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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Beginner's Guide to Japanese professional baseball

As my first blog post, I'll describe the Japanese baseball league, with subjective views you won't find in other places.

The Japanese professional baseball league is made up of 12 teams, divided into the Central League and the Pacific League.  The teams are based in various locations throughout Japan, but most of the team names have the owning company's name rather than the hometown.  For details, see the wikipedia entry.

Central League
The Central League has traditionally been the more "popular" league, including fan-favorite teams such as the Yomiuri Giants and Hanshin Tigers.  Here are descriptions of the teams:
  • Yomiuri Giants (Tokyo)
    Based in Tokyo, the Giants are the nation's team.  Although their popularity is declining, most games are still packed with fans and almost always in the race to win the league.  They have been similar to the Yankees in that they have lots of money and buy the best free agents in the market.  In the past few seasons they are starting to use their funds on player development though.
  • Hanshin Tigers (Osaka)
    The Tigers are Osaka's (second largest city in Japan) favorite team.  Fans are known to be rowdy and their home games are almost always sold out.  Despite their popularity their known more for their history of failure rather than their sporadic success.  
  • Chunichi Dragons (Nagoya)
    Another local favorite team, the Dragons are well-known to stop the Giants from winning 10 pennants in a row.  Recently they have better pitching than their rivals.
  • Hiroshima Carp (Hiroshima)
    If you are visiting Japan definitely try to sit in the fan section of a Carp game.  Although financially challenged and usually not in the race for even 3rd place, their fans dress in the team color and do unique chants.  
  • Tokyo Yakult Swallows (Tokyo)
    The Swallows' best years were in the 90's, but other than that have mostly been Tokyo's "other" team.  Their home park, Jingu stadium, is an excuse for a ballpark but worth visiting in a trip to Japan to experience the small size and umbrella cheers.
  • Yokohama BayStars (Yokohama)
    The BayStars are the annual favorites to finish last.  Their stadium is in the middle of Yokohama and on a nice day a great visit.

Pacific League
"The popular Central, skilled Pacific" -- this is how people refer to the leagues.  Traditionally the Pacific League has hidden behind the popular Central League, but has produced high quality players such as Nomo and Ichiro.  Recently Japanese baseball teams are trying to adhere more to their hometowns and as a result the Pacific League's popularity is increasing.  And for the teams:
  • Saitama Seibu Lions (Saitama)
    My personal favorite team, the Lions have won the 2nd most Japan championships trailing only the Giants.  They dominated the Pacific League, including popularity, in the late 80's and 90's.  They are no longer the team of the Pacific League but still are in the race for the pennant every year.
  • Fukuoka Softbank Hawks (Fukuoka)
    The only team based in Kyushu, one of the islands making up Japan, the Hawks have become both a competitive and popular team.  They are based in Fukuoka dome which has a retractable roof that never opens.
  • Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters (Sapporo, Hokkaido)
    After moving to Hokkaido, the Fighters (not the Ham Fighters) have gained a local fan base who jump up and down when their number one hitter (Inaba) comes to the plate and applauds in support of pitchers who are down 3 balls in the count. 
  • Chiba Lotte Marines (Chiba)
    In Bobby Valentine's second stint as the manager of the Marines, the Chiba team won the Japanese championship.  Before moving to Chiba people used to visually count the number of fans in the stands and witness couples making out.  Recently they have a strong fan base who chant like soccer fans in Europe.
  • Orix Buffaloes (Osaka, Kobe)
    The former 2 pacific league teams, Orix and Kintetsu, merged into one and became the Orix Buffaloes.  The Hanshin Tigers are the area's team and not too many fans follow the Buffaloes.  The main fame is probably the fact that Ichiro was on this team.
  • Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles (Sendai, Miyagi)
    Baseball newest team, the Eagles started by posting the 2nd worst season in history but finished a respectable 2nd place in 2009.  Sendai's fans are known to be warm and positive, with fans even saying "That was better than before" even if they lose terribly. 

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Need in-depth information about Japanese baseball in English?  Want to know about prospects and future MLB stars?  Curious about Japanese baseball in general?  I plan to post stories about Japanese baseball here, please follow if you are interested!