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The Strange Pleasures of Japanese Baseball

By now, you know the shape of American baseball. There are the sluggers, the DH arguments, the sabermetrics partisans, the steroids, the astroturf. Of course, the game is beautiful enough to overcome all that, but for a few seasons now, I’ve been thinking it might be nice to see the game from a different angle, maybe even a different continent.

And so, perhaps inevitably, I started watching Japanese baseball...

It’s a kind of Lost World of baseball, where the mercenary atomization of the ’90s never happened. The parks are smaller, the home runs come less often, and the emphasis is more on fielding than hitting. To a certain kind of purist, that’s how the game is supposed to be played.

First off, there are real technical differences. The strike zone is smaller on the inside, and the ball itself is smaller and harder than a regulation MLB ball, making it both faster and harder to hit. The result is a lot of line drives and some surprisingly challenging fielding.

But you also get the chance to see some of baseball’s best traditions chopped and screwed into something entirely new. One example is in the picture up top, the Hanshin Tigers’ tradition of a mass balloon release in honor of the seventh-inning stretch. Everyone inflates and then releases their balloons on the given signal, filling the air with literally thousands of multicolored mini-zeppelins. It’s a hell of a moment, and unlike anything you’ve seen on a US ball field.

The mythology of the teams is even better. The Tigers are basically the Red Sox of Japan, and their answer to the Curse of the Bambino is called the Curse of the Colonel. As in, Colonel Sanders.

After their 1985 championship, a group of Hanshin fans celebrated by dressing up as the entire team roster and jumping into the Dotonbori Canal. But since they couldn’t find someone who looked like gaijin MVP Randy Bass, they stole a fiberglass statue of Colonel Sanders from a local KFC and pitched it into the river alongside them. Then, 18 years of placing last or second-to-last in the country—all because of the mystical power of the missing statue. It was finally recovered in 2009, minus its glasses and left hand. Presumably, most of the curse was lifted in turn.

Suddenly, Bill Buckner doesn’t seem so bad.