On Tuesday night, we made our first trip to the Seibu Dome, home of the Nippon Professional Baseball League’s Saitama Seibu Lions. The excitement of the experience was only slightly tempered by a two-out, two-run home run in the top of the 9th inning by Nobuhiro Matsuda of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, turning a 3-2 Lions victory into a heartbreaking 4-3 loss.
With all due respect to American baseball, this was easily the most enjoyable ballpark experience I can remember. We sat in the home team’s general admission section, stretching from dead center field to the left field foul pole. The Hawks fans had their own section in right field. Separate, as it should be…
General admission doesn’t have seats or bleachers. It’s a wide-open area, covered in old Astroturf sloping from the concourse down to the outfield fence. Most people brought tarps or blankets to make the hard turf a little more comfortable.
But you only need to worry about sitting during the Hawks’ at-bats. While the home team is batting, we’re standing. And singing, chanting, jumping, waving and pumping our fists as commanded by the rally leader. We are the ōendan!
Kattobase Ginjiro we chant as Lions’ catcher Ginjiro Sumitani steps to the plate. Ku-ri-ya-ma, Ku-ri-ya-ma we sing, encouraged by our neighbor in the Lions Den who waves her towel and shouts encouragement at her favorite player.
The chant of moeru, moeru involves clapping and jumping up and down, proclaiming that the current batter is on-fire (“burning”). Our new friends teach us the chants as we go and forgive our mispronunciations of the ones we try to pick up along the way.
The spirit of, and respect for, competition is alive and well in Japanese baseball. In the top of the 7th inning, the Hawks fans are given their chance to celebrate their team.
In the middle of the 7th, the Lions fans get our turn. Our new friends hand us two packages of “Victory Balloons,” long, blue balloons of a—ahem—questionable shape. As the Hawks make the last out in the top half of the inning, we blow up our balloons, sing the team victory song, and let them fly!
As our Victory Balloons take flight, the Lions do as well, scoring the go-ahead run in the bottom of the frame. The RBI triple is met with a new celebratory chant… ichi, ni, san… banzai, banzai, BANZAI!!!
Standing and cheering while the other team is at the plate is a no-no. This goes for the 9th inning with the home team on the verge of victory as well. In America, the home crowd would be on its feet, cheering the team over the top. In Seibu, we are seated and silent.
Maybe a little cheering would have helped as the aforementioned two-out HR sinks the Lions hopes. Former Major League pitcher Dennis Sarfate comes on in the bottom of the 9th for the Hawks and strikes out the side, along with our hopes for a Lions victory.
But it’s still early in the season and this is just one stumble at the beginning of a long race. As with most of our experiences, we were embraced (literally in one case after that RBI triple) by the locals. In the Seibu Dome, we’re not Japanese or American… We Are Lions!