecting on baseball fandom while taking a view of the KBO League. 

Looking back on being into NPB, the journey to finding a team and resources to follow it were dark. Founder Wes Mills and myself knew some obvious players who came into MLB, but otherwise had little team knowledge and couldn't just go in blind.

Some advice and words from a few claim we should have watched some games to adopt someone, but that feels empty if they're winning or it's too easy because we felt it's better to have someone on Opening Day. The other option was to just go to Japan and figure things out from there, but back then, the job situations weren't stable enough to find the funds in order to do this.

The 2014 season just ended in heartbreak as our Oakland Athletics failed in another October flop. After some research, the uniforms helped influence the decision, but even the history has similarities to the Oakland A's, creating more layers to an already powerful connection.

Reflectively looking back with having experienced a Lions game in person and finally visiting Japan, it already felt like a match made in heaven. Here are some reasons I've enjoyed the Lions despite the falls and downs of the postseason:

Tokorozawa is out of the way

Tokorozawa is not an area your average tourist will visit. Sure, some diehard baseball fans wanting to cross off every park or others wanting to see the visiting team will come, but this isn't Tokyo. While slightly north into Saitama prefecture, Lions territory sums up anywhere in the West Tokyo suburbs.

Gone are the busy city skyscrapers and high traffic life and crowds. A good majority of the residents just commute towards the East while the neighborhoods like Higashikurume and Higashimurayama are quiet with open space.

This location fits my personality easily given I don't travel on the surface. You can see the Stateside map I track my marks not only by states, but counties (the equivalent of prefectures and municipalities).

Having visited or driven through everything in green, there's no gaps with no way to tell when I've taken a plane except once. Rather than just see a city, 'm all about finding gems in what are"boring" areas of the world. Rural towns have their own identity too. I'll go out of my way to find a county or hit a historic landmark such as Slab City in Imperial County, California.

The Japan equivalent map can be seen below with a few different rules (i.e. no Shinkansen train paths marked)


The Lions use flags

Flags are somethings seen among Oakland A's fans in the bleachers as they're waved throughout the game. Lions fans likely have a flag from anywhere in the Stadium, making it a cool scene when they score or there's something to chant. It's something so simple, yet effective, making it a fun adventure when at the games.

Even better, you're visible as a Lions fan at an away game when having one. It doesn't hurt that a mini flag is a perfect souvenir size too for your carry on or suitcase on the way back.


A share of Golden Era tradition exists with the Lions

It's possible to say the Lions live in the past with lots of 1980s references from their victory song (地平を駈ける獅子を見た) to their cheer song (Hoero Lions). Given that's where the best era of franchise history took place, it's understandable. Plus, the location has been the same since 1979.

While some songs are not as old as the Hanshin Tigers, they also aren't trying too hard to be new like the Yomiuri Giants. Koji Akiyama and Kazuhiro Kiyohara's songs are both used as chance themes while Alex Cabrera's old song is used as a chance theme for foreigners.


The Lions' parent company (Seibu Holdings) owns Prince Hotels

Wes Mills, our founder of Graveyard Baseball, has been "donating" to the Lions for years by occupying Prince Hotels in Hawaii. His family constantly receives advertisements in the mail as they've been loyal customers of them whenever traveling across the Pacific for a vacation on the island. It's a fun retrospect fact that it is under the Lions ownership that Wes and his family have been funding something in Seibu Holdings. While these dollars may not fund a player salary, fungibility exists.


The Lions don't draw the top crowd numbers

I had the Yomiuri Giants and Hanshin Tigers off my candidates list because they were too popular for me to like. Doesn't fit my personality to love a juggernaut. Ticket availability made it easy to find a spot, though crowds on weekends are pretty solid. On the road, the Lions usually don't pack the stands unless it's a special occasion (i.e. a clinching scenario). Having the smaller fanbase in size is relatable as an A's fan and now that I've seen it in person and going to an away event in Nagoya, it felt close-knit.


Tokorozawa has Totoro's Forest 

Despite a lack of tourism in comparison to Tokyo, there will be western visitors because of Totoro. The diehard anime fan will go out of their way if they want to seek the real life locations of their favorite movies or television shows (example: Toyama prefecture for Wolf Children or Shiga prefecture for K-On) and the two parks in Tokorozawa are no different.

Anime is far from my favorite hobby, but I began watching things a little more once following NPB to get some ideas of Japanese culture. This included watching every Studio Ghibli film as an adult given I saw only one as a child, showing how behind in the times I was. Totoro is iconic enough and it's great how two forests (Totoro no Mori and Hachikokuyama) are the real life locations drawn in the film.

Nature in Japan is already easy to find, but it's great that a already famous movie can be lived through these parks, let alone one of my favorites of all time.


The Lions are structured to never be boring

Yes, struggling can happen and injuries can pile up, but the roster is structured so they aren't predictable or unwatchable. Not all teams with a losing record are dull, which can be said for some MLB teams based on how the ownership or general manager are operating.

In 2016's case, the Lions defense had its troubles, but they continued to throw out young players throughout the losing. Knowing some of them have upside and can show promise for the long run. Watching Kona Takahashi, Shinsaburo Tawata, a raw Tomoya Mori at catcher and even Nien Ting Wu made the second half interesting in building ahead.

While there is a catch to players walking in free agency to find a better payday, the Lions will not fall for the trap of hanging onto an entire team for too long like others. Call it a mixed back, but trying to reload with youth isn't completely awful than having a roster where majority of the players are older than 33.


The Lions still care about winning, even if it doesn't reflect paying players when they hit free agency

Owners and corporations understandably aren't concerned with wins and losses and it's likely Seibu Holdings chairman Takashi Goto is no different. However, those making calls in the baseball operations make transactions that make sense in a way to be proactive.

When the 2016 season was about to begin, it was thought to be a lame duck season for then-manager Norio Tanabe no matter how they finished with Tetsuya Shiozaki lined up to take his place. When the season concluded, they interviewed outside the organization and didn't go the passive route of promoting from within. The defensive blunders and errors piled up the team's management to go outside the box.

Historically, the Lions have promoted from within for their manager (Tsutomu Ito) or hired someone with ties (Osamu Higashio). While Hatsuhiko Tsuji had connections as a player from the golden era, he hadn't been employed by the Lions since 1995 and never as a coach. He had a resume of being around the game for majority of the 21st century working behind the scenes as an assistant and most recently worked on the defense and strategy with the Chunichi Dragons prior to the Lions.

Tsuji's hire meant he was the first manager who worked with another NPB team the previous season since Shinichi Eto in 1975, making him the first in Seibu history. To break these grounds showed enough to indicate they wanteed to win and were tired of one glaring elephant in the room.

Contrast this with a team like the Colorado Rockies or Pittsburgh Pirates who have shown no plan or direction outside of the few individual talents they have. There's a sense of complacency that hurts both franchises.


Lions fans made the experience authentic and welcoming

Call this an easy bias, but entering Japan with limited knowledge of Japanese felt intimidating throughout the trip. Even crazier, the English services vanish once you're in West Tokyo and away from all the city life, something I was bracing for and practicing the language as much as possible.

Being at a Lions game felt natural and almost like heaven on earth because there were no tourists or cliche pandering services that are on the surface. Compared to the locations of Tokyo Dome or Meiji Jingu Stadium having an easier location, anyone can visit either venue when on a business trip to stop by. Not many will go out to MetLife Dome unless they're baseball fans or live there.

It was a great experience interacting with fans and even being able to communicate with them without fluency. One of the nicest people I met was someone without English, but she could tell I knew the team well and watch their games from abroad when showing passion via singing the songs or knowing a universal language known as baseball.

If anyone has anxiety going around the country, it all eases when at a baseball game. I felt plenty of great hospitality and even bonus sight seeing when visiting MetLife Dome, a structure I had low expectations for. While the Lions are not for everyone, this blind choice after research proved to be the right one for myself.


Follow us on Twitter @GraveyardBall