Images courtesy of Drew Avery.
Images courtesy of Drew Avery.
On my flight to Busan, South Korea I sat next to an older Korean woman sporting a Detroit Tiger hat. It seemed serendipitous that I’d be seated next to a fellow Tigers fan on a vacation planned entirely around seeing baseball games. The issue, which was a big issue, was expressing this.
I was dying to know how she became a fan. I ran through the Tigers roster in my mind trying to recall any Korean players, and came up with nothing. Was she some sort of baseball aesthete, admiring Justin Verlander from afar for exalted reasons? Had she adopted the team during their World Series run in 1984? Was she just an incorrigible underdog-adopter, and so a supporter of the city of Detroit?
I finally caved, to no great avail. Unable to speak any Korean, pointed at the hat that was now in her lap while giving the thumbs up sign. “My team,” I said. “Number one.” In response I received some vigorous, polite, and unmistakably I-have-no-idea-what-your-saying nodding. End of communication. We began our descent.
When I arrived in the city of Busan I saw many more Tiger caps. And also White Sox caps and Angels caps and Athletics and Blue Jays and Rays caps: this was, apparently, a town of baseball junkies, albeit junkies served by the ubiquitous MLB Store, a franchise that sells only Major League Baseball merchandise, and which is all over Korea. After talking with friends living in Busan it became clear that wearing a team’s paraphernalia implied no particular loyalty, or even any affinity beyond a belief that the logo looked cool, and an acknowledgment that the hats had become something of a status symbol in a country that loves status symbols. My dreams of breaking through the language barrier by bonding over a mutual love of Miguel Cabrera’s pudgy mastery were dashed, but I still had three games to see.
The first of these was a home game for the Busan team, the Lotte Giants. I knew nothing about Korea’s baseball league and had very little in the way of expectations. I imagined something not unlike Independent League baseball, with vastly different concessions but a similar class of aging Four-A Americans. But it would of course be different, because I was in Busan, and things were different there. I was intrigued to see that our seats were in something dubbed “The Exciting Section.” Fans were encouraged to bring their own food and beverage.
The Giants play in a worn concrete bowl called Sijak Stadium; our seats in the Exciting Section required us passing through an unexcitingly familiar chain-link fence. The pitcher on the mound was an American. Shane Youman had enjoyed a stint with the Pittsburgh Pirates before slipping down to the minors, then the Independent Leagues, before catching on with Taiwan’s Lamigo Monkeys. Now here he was with the Giants in Korea.
In what would become a reoccurring theme of my baseball experience in Asia, the American player instantly became My Guy. Like all the Japanese people cheering on Ichiro at Yankee Stadium or the Koreans waving their flags for Shin-Soo Cho at Indians games, I was filled with a shallow, loud, seemingly instinctual nationalistic pride upon seeing my countryman perform outside his homeland. I needed Shane to become my American avatar, and he delivered with both a win and an awkwardly translated post-game interview.
But as with most baseball games viewed from a stadium seat instead of a couch, being there quickly became less about the action on the field and more about the interaction in the stands. I spent more time cataloging the difference between the Busan fan experience and the one I knew from home than I did tracking pitch counts. I was paying enough attention to notice that, late in the game, Byung-Hyun Kim made an appearance for the opposing NEXEN Heroes and immediately gave up a home run. I am mostly sure this was not some sort of jetlagged fever dream.
But there is plenty to watch for those who opt not to watch the baseball itself too closely. Korean baseball features cheerleaders, a maestro who leads fans in the cheers, and non-stop cheering for your team when they are at bat. During each player’s turn at bat, the maestro would get the crowd going on a chant. Each player has a unique song and almost all of them were based around a pop song with lyrics changed to incorporate the player’s name. It will be difficult, for the rest of my days, to hear “What’s Going On” by the 4 Non Blondes without thinking of Lotte Giants catcher Kang Min-Ho.
Around the seventh inning, orange plastic bags were handed out and immediately Giants fans had them all tied around the tops of their heads. No one was able to explain the significance of the bag, or seemed very troubled by their inability to do so. From the cheerleaders to the section for visiting fans, but most of all in its slightly opaque passion, it was more like a college football game a regular season MLB game. This is not at all a bad way for a baseball game to feel.
The Hanshin Tigers are reputed to have the most intense fans in Japan’s NPB, which is saying quite a bit. That was a big part of what brought me to Osaka, although I was confused about where exactly in Osaka it was bringing me: the Tigers game I’d watch was a home game played at the Kyocera Dome, which is the home stadium of Osaka’s other team, the Orix Buffalos. This is something that the Tigers do several times each season, but is kind of baffling all the same—something like the Yankees playing a few games at Citi Field just to give their Long Island-based fans an easier commute.
The Kyocera Dome is, whichever team is calling it home, a strange and astonishing place to play—a stadium seemingly designed by H.R. Giger, shaped more like a Godzilla-egg than a familiar sportsdome. On the inside, though, Kyocera was instantly, drearily recognizable: a place with the underlit, unremarkable ambiance of Tropicana Field and not that many more fans. The Tigers were bumping along the bottom of the league and hopelessly out of the playoff race. Even the most intense fans in Japanese baseball have a hard time singing songs about a last-place team.
Which is not to say that the chanting wasn’t continuous. It was, and was based not on contemporary pop standards a la Busan, but on a secret knowledge—one that changed with the situation in the game—that I did not have. I was left with a pitcher’s duel and an order of takoyaki, the fried octopus balls that are Osaka’s signature contribution to the Japanese fried-stuff scene.
That, and the realization that, were I to effectively join my chanting neighbors, I would need to purchase a pair of plastic Tiger sticks being wielded by seemingly everyone else in the section. I picked up mine around the third inning and fell in lockstep with the rest of the Hanshin faithful, beating them in time with the various cheers that rolled, without cease, through the innings. By the sixth inning I was exhausted, and was devoting enough attention and energy to staying in rhythm that the game became difficult to follow. When the Tigers finally scored, the fans seated around me beat their sticks against mine in celebration. It was not a leisurely fan experience, but these high-fives-by-proxy had the feel of something hard-earned.
Before the final out of the top of the seventh, my neighbors began prepping their balloons. I’d had the foresight to buy a pack, and watched as my balloon expanded into a frankly spermatozoan shape as I blew it up. After a short, oddly melancholy song, everyone released their balloons for a visually spectacular seventh-inning stretch. I ordered another beer from the beer girls who cart backpack kegs up and down the aisles and watched the stadium attendants pick up the deflated balloons off the field so that play could resume. I was completely satisfied that “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” and the game itself, had been supplanted by a mass act of performance art.
If Tokyo’s best-known team, the Yomiuri Giants, are the Yankees of the Japanese League, the cross-town Yakult Swallows aren’t the Mets. They are, maybe, the Brooklyn Cyclones.
Which is to say that they’re a good couple of links down the food chain, but also that they play in a beautiful ballpark. Meiji Jingu is an open-air concrete stadium that brings to mind a hybrid of Dodger and Yankee Stadiums with the comfortably close-to-the-action seating of the best minor league fields. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig played there during their tours of Japan. It’s where Lastings Milledge plays today.
I was prepared to the point of giddiness to watch Milledge, for reasons having to do with the aforementioned patriotic urge—call it Shane Youman Syndrome—and because Milledge is something like the perfect American import. Once a five-tool type, Milledge has embraced his inner swing-and-miss dinger-chaser in Japan, which makes him something of an outlier in a league that worships the sacrifice bunt, but also exactly the right sort of outsized ambassador for the stateside game. Swallows fans seem to have embraced the new three-true-outcome Milledge; he had his own cheering section, from which fans held up odd caricature drawings of him every time he came to bat. One featured Milledge as a merman of sorts; the picture's on the right. I never found out the backstory on that, and have been unable to imagine even a little bit of it on my own.
Lastings did not hit any home runs. He did author some prodigious swing-and-misses and deliver a handful of errors in the field. I felt a sort of meta-shame at my ambassador’s blundering diplomacy. I turned to the Swallow fans in my section to register my chagrin in the half-mime language I had adopted in place of learning the language. I was, at this point, getting comfortable at the game: growing accustomed to the non-stop chanting, the beer girls and the rag tag horn section that sat across the aisle from us. People handed us dried squid chips to sample and I picked up a cheering sheet that listed all the words to each players’ song. The only words I could contribute were the English “Fight!” and “Win!” Even the Milledge cheer took time to decipher. His last name had gained a syllable in translation and a strangely French pronunciation: Mil-La-Get.
Lastings booted his fourth play of the day around the time I finished my third beer, and I did something I would not have done had I been feeling less at home. That is, I did what one does when an outfielder biffs a fly ball: I booed him. The blank reaction of the fans in my section, who had been so generous with the squid chips and lyric sheets, told me instantly that this was not a good move. Booing and heckling had no part in the Japanese game, and I felt, suddenly, as if I didn’t, either. I missed the meatheaded intensity and posturing of the American ballpark experience with an urgent and confusing intensity—missed, somehow, the experience of wearing my Tigers hat to Yankee Stadium and being called a “queer” for doing so. I felt very far from home and very lost in this sea of fans whose only response to failure was to chant and cheer louder. The holy dimensions of the game remained intact and the rules were the same ones I grew up learning, but this was not baseball as I knew it.
And then came the seventh inning stretch. The Swallows dancers took the field, and the fan in front of us—apparently unbothered by my boorishness, my sudden and seemingly irretrievable lost-ness in the bleachers—handed me his umbrella. And then everyone else in the bleachers produced their umbrellas and opened them. We all raised them in unison and sang a song, and I was back in the game.