Though a number of ball clubs have come and gone,
since 1958 Japanese professional baseball has had twelve teams, evenly divided
into two leagues.
The higher status Central League offers a more
traditional style of baseball while the more dynamic Pacific League features
faster-paced games and employs the designated hitter. Each year, the two pennant
winners meet in the Japan Series.
In 2005 the leagues agreed to a
portion of the season in which inter-league play would take place.
Although both leagues were formed in 1950,
professional baseball dates back to the 1934 founding of the Great Japan Tokyo
Baseball Club, later known as the Tokyo Kyojin and eventually renamed the
Yomiuri Giants. Though the Giants dominated Japanese baseball until 1973, the
player draft helped level the playing field.
Eastern Japan: With the largest possible
baseball market, the Tokyo area hosts five pro baseball teams: Yomiuri
Giants, Yakult Swallows, Seibu Lions, Chiba
Lotte Marines and Yokohama BayStars.
Japan's most popular ball club, the Yomiuri
Giants always attract standing-room-only crowds. Because the Giants won
nine straight Japan Series championships in the 1960s as Japan was becoming an
economic superpower, many fans consider a Yomiuri championship a symbol of
financial success. To cheer against the Giants, therefore, is to cheer against
prosperity and against Japan.
Swallows, also in Central Tokyo, played in obscurity for most of their first four decades.
Without much television exposure, however, Yakult still has a relatively small
but enthusiastic group of fans who turn up regularly at Meiji-Jingu Stadium,
Tokyo's oldest and most traditional ballpark.
Thirty minutes west of Tokyo, the Seibu
Lions play at Seibu Dome, a covered amphitheater built by team owner
Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, one of the richest men in the world. With lots of money, good
scouts and the best pitching staff in Japan, the Lions are always competitive.
On the other side of Japan's capital city, the Chiba
Lotte Marines play on the Tokyo Bay waterfront. Because of low
attendance, Lotte is desperate for fans to watch games, and the ballpark staff
are the friendliest and most helpful in Japan. Although the team has some good
players, the Marines have only posted one winning season in the last decade.
In the past few years, the Yokohama
BayStars have become one of the strongest teams in the Central League.
In 1998, the BayStars won their first Japan Series championship in four decades.
The sightlines are
excellent at Yokohama Stadium and the location, a few blocks from Chinatown and several outdoor
malls, can't be beat.
To make up for what would have been
one less team in the Pacific League as a result of the merger of the Kintetsu
Buffaloes and the Orix BlueWave, a new franchise was granted to the Sendai area with
the Rakuten Golden Eagles. While players, coaches and managers from the
United States are now relatively commonplace, the Eagles have the first general
manager from the United States, Marty Kuehnert.
For years they shared the Tokyo Dome with the Giants, the
Ham Fighters are the negative image of the Giants. In the last five
decades, the franchise has only won two pennants and one Japan Series title.
In 2004 they moved to a new home field in the Sapporo Dome, though they still
play some home games in the Tokyo Dome.
Western Japan: While the Chunichi Dragons
play in Nagoya and the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks and Hiroshima Carp represent their
own cities, two teams play in the Osaka-area: the Orix Buffaloes and the Hanshin
Tigers. While Tokyo residents often consider themselves
upper-class, fans in these outlying areas are usually more energetic.
When the Chunichi
Dragons moved into Nagoya Dome in 1997, the team sank to last place.
after making several player changes, the Dragons bounced back and won their
fourth Central League pennant in 1999. Nagoya Dome, with it's major league
dimensions, may be tough on hitters, but fans can find plenty of things to do
After moving to Osaka Dome in 1997, the
Buffaloes attracted standing-room-only crowds for the first time in the
team's history. The Buffaloes signed a relationship agreement with the Los
Angeles Dodgers in recent years and their level of play has increased, though
attendance has not matched those early days in the dome.
Having been led by six-time batting champion Ichiro Suzuki,
BlueWave had been one of the strongest Pacific League teams. Playing their home games in Kobe at
Yahoo BB Stadium, the BlueWave had an average local following.
As mentioned earlier, the merger of
the Kintetsu and Orix clubs after the 2004 season resulted in the Orix
Buffaloes. Most of their games will be played at the Kyocera Osaka Dome,
with a fair number continuing to be played at Yahoo BB.
Representing Osaka in that city's rivalry with
Tokyo, the Hanshin
Tigers have for six decades sought to upstage the Yomiuri Giants. A
relatively strong team until the 1980s, the Tigers are to the Giants what the
Red Sox are to the Yankees. Like their Fenway-dwelling counterparts, the Tigers,
who play at Koshien Stadium, usually come out on the losing end.
Playing across the street from the A-bomb Dome,
Toyo Carp have been a strongest team in the Central League the
past two decades. Hiroshima Stadium's cozy dimensions offer good visibility for
the team's lively fans.
Moving into Japan's first dome with a retractable
roof, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks have a devoted group of fans. The Hawks are managed by former Yomiuri Giants home run king Sadaharu
Acknowledgment: Dan Latham