Thursday, April 13, 2017

Japan Report - Kabuki at the Kabukiza Theater

On Monday, April 10th, I went to the Kabukiza Theater in Tokyo to see the April Performances.  Three pieces were part of the morning matinee: 
醍醐の花見 - Flower Viewing at Daigo Temple - Toyotomi Hideyoshi stages a lavish party to view the sakura, or cherry trees, blooming at Daigo Temple.  
伊勢音頭恋寝刃 - A Summer Play of Love’s Dull Blade - The effort of a loyal retainer to retrieve a cursed sword and its certificate of authenticity from the samurai that swindled it from his master.  
一谷嫩軍記 - War Chronicle of the Battle of Ichinotani Valley - Two women on opposite sides of a war go to the battle camp of the general leading one side to see if their sons survived.  
This was my first time viewing live kabuki performances or seeing an entire performance cycle.  I had learned some things about kabuki over the years, but wasn’t sure quite what to expect.  
Here’s a bit of what I found out…
First, expect to be confused.  First, it’s in foreign language.  And a version of that foreign language that is foreign to the people that speak it.  Japanese can and do rent earphones that will give them explanations of what is being said during the performance.  And foreigners can rent small screens that translate the lines of the play into English or other languages, providing you with subtitles during the performances.  

But that only helps to a certain degree.  The subtitle box you rent tells you that the subtitle it provides is based on the original text of the play, which might be different from what  actor is actually saying on stage.  There were moments when even I could tell that the line the actor was saying was different than what was on the screen.  
But the confusion doesn’t end there.  Adding to it is the fact that, from what I could tell from the performances I saw, a number of these presentations are fragments of older, longer pieces.  Of the three pieces I watched as part of the performance I attended, one was the favorite third act of a five act play and another has segments that are “not often performed” for modern audiences.  The previous parts of these longer pieces have characters and exposition that would help make it clear as to what you are watching before you if you had no familiarity with the piece.  It would be like someone from another country that never heard of Romeo & Juliet going to performance that started with the balcony scene.  
And even with the one stand alone piece in the performance, a “dance program” entitled “Flower Viewing at Daigo,” there is a historical context that a foreign viewer may lack.  This piece is based on an actual historical event when Totoyomi Hideyoshi, then overlord of Japan, staged a lavish party to view the blooming sakura, or cherry blossoms, at Daigo Temple near Osaka.  What someone not familiar with Japanese history wouldn’t know is that this flower viewing party took place only a few months before Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea ended in disaster, followed by the collapse of his power and subsequent death.  Sakura is the Japanese symbol of the ephemeral nature of life.  There is an irony to the piece, not lost on the Japanese, in Hideyoshi celebrating his power and prestige with a party that would be linked with fragility and fleeting nature of life.  
As with my example using Romeo & Juliet above, these plays are well known to the Japanese people that come watch them.  They have the same thrill of recognition as when  an English speaking audience hears Juliet asks, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”  The audience will applaud, and laugh, at this famous moments.  The performers themselves will pause and present a tableau when these scenes arrive in the performance. 
Which is another aspect of kabuki that stands out to someone steeped in western theatre arts: they are very, VERY stylized and presentational.  The artifice is part of the performance, not just the vehicle by which the performance is conveyed to the audience.  This is most clear when it comes to fight scenes.  They are not staged to look like actual combat.  They are dances of violence.  At times they can almost taken to be walk throughs by stunt people before the actual scene is staged.  A red scarf, pulled out from the neckline of an actor’s kimono is an indication that the fight has come to an end.  
This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the performance.  I did.  As with any works of art carried forward from the past into the present day, there is something about them that we, or the culture that produced them, finds valuable and meaningful, which has lasted in the decades or centuries when they were first created.  
The scene I remember most clearly that conveys this comes from the third piece in the performance I attended, entitled, “War Chronicle of the Battle in Ichinotani Valley.”  A mother, wife to the general leading the forces in one side of the battle, defies orders and comes to the camp to see if her son has survived.  Her husband, angry at her disobedience, questions her about her duty as a mother and their son’s as a soldier.  
“If I told you that our son fought bravely, and died doing his duty honorably, what would you say to that?”
“Yes,” she replies, she would be happy to know that was how their son behaved at the end of his life.  But off to the side, the narrator, with musical accompaniment, recites the woman’s thoughts and feelings that she keeps inside her.  And as she speaks out loud the dutiful answers expected of her, you can hear her voice echo the timbre and trembling of the narrator, and you can feel how much she hurts over the idea of discovering her child has met his end.  
There is emotional truth in this plays.  That is why they are still performed after so many years have past.  
The experience itself was a very Japanese one, for sure.  From the entire staff spoke nothing but keigo, the most polite level of Japanese, to the bento box I bought for the lunch break, it was an experience steeped in Japanese sensibilities.  

I don’t know that I’ll become a kabuki fan.  But I do see myself going again, to see what else I might find there.  I don’t think I have to worry about kabuki going away any time soon.  

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Japan Report - Lions vs. Hawks at the Metlife (Seibu) Dome.

One of my “bucket-list” projects that brought be back to Japan was to see a professional baseball game in all the pro-level parks in both the MLB in North America and the NPB in Japan.  On Saturday, April 8th, I took a step toward completing that goal when I went to the Seibu Dome, now called the MetLife Dome, in Saitama, Japan to watch the Seibu Lions play against the SoftBank Hawks.  

The Game
This game featured two Pacific League rivals against each other.  The Hawks are in third place in the league, two games behind first place Rakuten Eagles and half a game behind the Orix Buffaloes.  The Lions are two games behind the Hawks.  
The game itself was a pretty well played affair.  It moved at a very brisk pace, eventually ending fifteen minutes short of three hours.  
The difference in pitching was the key to this game.  The Hawks pitching constantly fell behind, with counts of 2-1 or 3-2 not uncommon.  This forced the Hawks pitchers to throw more hittable balls to keep from walking batters.  The Lions were able to catch a good number of this pitches and put them into play, getting men on base and bringing them home.  
The Lions pitching on the other hand kept the Hawks in check throughout the game.  The only run allowed was a solo homer late in the game, this when the Lions already had built a 5-0 lead.  The Lions got that run back with a homer of their own, finishing with a win at 6-1.  
The Stadium
Seibu Dome, which is now called MetLife Dome, but I can’t get “Seibu Dome” out of my head, is a quirky place.  
First off the Dome doesn’t complete enclose the stadium.  A quick check on Wikipedia verifies my suspicion, that the stadium was retrofitted with a dome after it was constructed.  The stadium was built in 1979.  The dome was added in two phases in 1997 and 1998.  The result is that while there won’t be any rain delays, natural wind flow can come through to affect balls hit into the air.  AND, according to Wikipedia, it’s also possible to hit a home run out of the park, something not doable in a most domed stadiums.  

There’s something of a minor league air to the surroundings.  Before the dome, which is easy to get to having a train station right in front of it, is a little village of vendors selling food, caps, and other paraphernalia.  You have to walk through this area, which is several avenues wide, to get to the ticket gate and entrance.  

This semi-permanent feel continues after you enter.  The food and drink vendors “inside” the stadium are in portable stands not connected to the structure.  The stadium proper is pretty much the playing field and the surrounding stands.  
And there are no stairs to get to the upper levels.  The stadium was built into a slope (artificial or man-made, I don’t know).  You walk up what amounts to a giant ramp to get to your seats.  

And beware, there is no passage or walkway (that I could find) connecting the two sides of the stadium.  If you want to go to the other side, you have to walk down to the entrance gate, get your hand stamped, then walk to the entrance gate on the other side to have someone shine a black light on it to see it before you’ll be allowed back in.  I found this out when I heard that one of my favorite Japanese restaurants, CoCo Ichiban Curry House, had a stall at the stadium.  It was on the other side, forcing me to go through this little trek.   
Another feature which harkens back to a smaller, simpler past is the bleacher section.  Part of it has no seats.  Just a broad, flat area, painted green, where people bring blankets to lay across the ground and watch.  Think of the slope behind the outfield at the park where the Little League champions series is played in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.  
I like the stadium.  I would have a good time coming here to watch games as a fan.  
The Atmosphere
Baseball games in Japan are fun.  My most commonly used analogy is that they are more like American college football games, with cheerleaders, the crowd chanting and signing in unison, drums and horns playing all the time.  This game had all of that. 
Another difference between games in the U.S. and in Japan is a sense of inclusiveness.  I’ve known for about about a decade now that stadiums in Japan will designate a section of the seats for visiting fans.  In some games between teams close to each other geographically, or when one team has a huge national following, such as when the Yomiuri Giants play the DeNA Baystars in Yokohama, the visiting team’s section can as much as half the stadium.  I have tickets in the visitors section to see the Baystars play the Hiroshima Carp at Mazada Stadium in Hiroshima next week.  There are rules prohibiting the wearing of home team colors in the visitors section.  
I’ve also seen caps, jerseys and souvenirs for visiting teams regularly sold at Japanese stadiums.  I can’t imagine anyone selling a San Francisco Giants cap at the Ravine.  
The game at MetLife/Seibu Dome took this one step farther.  
The Japanese don’t have a “seventh inning stretch” as we do in North America.  But there are different traditions at different parts for the seventh inning.  
At this game, after the close of the 6th inning, the SoftBank Hawks fans starting chanting their team’s fight song.  They also blew up yellow “jet-balloon,” big sperm-shaped balloons with plastic tips where you blow them up that whistle as you release them to send them shooting into the sky. 
While they were singing, the big screen on the scoreboard flashed the SoftBank Hawks insignia and played the music for their fight song.  As they ending the song, the Hawks fans released their balloons sending them whistling through the air with a cheer.  

I was still pondering this, thinking again that you’d never see an MLB park facilitating visiting fan celebration, when the top of the 7th came around.  Now it was the Lions’ home team fans doing the same, singing their fight song, blowing up jet-balloons, this time blue, as their team’s insignia gleamed from the scoreboard and their song blared from the speakers.  On cue, they released their balloons and cheered after the song ended.

I am putting this down to a Japanese sensibility toward being kind to guests.  

Monday, March 27, 2017

World Baseball Classic - Semi-Final - Japan vs USA

Japan vs. USA.  Final Score: 2 to 1 - USA Wins. 
Last week, the World Baseball Classic tournament came to an end.  I wasn’t able to attend the second round games in San Diego do to extenuating circumstances from life and work.  Team USA lost to Puerto Rico in San Diego, but was able to beat the Dominican Republic, enacting some revenge for the 7-5 loss I witnessed in Miami and move on to the Semi-final round in Los Angeles at Dodgers Stadium.  
As the runner-up in their pool, they would play the winner of the other pool of teams.  That would be Japan.  A Japan vs. USA match-up was what I wanted to see in the final, but it was coming in the semi-final instead.  Knowing that I would only be able to see one game in the Semi-final/Final round, I decided to go to this game.  It was the match-up I most wanted to see and there’d be no guarantee the USA would be in the final.  
So I got the tickets, took off early from work, and accompanied by a Japanese member of my language group, went to the Ravine.  
The Game
It was tense.  And I’m not just talking about the game.  
The weather forecast was for rain.  We’ve had more than our usual fare of rain this year in the Los Angeles area.  It was ironic that, right after I bought the tickets for the game on Tuesday I saw the weather forecast indicating that, after several bright and sunny days, rain was 60% likely on Tuesday and Wednesday, the scheduled days for the Semi-final games and the Final.  
Dodgers stadium has had only 17 rainouts since opening in 1962.  That is the fewest of any open-air stadium in the MLB.  I decided to look up the stadium’s rainout policy, something I’d never thought to do before.  It told me that, if a gain is rained out then tickets purchased for it could be used for the date it was rescheduled for.  If the game wasn’t rescheduled, then they could be exchanged for a ticket for another game of equal or lesser value.  
The last rainout at Dodgers Stadium was on April 17, 2000 against the Houston Astros.  Would I be dealing with the first rainout in seventeen years?  I DID have to deal with heavy traffic caused by the rain, which increased my tension.  I fought through it.  Did what I could to keep my cool, picked up my companion for the game in Little Tokyo and headed to the stadium.  
When I was buying my parking ticket, I asked the lady in the booth if there was any worry about the game being canceled.  The heavy part of the storm had stopped, but it was still wet and drizzly.  
“Nah…”  The woman said it was such confident certainty that my spirit was brightened like the sun that couldn’t be seen behind the clouds.  “They’ll play.”  
And the game did go on, though I’d never seen Dodgers Stadium quite like that.  It was cold and wet.  A fog hung over the top of the stadium, clouding the lights.  Our seats were just underneath the level above us.  If I leaned forward, which I often do during important moments, water dripped down the back of my neck.  My pant legs from the knees down got quite damp from being just out from under the overhang of the higher deck seats.  
But it didn’t put a damper on the excitement of the crowd.  A good number of people turned out, split about evenly between fans of Team USA and those of Team Japan.  I figure that a lot of the Japan supporters were Japanese ex-pats living in the Los Angeles area.  It was not uncommon to see one sporting a Los Angeles Dodgers cap, while wearing a Team Japan jersey.  As the game continued, the sound kept shifting back and forth between what would be typical for a game in Japan, and what I was used to hearing going to see games in the U.S.  There was a small, but loud group in the left field bleachers supporting Team Japan with the typical horns, drums and chants for each batter that stepped up to the plate.  Their chants were picked up by the fans surrounding us.  
“Ka-tobase!  Ka-tobase!”  I’d heard this chant numerous time attending games in Japan.  I know what it means now.  “Make it Fly!  Make it Fly!”  
The tension of whether or not the game would be played was replaced by the drama and tension of who would win.  Both teams played their own version of short ball.  The first Japanese batter stepping up to the plate with a runner on first tried to bunt him forward.  The Americans were playing hit and run and trying to steal when they could.  Between just about each inning, the field crew came out to lay fresh clay down on the base path, making it look like someone had laid a giant bandaid over a sunburned scar.  
It was a situation when any hit, any dropped ball, could make the difference.  And that proved true for the usually mistake free Japanese.  A grounder that got through the infielder in the fourth.  This allowed the batter, Christian Yelich, to reach second.  Andrew McCutchen later drove him home for Team USA’s first run.  A solo shot by Ryosuke Kikuchi tied the game in the sixth.  Team USA was able to regain its one run lead in the eighth by banging out a series of hits that brought Brandon Crawford home from third.  What should have been a double-play ball turned out to be too late at first, allowing the winning run to score.  This sent Team USA into the final game, where they won the first WBC championship for the country by beating Puerto Rico, another revenge game, 8-0.
The Experience
The weather may have been damp and gloomy, but the spirit of the crowd was not.  As one newspaper writer put it, it had something of a high school atmosphere, with everyone having a great time supporting their team.  
And more impressive than that, was how friendly the crowd was.  It was pretty evenly matched, with the fans of Team USA and Team Japan evenly numbered.  The moment one side started chanting, “Ni-pon, Ni-pon!” the other side would retort, “USA!  USA!”  
But in between the chants and the cheers, and the calls from both sides telling the umps where their judgement was lacking, everyone was having fun together.  I saw Team USA fans giving Team Japan high fives for good plays by their team on the field, and Team Japan fans asking to take photographs with the Team USA fans sitting in their rows.  It was an intense game that both sides wanted their team to win.  But it was also a collection of baseball fans, enjoying the game they love being well-played in conditions that were less than ideal.  It could be said that the conditions heightened the drama.  But it was the fans that elevated this to one of the most intensely fun games I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch.  
It has bothered me since the inception of the WBC that the United States, the country where baseball was born, had not won a championship.  Time after time, Team USA would field a team with a lineup consisting of the best sluggers we had to offer.  Our best finish was in 2013, when we ended up in fourth place.  
This year, we brought together a team of quality position players that could hit and play defense, and added a pitching rotation that could shut opposing batters down.  And this time, we won.  This pleases me greatly.  But the experience of watching games where the crowd was so into it each time, from literally around the world, made me even happier.  
This is something I definitely want to see happen again and again.  

Play Ball!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

World Baseball Classic - Game 3 - USA vs. Canada

The Game
This game started with an explosion and then cruised to its end after that.  
Going into this game, Team USA was in a situation of “win and you’re in.”  The Dominican Republic had already done to Colombia what they had been doing to every other team they faced, scoring 7 runs in the 11th to break a 3-3 tie and end up winning 10-3.  This meant that Team USA could avoid a messy tie-breaker situation like that which got Mexico eliminated from the tournament the day before by beating Canada and taking the 2nd spot behind the DR.  
In the first and second innings, the team certainly looked like they were determined to ensure there would be no surprise comeback against them this game.  
For the third game in a row, Team USA got a dominate pitching performance from their starting pitcher.  Danny Duffy went four innings before being pulled due to pitch count, allowing only two hits and no runs.  When you add his performance to Stroman’s and Archer’s the games before, Team USA starting pitching went 16 2/3 innings without giving up a single run, and striking out 15 during that stretch, tying a WBC records for strikeouts in a single round.  Only once in the three games I saw were there men on first and second behind one of the starters.  
I thought Duffy’s was the most commanding performance of the three, at least in the beginning.  He started off with a first pitch strike with almost every batter he faced, and sometimes even two.  He stayed ahead of them and forced them to make easy grounders to the infield when they did make contact.  
Team USA hitting was just as dominant in the first two innings.  They went through the entire line-up in the first inning, posting three runs and driving out the Canadian starting pitcher before the frame was up.  They added another four more in the 2nd, punctuated by a three-run homer by Nolan Arenado.  It was the first home run in the series for the team and put them up 6-0 at that point in the game.  I started wondering after the inning ended if was going to see the game shorted by the WBC mercy rule, which ends the game if one team is ahead by 15 runs after five innings, or ahead by 10 after seven.  At the rate they were scoring runs, I was looking forward to an early end and a chance to get back to the hotel early to pack for my flight out next morning.  
After the blistering start, the game settled down into something less intense.  Maybe the USA hitters didn’t feel the need to pile on the runs with how well their pitchers were doing.  The remainder of the game would have a player or two reach base, but there was no sense of any genuine threat to the score being built.  Only Buster Posey’s solo shot in the bottom of the eight changed the scoreboard after the third inning started.  
The USA relievers did a much better job preventing any hint of a rally by
Team Canada.  The Canadian batters were displaying their frustration with greater frequency with each inning and at bat.  Canada went 0-3 in the first round of the WBC and will have to qualify if they are to play in the tournament in 2021. 
With this win, Team USA finished 2-1 behind the Dominican Republic in their pool and will start play later this week in San Diego at Petco Park.  They will play the DR team again on Saturday, 3/18, in a rematch of Saturday’s game.  
The Experience
This was very much my usual experience at a ballpark in the United States.  There were no drums or chants.  The seats were fairly empty when the game started, though that may have been due to the unexpected rainstorm that swooped through just before game time.  They filled up soon enough though as people came in late.  It was first time I recall seeing “the wave” make its way through the crowd during the tournament.  I don’t “wave” myself.  It often seems to be something fans start doing when the action on the field isn’t keeping their interest.  
That may have been the case this time two.  With the explosion of runs at the beginning of the game, it was pretty much done before it was over.  I was happy with the result.  I wanted to see Team USA go on the the 2nd and then Final Rounds after this, and now they have that chance.  But the looks on the faces of the Team Canada fans, some of whom I’d met and talked with, and sat next to while they cheered on the USA against Colombia and the DR, in the previous games took away any desire to celebrate overtly.  This was not how they wanted their team to go out, and I could appreciate that sentiment.  
As for the WBC as an event, I can say I definitely enjoyed it.  As I said, I got the result I wanted overall, Team USA advancing to the next round.  But it reminded me of my experience going to WorldCon, the World Science Fiction Convention which takes place every year in a different city somewhere on the planet.  Just as I am alone in my “normal life” when it comes to not having someone to talk with about aliens and faster than life travel, I have very few people on a daily basis where I can chat about how the game would be better without the DH rule, or why Kershaw is so dominate, or what team needs what to make it to the playoffs.  This trip to the WBC gave me a chance to talk with people every day for three days straight, that shared my passion for the game and gave me a glimpse as how other countries embrace it.  

I hope this tournament continues.  And I hope to go to it again.  Like…  Next week when the finals come to Dodger Stadium?  If Team USA makes it, I plan on being there. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

World Baseball Classic - Game 2 - Dominican Republic vs. USA

Dominican Republic vs. USA.  Final Score: 7 to 5 - Dominican Republic Wins.
The Game
 The game had a “same, but different” feel from the start.  Team USA playing another Latina American team, this type the more heavily favored champion from the 2013 WBC, the Dominican Republic.  It was billed as a rematch from four years ago, when the Dominican Republic defeated Team USA to advance to the finals of Round 2 play.  
This time Team USA was playing as the visiting team, batting at the top of the inning.  And it felt they were the visiting team.  The crowd, much, much larger than the day before when the U.S. beat Colombia, was decisively dominated by fans of the DR Team.  At least one fellow Team USA fan gave an estimate of three to one, DR vs. USA fans in attendance.  I don’t doubt his estimate at all.  
And as with the Colombian fas, the DR fans were loud and raucous, chatting and playing drums and horns from the get-go.  Even more so.  As the game started, they cheered every out, every strike, as if it were happening in the ninth inning of a World Series game.  
This game started slowly.  After two pitches, the DR pitcher paused as the pitching coach and someone that must have been a trainer came out to the mound.  I saw the trainer checking the pitcher’s foot.  Just as I started wondering if he had pulled something with his first pitch, they brought groundskeepers out to rake the mound for him, particularly the spot where he was landing at the end of his motion.  
As with the game against Colombia, Team USA got some stellar starting pitching.  Marcus Stroman allowed only 3 hits scattered over 4 and 2/3 innings.  There were moments where it looked like he was being frustrated over his pitches not hitting the zone the way he wanted them, or maybe that he wasn’t getting the calls he was expected, but they were few and he worked through them to get DR side out without allowing a run to cross the plate.  Team USA hitters did their jobs, putting balls in play and, aided by a couple of DR fielding errors in the outfield, added one or two runs per inning over a three inning span.  By the time Stroman reached his pitch limit and was forced to leave, Team USA added two more runs to build what I thought was a comfortable 5-0 lead.  
That proved to be wrong.  The comeback started in the bottom of the 6th, with the first homer I’ve seen hit this tournament off of Tanner Roark.  This gave the pro-DR crowd a huge burst of adrenalin.  There roar of approval was so loud it hurt my ears and left them ringing.  It got louder as Roark allowed another run before the inning was over.  Suddenly we had a game again.  
The DR relievers were up to the task, silencing the previously productive USA bats.  The DR hitters were swinging with added life, often ahead in the counts and having men on base before USA pitching could register an out.  Roark left after giving up another run in the 7th.  USA was able to escape that inning, with their lead shaved to two runs at 5 to 3.
Andrew Miller, whose relief work for Cleveland last year helped the Indians reach their first World Series in decades, came on in the 8th to stop the DR rally.  What he did instead was give up two home runs, one with men on base, to Starling Marte whose error earlier in the game allowed the U.S. to their first two runs.  By the end of the inning, the DR, and their insanely delirious fans were up 7 to 5.  
The US batters went down one-two-three in the top of the 9th to end the game that way.  
The Experience
This game was as painful to experience as it was exciting to watch.  
First, there was the heartbreak of seeing the team build what I thought was a commanding lead on the back of quality pitching and timely hitting, only to see it blasted to pieces over the course of three successive innings  What made it especially bad was the feeling that, for whatever reason, the DR batters were just waiting for Stroman to leave so they could get to the relievers.  It makes even more bewildering when you look at the bull pen Team USA sports and see that it’s filled with very high quality arms, pitchers that are used to coming in and saving games and squashing rallies during the regular season.  
So far, the two starters for Team USA threw 8 2/3 innings, allowing on 3 hits and no runs to opposing batters.  Post that line on any box score and you’d lead people to believe that your team was dominating play.  
Second it was physically painful when the DR. heavy crowd got into it again once their team started their comeback.  I mean this quite literally when I say, My…  Ears…  Hurt.  More than once I used my fingers to plug them to stop the pain.  I once saw Metallica perform live in concert at the Great Western Forum back in the day.  Yesterday, when the DR drove in their winning runs, it was louder.  
Finally, there is a sadness within me stemming from this loss.  After the game, I spoke to  a number of the Team USA fans walking back to our hotel.  There was the usual selection of questions we were asking each other.  Why did Leyland, the manager for Team USA, send Roark out again in the 7th when he so clearly struggled in the 6th?  Where were “all the stars,” referring to the superstar players from the MLB that opted to not try for the WBC?  And also, amongst those fans still looking forward, what does Team USA need to do to go forward into the 2nd Round?  
I had a question of my own, one that came out of a talk from three of us standing by the front desk before going up to our rooms.  It was a thought that started gnawing at me as I sat amongst the fans from Colombia and the Dominican Republic, and remembered watching Japanese baseball with those fans as well.  One that seemed to connect to the criticism being directed about the MLB regarding its attitude toward the World Baseball Classic, one where they support it in the media, but seem to not encouraging the players, or perhaps even dissuading them to a degree through playing limitations, to participate.  
Could it be, I asked, that America, the country that invented the game, is being eclipsed in its passion for the sport by other countries, like the Dominican Republic and Japan? 
No one I asked the question gave an outright, “no.”  They all considered it.  Some conceded that it might be true.  “Where were the US fans?” one asked me in reply, pointing to the overwhelming support for the DR that showed up.  One other conceded that, “There are so many other things, other sports, to choose from here,” and that for a country like the DR, baseball might be all they have, so they put everything they have into it.  
Maybe.  I’m willing to bet they have soccer, too. 
About Team USA’s chances, it comes down to this.  If the Dominican Republic beats Colombia today (they’re leading 3 to 1 in the top of the fifth as I write this), and USA beats Canada, the the DR and the USA both advance to the 2nd Round as the top two teams from their pool.  That’s the most straightforward way for the US to go to San Diego to play.  
If Colombia wins over the DR, and Canada beats the US, then the Dominican Republic and Colombia go to the next round.  That’s the most straightforward way for Team USA to be eliminated.  
All the other combinations, with Team USA at either 2-1 or 1-2, lead to tiebreakers based on defense, the number of runs allowed per inning, then the number of earned runs allowed per inning, amongst the teams vying for the spot, with a possible tie-breaker game taking place on Monday, 3/13.  
Clearly, the best thing Team USA can do for itself is win against Canada tonight.  

PS: Colombia just scored in the bottom of the 6th, making the score 3-2, DR.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

World Baseball Classic - Game 1 - USA vs Colombia

A quick blog posting on my Experiences at the World Baseball Classic, Pool C, in Miami, Florida.
USA vs. Colombia.  Final Score: 3 to 2 - USA Wins.
The Game
Based on the scores I’d seen posted in previous WBC games, I figured we were in for an offensive oriented affair.  My expectation was strengthened when they announced one of the rule changes to MLB play: Pitchers are on a strict 65 pitch limit.  They can only go over that count to finish an at-bat.  I thought that once the starters were done for the day at least, the batters would get a chance to feed on the relievers.  
That didn’t quite happen.  The starting pitchers, Jose Quintana for Colombia and Chris Archer were masterful in their openings.  Archer pitched perfect baseball for his four innings before being pulled after the fourth, having thrown only 41 pitches.  Pulling him before his limit I believe saves him to return for another appearance, as pitchers that hit the maximum are forced to rest a certain number of days.  Quintana almost as good, allowing only a single man to walk before giving up a single in the fifth. Quintana did get some inspired help from his centerfielder, Tito Polo, who robbed Team USA batters of four of five hits that would have been doubles and at least one run that would have scored had he not made another of his diving catches.  
In the news this morning, it was mentioned that Archer and Quintana combined for the longest stretch of run-less baseball in the history of the WBC.  Well played.
After the starters left, things got more interesting as both bullpens struggled to hold the opposing batters in check.  Whenever I checked the scoreboard, it seemed to show the pitcher on the mound throwing as many balls as strikes, if not more.  This seemed to be more true for the USA relievers, one of whom gave up the first runs of the game by giving up three doubles in a row to Colombia.  Team USA had to work harder to get runners in scoring position, and was only able to tie the game when a third strike got past the Colombian catcher.  Nolan Arenado, hesitated a second before sprinting to first.  He barely beat the throw to be safe, and the running came home from third to score.  
The game stayed tied, despite an opportunity for Colombia when a Team USA reliever walked two men in a row with one out, until the bottom of the 10th when Adam Jones, with men on second and third, smacked a hit into shallow left-center, scoring the runner from third.  
This was a great game to watch.  It started as a tense pitchers duel and turned into a twisting turning affair where it felt like any hit, or blown throw, might decide the game.  From the fifth inning forward, I had to get up out of my seat and pace back and forth along the concourse to blow off steam and tension and continue watching.  
The Experience
The game was very fast paced.  That’s what happens when you have two pitchers efficiently dealing with one side of batters after another.  We reached nine innings before three hours, and only got a little ways past the three-hour mark because of extra innings.  
Besides the 65 pitch limit, WBC apparently uses the DH, Designated Hitter rule.  This was another reason why I figured on seeing more offense.  Another rule change they announced at the top of the 10th which I didn’t get to see,, if a game is tied at the end of the 10th inning, starting with the 11th inning, the hitting team gets to start with men on first and second base.  A baseball version of sudden-death.  We didn’t get to see that happen, but it’s an interesting idea.  
The Fans
When I first went to Japan in 2007, one of things I wanted to do was see a baseball.  Not just because I’m a fan of the sport, but because I had started studying Japanese the year before, I thought the game would prove to be something of a Rosetta Stone for me.  I knew the game and could follow along despite being able to speak only basic “survival level” Japanese at the time, and would be able to gain insight into their culture by how they played and watched the game.  
The World Baseball Classic is the first international sports festival I’ve attended.  And despite not coming with the specific intent of gaining insight into Colombian culture through baseball, I did notice somethings about how the fans participated in the event.  
Basically, they are like the Japanese, only different.
The difference amounted to that of discretion.  The Japanese will chant and make noise for their team when they are up to bat.  When their team is on defense, Japanese support turns into something you might see and hear at a golf tournament, polite applause and nods at the good play just made.
The Colombians don’t make the distinction between when their team is at the plate or in the field.  They make noise.  A lot of it.  It seems like they only quiet down to take a breath before banging their drums and tooting their horns.  And their is none of the organized chants the Japanese love to memorize and sing together.  The only thing I clearly recognized was, “Colombi, Colombi, Colombi!” when their team was threatening, or was trying to squelch a threat.  It sounds similar to what I’ve heard when international soccer games are aired on TV.  American fan participation tends to be more sedate for the most part, spiking when some big hit happens, or at a dramatic situation when everyone stands up to see what’s going to happen.  Only then will they join together in a ritual chant, like “Let’s Go, Dodgers!”
Colombian fans, just like the Japanese fans I’ve watched games with, also seem to be a very polite crowd.  At the game I was surrounded by people wearing Colombia colors.  A few Americans were around me at the beginning, but left soon after, presumably to find more red, white and blue seating that open closer to the action.  
I noticed that these fans made a concerted effort to engage me in a positive fashion depending on what was happening on the field.  If Team USA made a great defensive play, they would turn to me, give me a thumbs up and say, “Your guys are good.”  When their side made made a big play, like when Tito robbed Team USA of a run, after cheering they would turn to me and shrug.  “Lucky catch,” they said once.  “Next time, your guys, they gonna get it, for sure.”  
For my part, I did what I could to return the sportsmanlike attitude, answering questions about what was written up on the scoreboard, and explaining what I knew about the rule changes for the tournament.  
At the end, after Team USA won, they looked at each other and shrugged that “oh, well…” shrug every sports fan knows.  As they walked past me to leave, they each extended their hand to shake mine or offer a fist bump.
“Good game.”  “Good job.”  “Congratulations.”  It was almost like I had arranged all this for them.  But as the only representative of my country on that row, I shook their hands, bumped their fists and agreed it was a very good game.  

I didn’t thank them for coming, like I’d actually hosted the game for them.  That would have been weird.  

Saturday, February 25, 2017

A Rant Against the Automatic IBB (Intentional Bases on Balls)

I learned today that the four pitch intentional walk is becoming history.  It could be in effect for the 2018 season.  Instead of a pitcher having to throw four slow pitches outside the strike zone, the defensive team would only need to indicate their decision to intentionally walk someone by signaling the umpire.  Presumably by waving four fingers at him.  The batter would then be allowed to take his base.  
The reason I’ve heard for the change is to “bring the game into the twenty-first century,” by picking up its pace of play.  Younger fans, Millennials and Generation Xers presumably will be more interested in the game if some of the “fat” taking up time, such as making a pitcher throw four pitches in a row without the batter swinging at them.  
This is along with other rule changes being discussed, such as limiting the number of visits to the mound a coach or manager can make, and installing a pitch clock and issuing balls or strikes for violation when either a pitcher or a hitter delays the game.  
I find this effort to be extremely irritating.  Both in the specific change being proposed, and in the general sentiment it expresses.  
As far as the four-pitch IBB (Intentional Base on Balls) is concerned, I don’t believe that it will have that great an impact on how long it takes to play a game.  The IBB is usually granted in very specific situations.  The team on defense has allowed men on base, usually in scoring position.  A player known to be a good hitter is at the plate.  The defensive team has an open base they can allow the hitter to take for the opportunity to throw to the batter following the good hitter who, if not necessarily a bad hitter, doesn’t have the reputation of hitting as well as the player ahead of him in the line-up.  
In a close game, this is one delicious moment.  If you are rooting for the hitting team, you’re seeing your team’s chance to get back in the game.  If you’re rooting for the team in the field, you begging the gods of baseball to be kind to them, give them a strike out, or a double-play.  Let’s get out of this in one piece and finish them off.  
Then, when the catcher extends his hand outward, and you know what’s coming next, that’s when the fans on one side will start to boo.  If it’s the hitting team fans, their booing the opposing team.  It’s like they’re cheating.  It’s like they’re afraid.  It’s like taking a knee in football when you’re team, the one on defense, is less than one score away from going ahead and winning.  
By the time the four pitches are done, everyone is revved up.  As the batter takes his base, everyone is on their feet, looking to the next batter.  The defensive team fans are now praying for a strike-out, a double play, harder than before.  The fans of the team at bat are thinking, “Ok…  Show this hurler that your not some piece of meat to be taken lightly.”  
The time it took to stir up this situation?  About fifteen, twenty seconds.  Over the course of a three hour game.  A situation that doesn’t happen in every game.  By the end of the season, we might be able to shave a full five minutes off total playing time of all the games played that year.
But look at the fun, the build to excitement, the involvement of the fans that will be lost?  
And though they don’t happen very often, the opportunities for ruses to take place, when a catcher signals for a pitch-out, but then drops back into position to catch a called strike, fooling the batter and ending the side.  Or, for a batter to extend his swing to catch one of those lobbed balls and punch it out for a hit, or even a home run.  These things have happened a handful of times over the course of baseball.  Pete Rose, Ty Cobb and Willie Mays have all knocked in runs by swinging at balls intended to walk them.  
In 1976, Rod Carew, when he was playing for the Twins, was being given an intentional walk in the 11th inning of a game against the Oakland A’s.  Rod was hitting around 350 at the time, so the decision was a smart one.  But Carew decided to swing at the first two pitches, turning them into strikes.  It was his way of challenging the pitcher.  “Hey, buddy…  I’ll spot you two.  Still want to walk me?”  
The pitcher threw four more pitches and walked him.  The Twins ended up winning the game in the next inning, but damn!  Who wouldn’t want to have watched a moment like that.  That’s like Babe Ruth pointing out where the home run was going to go, or Lou Gehrig promising to hit two home runs for a sick kid.  It’s a moment that baseball fans remember.
Which, under the new rule, can’t happen again.  This sort of human happenstance that is in baseball’s DNA is being phased out to make it fit more comfortably in modern life. 
Which brings me to the underlying reason why I find this effort to “modernize” the game so annoying.  I don’t watch baseball, I don’t go to every professional ballpark I can (up to (twelve so far in two countries, with plans to visit up to six more this year), because it fits in my modern lifestyle.  
I go to baseball games because it takes me OUT of my modern lifestyle.  I go because I know, for the next two and a half, or three, or four or 8 hours 26 minutes if it sets a new record for longest professional game ever, I don’t have to do anything but watch what I think is the most beautiful game created by man, eat as many hot dogs and drink as much beer as I can, and figure out a way to get to the restroom and back before the next pitch while the teams change sides between innings.  
In a era where we are lives are dictated and shaped by the ticking of a clock, we need more activities, more games, more events, where things unfold according to their natural evolution, and we go with them, strolling, running, or standing still to watch.  Things that start when they start, and end when they end, in a natural pace set by the events that unfold.  Baseball is one of those rare gems that we have brought with us into the twenty-first century that do that for us.  
There is one question that I came up with when I first heard of the idea that baseball needs to be sped up or modernized, and that’s this: When your lover/girlfriend or boyfriend/wife or husband/significant other takes you in their arms and holds you close, and you start to feel that urgency that tells you something more will be happening in the next few moments, is your impulse to turn on a timer to make sure it fits in your schedule?  

If your answer is “Yes,” then you’re missing the point.  Maybe you should become a football fan instead.