Meeting “Minivish” (that’s what the jersey read) and “Mininaka” was an unexpected highlight.
Watching baseball in different cities, countries, stadiums, seasons, and degrees of competitiveness has become something of a hobby of mine, so imagine my delight at being able to attend the Major League Baseball Opening Series between the Mariners and A’s in Tokyo. My buddy Lex and I arrived at the airport very early for our Wednesday morning flight from Taipei, the lead-up to which was spent discussing the Mike Trout extension. On the ground in Japan, we tackled the Tokyo subway map and, after a pit stop for lunch (udon, sobe, tempura, Asahi), we found ourselves checked in at our hotel and ready to head to the Tokyo Dome in short order.
We arrived around 4 pm and joined the bustling, excited crowd elbowing for space outside the gates and merchandise tents. The MLB merch was largely what you’d expect – opening series branded hats, shirts, and bric-a-brac, plus sections of apparel for each of the current big name Japanese major leaguers. In addition to the MLB tents, as the home of the Yomiuri Giants, Tokyo Dome features a Giants-dedicated Under Armour shop and a club shop offering a huge selection of Giants goods and a cursory selection of stuff featuring other teams in Nippon Professional Baseball.
This was the first MLB Opening Day that either of us had been to and we didn’t want to miss any of the on-field action, so we made our way inside around 5:15. We grabbed the first of many beers just as batting practice was finishing up, and settled into some seats in the upper deck behind home plate. (We bought our tickets through StubHub and had no issues, which was a great relief. We heard from some other people that they had been stiffed on some standing room tickets they bought through SeatGeek.)
One of the first things that stands out when you go to a game in Japan are the beer vendors, all of whom are young ladies wearing some baseball uniform-inspired or otherwise sporty outfit emblazoned with the brand of beer they are selling. In addition to the uniforms, they are toting keg backpacks and pour your beer fresh with each order. In as much as we were amused by their outfits, the vendors found that having us sitting a row that opened up to a main aisle was very good for business as we could be counted on for about a round of beers each inning. Beers in the stadium go for a very reasonable ¥800 (~$7.25).
As a venue, the Tokyo Dome feels fairly small compared to most of the MLB parks I’ve been to. The average attendance for both games was 46,119. There’s a main bowl with a suite level and one upper deck. The bleachers in the corners seem to be where a lot of the fun is at, but there isn’t a ton of seating in the outfield, either. We had great sightlines for both games and I’d recommend Tokyo Dome as a place to watch a game.
One thing that felt a bit uninspired was the on-field pregame effort. Apparently the pre-game ceremony was sponsored by the US Air Force and Japan Air Defense Unit, so a military band performed the national anthems against a Top Gun-like video montage. The ceremonial first pitch was more in line with what you’d expect for the first game of the season in a foreign country with a rich baseball heritage. The pitch was thrown out by former Seattle Mariners pitcher Kazuhiro Sasaki with Kenji Johjima catching, and to kick up the cross-cultural flavor, Rickey Henderson acted as the batter. (In the second game, the trio was former Oakland Athletics’ pitcher Keiichi Yabu and infielder Akinori Iwamura and Ken Griffey, Jr. as the batter.)
When the game got underway I was pleasantly reminded about another thing that becomes very evident at baseball games in Japan: the fans are so attentive to what’s happening on the field. When the game is on everyone stays in their seats. Bathroom and food runs are made almost exclusively between innings. I can’t overstate how great this is. No getting up to let people in and out of your row in the middle of at bats, almost no one walking in front while the game is on. The people are really there to watch the game. American fans could learn a thing or two.
A better-known trademark behavior at NPB games are the near-constant singing and cheering from fans of both teams. Unfortunately, these games didn’t feature the bands and cheering sections that you get at NPB league games. I had previously seen a Yakult Swallows-Yomiuri Giants game, and the fan activity is pretty amazing. Every player has a song and it seems like there are dozens of cheers. In place of those nuances these two nights was plenty of excitement and lots and lots of cheering for literally anything that Ichiro did.
If you’re reading this you probably watched at least the highlights of the games, so I won’t bore you with play-by-play. I will say that in Game 1, it was great to see Domingo Santana get off to a strong start. I really enjoyed watching Santana when he was a Brewer and I’m happy to see him get a better shot than what Milwaukee can offer him. Game 2 was a really fun battle and it was too bad to see Oakland lose it in the fashion they did.
Obviously, the true highlight of this trip was getting to see Ichiro play his last games in front of a Japanese crowd. It was disappointing that Servais took him out of Game 1 when the M’s already had a lead, so it seemed expected that he’d go the distance in Game 2 unless maybe he got a hit. When they finally did make the substitution, it was very well played as they let Ichiro take the field and then made the switch before the start of the half inning, giving the crowd and the players ample opportunity to show their appreciation. It was truly goosebump-inducing. When, after a few extra innings, the game finally ended, the crowd hung around and cheered for quite some time before Ichiro came out for a curtain call. With everyone on their feet he (and about 40 camera guys) did a walking lap of the whole stadium, acknowledging the fans in every area. Total class act. It was really special to be there for that.
I’ll close with a topic that you probably expected me to comment on much earlier. I’ve saved the ballpark food review for the end because, unfortunately, the food inside the stadium sucked. Here’s a general roundup of what’s available: Bento boxes ($20-25), hot dogs ($6-9), burgers ($7-12), pretzels, churros, fries, chips, ice cream, etc. The concession stands we went to seemed very unprepared, but a lot of the food was really just not very good. We waited like 15 minutes for chili dogs that were cold and had chili squeezed from a packet and Cheez Whiz on them, a pretzel that had some sweet cream cheese inside (not good), and some fries (ok). The bento boxes were the only thing I really felt were overpriced in the stadium, and I’m not trying to eat that style of food at a baseball game anyways. All this being said, the outside of the stadium has much better offerings. There’s a Shack Shack, a Taco Bell, and some Japanese restaurants on the outside of the stadium. After our disappointing food experience at Game 1, we at a big late lunch (fish egg omelet, gyoza, ginger pork, salmon rice ball, beer/highball) before the game and planned to eat elsewhere after. I’m a little sad to say that I didn’t eat either Shake Shack or Taco Bell (we don’t have either in Taiwan), but how do you pass up Japanese food in Japan? For reference, at the one other game I’ve been to in Japan, the food was fine.
All in all, this was a fantastic little trip and a fantastic baseball experience. Go watch baseball in Japan, it’s a blast!
(Photos by John Murn/The Can of Corn)