My day with the Saitama Seibu Lions – Sept. 29, 2018

For a long time I have wanted to attend a professional baseball game in Japan.  I don’t remember when I first became interested in watching baseball played outside the United States (and outside of MLB).  However, when the prospect of moving to Japan became a reality, I became excited about being able to experience a Japanese baseball game in person.  So when the prospect of attending a game presented itself after my wife & I had settled into our new home in Japan I jumped at the opportunity.

Although we live in Greater Tokyo, my first baseball game in Japan wasn’t going to be seeing the famed Yomiuri Giants.  Instead my first game was going to be seeing the Saitama Seibu Lions at the MetLife Dome on the western side of the Tokyo metropolitan area.

Instead of taking the train to the ballpark, which is what most fans do when attending games in Japan, Katie & I took a tour bus as part of a day trip organized by the military base where she works.  Although we were in the minority of people taking private transit to the stadium, we were not alone as there were three other tour buses in our parking lot and a smattering of cars as well.  So after the bus parked we walked across a pedestrian bridge to MetLife Dome.

An overview of the MetLife Dome.

Although we were in the minority of fans who arrived at the ballpark via private vehicle, the train station let fans out into the large plaza outside the stadium.  You could tell when a train had arrived as the plaza swelled with people.

Fans pile off a commuter train at the station next to the stadium.

In front of the stadium was a large plaza, which was packed with fans because we were attending the final home game of the regular season.  The plaza offers a variety of amenities ranging from concession stands to a merchandise stand for the visiting team to fan club counters for the home team.

Due to a consistent, but light rain I did not take too many pictures in the plaza and instead hurried into the ballpark.  Additionally, the nearly overflowing volume of fans in the plaza made it difficult to capture images that properly showed off the amenities.

MetLife Dome is an interesting ballpark because it was not built as a domed stadium.  It opened in 1979 without a roof, but one was constructed in two stages following the 1997 and 1998 seasons.  Although the ballpark started the 1999 season as a dome stadium it is an open-air stadium, as the roof only covers the field and stands.  There is no wall that closes the ballpark from the surrounding environment.  So some concession stands around the park sit just beyond the roof, which prevents the concourse from becoming overcrowded.

As I navigated the crowd toward my seat on the third base line I captured a photo of what can best be described as loge boxes.

Fans sit in loge seating along the third base line.

As I passed the loge boxes I decided to walk around the park to a spot behind home plate so I could capture that perspective before the game began.

An overview of the stadium from near home plate.

As the game started at one o’clock, I grabbed some food after perusing the nearby concession stands while walking the concourse.  Stands carried a variety of traditional Japanese fare from bowls of ramen to meat skewers, and even globalized items like KFC and Blue Moon Belgian White beer.

I opted for a simple yet filling option of a beer skewer, mostly because it had a relatively short line and I wanted to be able to enjoy the start of the ballgame instead of missing the pre-game festivities and the first pitch.

A trio of beef skewers.

After devouring my skewers, I settled in to watch the first pitch.

Saitama Seibu Lions right-handed pitcher Tatsuya Imai delivers the first pitch to Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks right fielder Seiji Uebayashi.

I settled into my seat to soak in the experience, so the majority of my photos of the ballpark and the atmosphere were taken from my seat along the third base line.

The ballpark was renovated following the team’s posting of Daisuke Matsuzaka after the 2006 season, which garnered over $50 million for the club.  So it features many of the amenities fans find at MLB ballparks like a large videoboard in center field and luxury seating behind home plate.

Sitting midway down the third base line, I had several opportunities to capture photographs of the pitchers and batters.  So I regularly snapped shots during the game hoping to capture each team’s uniform and the subtle differences in pitching form and batting stance of each player.  By far the coolest moment I captured during the game was when Kazuo Matsui came to the plate late in the game as a pinch-hitter.

Matsui played for the Lions for nine seasons before signing with the New York Mets in 2003 and spending seven seasons playing in the MLB.  After returning to NPB in 2011, Matsui signed with the Lions for his final professional season.

There are a lot of things to take in attending a game at any professional ballpark, but it’s quite different when you’re attending a game in Japan.  There are many similarities between games in the U.S. and Japan, but SO many differences, too.  One of the biggest differences is the delivery of beer.  In Japan, young women carry mini kegs on their backs and pour beer for fans instead of lugging around giant tubs of beers in cans or aluminum bottles.  Additionally, the biiru no uriko (“beer girl”) only sells one brand of beer.  So each woman is outfitted in attire specific to the beer she is pouring.  Although craft beer exists in Japan, the only brands being poured by the beer girls were the major macrobrews like Kirin, Asahi, Suntory, and Yebisu.

Beyond seeing several young women selling beer, women also dominate the majority of vendor positions.  I was able to capture different women selling cotton candy and ice cream later during the game.

One of the better documented aspects of Japanese baseball games is that fans lead the cheers for players instead of the sound system being used to generate excitement.  The fan-led cheering results in unique cheers for each player, and sometimes this brings about unique signs for particular players, too.  I saw that at play with Lions designated hitter Ernesto Mejía, as fans held up Venezuelan flags each time he came up to bat.

Saitama Seibu Lions fans show off Venezuelan flags for designated hitter Ernesto Mejía.

Whenever I attend a baseball game, I always make an effort to get a picture with the team’s mascot.  That is usually more difficult to accomplish at a Major League game, and that experience was no different at today’s Lions’ game.  I saw the team’s mascots a few times on the field, but never saw either walking through the stands.  However, I did get a picture of the pair on the field.

Saitama Seibu Lions mascots Lina and Leo. The pair are based upon characters in shōnen manga “Janguru Taitei” (or “Kimba the White Lion” when dubbed into English).

Without a doubt, the seventh inning was the most unique experience I’ve ever encountered during a baseball game.  In Japan, fans from both teams sing their respective fight songs in the top and bottom of the inning and then release team-colored balloons into the air.  The tradition is called the “Lucky Seventh,” and is a way for fans to help rally their team in the late innings.

Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks fans wave banners and hold their balloons high while singing their team’s fight song during the Lucky Seventh.

In addition to capturing a photo of Hawks’ fans singing their fight song, I got a video of the Lions’ fans singing their team’s fight song entering the bottom of the seventh.

Unfortunately for Lions’ fans hoping to see the team clinch the Pacific League regular-season title, the home team did not come out victorious.  However, players from both teams paid their respects to the fans with the customary post-game bow.  The home Lions lined up along the third base line and bowed multiple times in different directions to show their respect and appreciation for the home fans while the visiting Hawks lined up in right field and bowed to their fans and the home fans as well.

Like many others in attendance, I had hoped to see the Lions clinch the regular-season crown, so I was disappointed to see them lose and miss the opportunity to watch the trophy presentation following the game.  Putting the game result aside, it was a great experience.

It was exciting to be in a packed ballpark.  Despite a packed house, I never felt cramped or fighting for space while walking on the concourse.  The food options met my expectations, although I had not anticipated such long lines to get food.  The food I ate was delicious and satisfying.  The beer was cold and refreshing.  The atmosphere far exceeded my hopes and dreams.  The crowd was loud from start to finish, but it was not a deafening experience because of the unique roof that does not completely enclose the stadium.

Despite traveling by private transportation, I got to enjoy what feels like the quintessential experience at a professional Japanese baseball game.

Final: Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks 3, Saitama Seibu Lions 1
Box Score

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