Red Sox compete in Far East division
TOKYO – They did everything to make it feel like home. Played the theme song from “Cheers” and sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and subjected the poor locals to “Sweet Caroline” in the eighth inning. Were this anywhere but Japan, where anime is always one peripheral glance away, the sight of three pixilated hot dogs slathered in different condiments racing down the streets on the scoreboard might have convinced the Tokyo Dome’s denizens that, yep, those Americans really are crazy.
Really, it was another day at Fenway Park, if only it had artificial turf, a bubbled ceiling like the Metrodome, a short-of-capacity crowd and all the charm of a wart. The Boston Red Sox, here to commence Major League Baseball’s 2008 season against the Oakland Athletics, warmed up with an exhibition game Saturday against the Hanshin Tigers, a game that, a few years ago, might have carried some significance.
Before the Red Sox won two championships and graduated from underdogs to overexposed, their Far East brethren in futility were the Tigers. In their 70-plus seasons, the Tigers have won one championship. They, too, play their regular-season games in a historic stadium, Koshien, which also hosts the eponymous national high school baseball tournament where the legend of Daisuke Matsuzaka began with a 17-inning, 250-pitch victory.
Now, Matsuzaka is with the Red Sox, the starter for the regular-season opener against the A’s in a few days, just another cog in the machine. And while Japan got to see the Red Sox in all their splendor, Boston likewise was greeted to a heaping of the local baseball culture.
About 30 minutes before the game, Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia stood in the dugout working over the handle of his bat with a pine tar rag. Out of nowhere, a blunt noise filled the stadium. Pedroia pirouetted toward left field. A band of Tigers fans in left field had begun a chant. Then drums joined in. Then a horn. And clapping.
“What the (expletive) is that?” Pedroia asked.
Get used to it, he was told. That’s Japanese baseball.
The answer seemed not to suffice.
“Shut up!” Pedroia yelled toward the fans.
Four hundred feet away, they couldn’t hear Pedroia, and even if they could, his bellyaching would not have deterred a thing. Baseball games in Japan are spectacles in simplicity: quiet, bordering on silent, during the opponents’ at-bats, and fervent, with cheers and whistles and other such chicanery, during the home teams’.
It was enough to keep Manny Ramirez awake.
“It was different,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “It was the local flavor. I’m not sure we knew what to expect, but with all those things – they were beating and yelling and singing – it was a good experience. They were enthusiastic, and it was a good baseball game to watch.”
There was history, too, beyond the Tigers and Red Sox’s shared misery, and it’s a wonder Mike Greenwell’s name didn’t appear in a chant, followed by:
a) is a petty thief.
b) can take his fat, lazy gaijin behind back home.
Ten years ago, Greenwell, a longtime Red Sox outfielder, came to Hanshin the most heralded American signing in the team’s history. He signed for $2.5 million, complained about a bad back, played for a week, broke his foot, pocketed the cash and went home to open an amusement park.
Oh, well. That was long enough in the past that Tigers fans kept the hassling to a minimum. Respect is king here, enough that Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein and two of his lieutenants, Jed Hoyer and Brian O’Halloran, sat in the fifth row behind home plate as anonymously as anyone else.
They witnessed some of the odder moments Japanese baseball provides. Every time a foul balls heads into the stands, a doorbell rings and a voice reminds: “Please watch out for foul balls.” Police with bullhorns herd fans around the stadium when they are too close to the net that separates the field from the stands. And, hey, when was the last time a major league ballplayer bent at the waist for anything other than scooping up a ground ball?
“The farther you bow down,” first baseman Kevin Youkilis said proudly, “shows more respect.”
The rest of the afternoon was rather anticlimactic. David Ortiz hit a solo home run, J.D. Drew followed with a three-run shot, the Red Sox led 4-0 after 13 minutes and held on for a 6-5 win that took 3 ½ hours. Jonathan Papelbon got the save. He didn’t dance.
And he didn’t have to. “Dirty Water,” Boston’s victory song, blared through the speakers. It was just like any other Red Sox win. Only it wasn’t.