Hello from Japan!
Let’s skip the B.S. and get right into the photos. Here I am standing outside the Tokyo Dome:
Okay, I lied. I actually do need to unleash a bit of B.S., so bear with me for a minute . . .
Because I was here to see an actual Major League game — the Mariners and A’s were opening the 2012 season with a two-game series — I decided to count it in my stats. I mean, since the wins and losses were going to count for the teams, and since the individual stats were going to count for the players, then everything *had* to count for me. It was that simple. Back in 2008, when I attended the Jays/Rays regular-season series at Champion Stadium, I counted those games in my stats — same deal in 2010 with the Mets/Marlins series in San Juan — and now here I was in Japan at my 49th “major league” ballpark.
Anyway, when I started walking toward the Tokyo Dome, I looked to my right and saw this:
It was a little past 1pm. The game wasn’t going to start for nearly six hours, and as you can see in the photo above, fans were already lining up. But what the hell were they doing? Making signs for Ichiro? Displaying their Hello Kitty beach towels? I had no idea what to make of it.
When I walked closer to the stadium and turned to my left, this was the view:
The roller coaster looming up in the distance is part of an entertainment complex called Tokyo Dome City. As for those smooth rock-like things protruding from the sidewalk . . . I think they’re supposed to be eggs. The Tokyo Dome is sometimes referred to as “the big egg,” so there must be a connection.
Here’s what it looked like as I continued making my way around the stadium:
In the photo above, do you see the sign on the right? Here’s a closer look at it:
Here’s another sign that was behind the closed gate:
Umm, excuse me?
I assumed that the sign listed the rules for the stadium — you can’t bring raw shark heart inside, you can’t cheer for anyone but Ichiro, you can’t keep baseballs that fly into the stands, etc. — but didn’t bother asking anyone to translate. It was fun being clueless. That’s pretty much how it’s been nonstop in Japan. Before the trip, I figured that everyone would speak English, or at least that most people would speak some English, but no, hardly anyone speaks any English. I actually speak better Japanese than most people here speak English, which is really sad, considering that the only things I know how to say are “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “Water,” “Please throw me the ball,” and “Thank you.” (Really, what more is there?)
After walking for another minute, I saw the least confusing sign in all of Japan:
Here’s what it looked like inside the shop . . .
. . . and here’s a five-part photo that shows some of what was being sold:
Did you see the ball inside the cube on the upper right? That’s an official Japanese League ball. I didn’t buy it for two reasons. For starters, the price was 3,000 yen (which is roughly $36), but more importantly, I have almost no interest in owning baseballs that I haven’t personally snagged at major league games. The one recent exception that comes to mind is the ball that I stitched at the Rawlings factory in Costa Rica.
Check out the scene outside the baseball shop:
Those people were lined up to buy official MLB merchandise — mainly jerseys and caps. I guess they don’t get many opportunities under normal circumstances (and haven’t heard of eBay).
I continued walking around the stadium . . .
. . . and kept walking . . .
. . . and walking . . .
In case you’re wondering, the statement on Wayne’s T-shirt is true: @ChuckKnoblauch really does follow him on Twitter — and you can too @MLBwayneMLB. More links: here’s Wayne’s blog entry about this game, and here’s some info about his charity fundraiser.
With roughly 90 minutes remaining until the gates were going to open, Wayne and I wandered together around the stadium. In the following photo, do you see the wide staircase in the background?
Here’s what it looked like from the top:
I took one final photo before heading back to Gate 11 . . .
. . . and when I got there, I had to show my ticket to a guard just to get in line. At most major league stadiums, you can pretty much enter any gate no matter what ticket you have, but here at the Tokyo Dome, as an added/unnecessary security measure, all fans had to enter the gate that was printed on their tickets. So weird. Oh, and here’s more weirdness. Do you remember the photo I posted near the top of this entry that showed some fans sitting on the ground outside one of the gates? And there were towels laid out? Or signs? Or something? Well, I finally figured out what was going on when I saw the same thing at Gate 11. Have a look for yourself:
Fans reserved their places in line by getting there early and taping down newspapers or thin pieces of fabric. Then, when they returned, they had something to sit on other than the dirty ground. How civilized. Can you imagine what would happen if someone tried that outside Yankee Stadium?
Look how crowded it was right before the gates opened:
The line literally wrapped around the entire stadium, but that didn’t seem to affect me. Thirty seconds after I ran inside, I was holding this:
The way I snagged it could not have been easier. A’s pitcher Bartolo Colon (pictured above next to my thumb) walked toward me to grab a ball that had rolled onto the warning track. I asked him for it (in Spanish, just because) and he tossed it up. My main goal at the Tokyo Dome was to snag one of these balls. I knew they were going to be used during the actual games, but never expected to see one during BP. As you can imagine, it felt great to have all the pressure taken away at the start.
Moments after Colon hooked me up, I got a regular ball tossed to me by Jerry Blevins. Then, when I had a moment to spare, I took a photo — not of the field (which most people would’ve done), but of the bleachers:
In the photo above, you can see Wayne standing in my row in the middle of the next section. I’m happy to report that he ended up snagging a few baseballs, and we never got in each other’s way.
It didn’t take long for me to snag my third ball of the day — a homer by some righty on the A’s that rattled around the bleachers — but unfortunately I didn’t get to keep it. As soon as I grabbed it, an usher (in very official-looking attire) hurried over and held his hand out. At first I refused, hoping that his actions were more of a suggestion than a rule, but he insisted. How did I know? Because he started speaking Japanese really fast, and when I took one step to the side, he moved with me to block my path. That’s when I handed him the ball — it had the standard MLB logo — and for the record, I *did* count it as part of my collection. (If you’re wondering why it counts, check out the infamous “Prince Fielder debate” from my entry about the 2011 All-Star Game.)
My fourth ball of the day, thrown by Jonny Gomes in left-center, was another pearl with the “Opening Series Japan” logo. I was several rows back, and he aimed it perfectly over everyone down in front. This was my view, more or less, when I caught it:
The ushers, as you’ve probably gathered by now, allowed fans to keep the balls that were thrown by the players, but not the balls that were hit — not even when little kids snagged them. What’s up with that? Japan is way ahead of America in lots of ways, but on this particular issue, they’re stuck in 1915.
Toward the end of the A’s portion of BP, I moved to right-center and somehow managed to get Jordan Norberto to throw me a ball. (Okay, here’s how it happened: I was standing on a seat half a dozen rows back, and since I was the only fan in the entire stadium that knew his name, he fired a seed right to me over everyone’s stunned faces.) Look how crowded it was on that side of the stadium:
Why was it packed?
One word: Ichiro.
The left field bleachers were pretty crowded too:
That didn’t stop me from running back over there during the last group of A’s hitters and snagging a Jonny Gomes homer. The impressive thing about it was where it landed — or rather what it struck before it landed. In the photo above, do you see the advertisements over the bleachers? They’re between the lights and the support beams. Gomes’ blast hit the ad to the left of the red-and-white “NITTAN” sign. As soon as I caught it, an usher hurried over, took the ball from me, marched down to the front row, and dropped it onto the warning track.
Moments later, I noticed that a player was waving at me. It was Jerry Blevins and he had a ball in his hand — not just any ball, I realized, but *that* very ball. Evidently he had seen the whole situation play out with the usher, so he did his best to make things right by tossing it back to me. After an intense internal debate, I decided *not* to count this ball again because, like I said, it was the same ball that I’d already snagged.
When the Mariners started hitting, I got two quick toss-ups in left-center — my 7th and 8th balls of the day. The first came from Lucas Luetge, and the second (which I immediately handed to the nearest kid) came from a player that I couldn’t identify. Then I headed to the right-field side and got three more toss-ups over the next half-hour. The first came from an unrecognizable player (possibly Shawn Kelley), the second came from George Sherrill near the batter’s eye, and the third came from Jesus Montero. That gave me 11 balls for the day.
Back in left field at the tail end of BP, I snagged a home run ball that struck a woman on the hip and sat untouched in a nearby row while several people tended to her. She wasn’t hurt badly — just severely dazed — and when I handed her the ball, the usher swooped in and grabbed it.
After BP, I took this photo . . .
. . . and then set out to explore the stadium with Wayne.
We started by heading down the steps to a concourse that runs behind/below the bleachers:
Here’s a closer look at the concession stand . . .
. . . and here’s a photo of another:
We were starving but didn’t get anything because a) we didn’t know what anything was and b) the lines were endless. Instead, we headed through the concourse toward the left field corner, and when we got there, this is what we saw:
Here’s what it looked like at the top of the stairs . . .
. . . and here’s what was happening on the field:
We wandered through the main concourse . . .
. . . and decided to head upstairs to the upper deck, but this guy stopped us:
He barely spoke English — the only words he said were “ticket” and “special security” — but we figured out the gist: because this was such an important game, everything was on lockdown, so without tickets for the upper deck, we weren’t allowed to go upstairs. I once encountered a similar rule in the States, but still, all I could think was, “Screw that, I’m finding a way up there.” For the time being, though, we were stuck on the main level, so we kept walking and taking photos. Check out this beauty:
You know what that is?
For the reasonable price of 300 yen (or roughly $3.60)!
What a brilliant concept.
Show of hands: how many of you would be thrilled to have the option of paying to store your stuff during games? I sure would.
After wandering for another minute or two, we found another guard at another staircase, who spoke NO English — I’m telling you, not one word, and he was young and shy. We tried to communicate that we wanted to go upstairs to take pictures. (I pulled out my camera and pointed up. Gosh, I’m creative!) But he didn’t seem to get it. All he did was cross his arms in front of his chest so that his wrists were touching. It seemed like a gesture that was meant to say “no,” but he had a faint, bewildered smile . . . so we inched past him and began heading up the stairs. He didn’t start yelling or pull out a walkie-talkie or do anything that indicated that we would soon be spending the night in Japanese jail, so we kept going. Throughout this whole situation, he showed no emotion. He just stood there sweetly and watched helplessly as we disappeared.
When we reached the next level of the stadium, I couldn’t resist asking Wayne to take a picture of me here:
I also couldn’t resist getting some chicken yakitori from a nearby concession stand.
(I hope it was chicken.)
Wayne and I headed up another flight or two of stairs and saw another concourse — and we also saw this:
What did the “4/5” sign on the wall mean? Were we in the upper deck? None of the other signs were in English, so we kept walking up. All we wanted to do was take a few photos from the very top of the stadium.
When we reached the next landing in the staircase, we saw this:
Naturally I walked through the doorway and took more photos. This was the view to the right . . .
. . . and here’s what it looked like on the left:
If you were in this situation, what would you have done? Here are your options:
1) Get the hell out of there and head downstairs.
2) Turn left and walk past the boxes.
3) Keep heading toward the top of the stadium.
Admit it. You would’ve climbed Mount Fuji. That’s what Wayne and I did. Here’s what it looked like as we continued upward . . .
. . . and here’s what the staircase looked like from the very top:
We were all alone up there, and there were three doors.
I pressed down slowly on the metal handle on the door on the left.
It was locked.
Then I did the same thing with the door on the right.
Wayne, meanwhile, discovered that the middle door was unlocked.
“What do we do?!” he asked excitedly.
“Duh!” I said. “We open up that mother [expletive deleted] and see what’s on the other side!”
We were both really giddy and laughing hysterically. Everything was funny — the way we were gonna play dumb with security, the bad jokes about getting thrown in jail, etc. But then our foolishness turned to sheer wonder when we cracked the door open. This was my reaction at what I saw on the other side:
Now take a look for yourself:
We were literally at THE TOP of the stadium — well, not dangling from the middle of the roof, but you know what I mean. This was the view when we brazenly propped the door wide open:
As my friend Todd Cook said in a comment on a recent blog entry, the Tokyo Dome looks like Tropicana Field with the Metrodome roof slapped on top. I was actually thinking the same thing when I was there, but I’ll tip my cap to him for putting it in writing first.
Wayne and I had accepted the fact that we were gonna get busted in that doorway. We even went so far as to plan what to do when it happened: don’t flee down the empty staircase because that would suggest that we knew we had done something wrong.
And then, after two or three minutes, it happened. A security guard began marching up the steps right toward us. We just stood in the doorway until he reached the top step. Thankfully all he did was look mean and point emphatically at the ground. He didn’t ask to see our tickets because he probably assumed that we’d climbed up there from the seats. Yes, climbed. The doorway was elevated nearly three feet above the top step, so we had to jump to get down. Check it out:
As soon as we were in the seats, the guard climbed into the doorway and struggled (for a solid minute) to lock the door. And that was it. Wayne and I had grabbed a couple of empty seats in the third-to-last row, and when the guard was done, he marched all the way down the steps and disappeared into the crowd. Of all the weirdly spectacular things that I’ve experienced at baseball stadiums, this was one of the best.
The 2012 MLB season was about to begin, so we watched the first few batters and then kept wandering. At that point, my only agenda was exploring more of the stadium. I probably should’ve been in the outfield, trying to catch the first home run of the season, or of someone’s career, but there wasn’t any standing room out there or even a cross-aisle, and I just didn’t feel like hustling. I’d snagged a dozen balls during BP including three with the commemorative logo. What more did I need? Wayne was also content with his day’s haul, so he kept wandering with me.
We headed out to the right field corner. Check out the funky little walkway that runs behind the seats:
We were able to walk all the way out to the very end so that we were standing next to the camera man. No one stopped us or asked to see our tickets. It was lovely.
After that, we headed back around behind home plate and out to the left field corner, but instead of walking through the cross-aisle, we toured the concourse:
Look what I saw for sale at one of the stands:
FOUR THOUSAND YEN FOR AN OPENING SERIES BALL?!?! THAT’S FORTY-EIGHT BUCKS, AND I SNAGGED THREE OF THEM DURING BATTING PRACTICE FOR FREE. AH-HA-HA-HA!!! HA-HA!!! MWA-HA-HA!!!
(Sorry, I got a bit carried away there.)
This was our view of the field as we approached the left field corner of the upper deck:
Once again, no one stopped us from walking all the way out on the funky walkway, and since there were a few empty seats out there, we sat and watched a couple innings of the game. This was the view to my left:
Why, Japan? WHY?!
Wayne and I parted ways halfway through the game, at which point I headed all the way downstairs to the very lowest level. The concourse was bustling:
In the photo above, do you see the people behind the long gray wall of windows? That was an enclosed smoking area.
Around the sixth inning, I found a friend named Hideki in straight-away left field. (I didn’t mention it at the time, but he was responsible for getting me into the 2008 Home Run Derby. He spends lots of time in New York, has dual citizenship, and speaks English and Japanese fluently.) He’s an attorney, and he was with a client (who spoke good-but-not-fluent English), and I made them both laugh. This was my view of the field . . .
. . . and this was the crowd behind me:
See the two gentlemen in suits looking right at you? Hideki is sitting on the right.
To say that I made the two of them laugh is an understatement. I actually made the entire section laugh, and it didn’t take much. You see, the polite people of Japan barely make any noise at baseball games, or at least that’s how they behaved at this one. Sure, they got excited where there was something to get excited about, but during any at-bat that didn’t involve Ichiro, the place was dead. I could hear the pitches smacking the catcher’s mitt from across the stadium — so I started yelling at A’s left fielder Coco Crisp. I didn’t say anything funny or mean. I just started shouting, and EVERYONE heard me. I shouted stuff like, “Hey, Coco! What’s up, baby! New York City in da house!” Nothing amazing, right? But I’m telling you, the whole section thought it was hilarious (and, no doubt, obnoxious). They’d probably never seen or heard anyone act like that at a sporting event, so I felt like it was my duty as the unofficial ambassador of Major League Baseball to show them how we do things in America. I kept shouting until my throat started to hurt. Then I got several fans behind me to join me in chanting, “Co-co! Co-co!” And that was pretty much it. Good times in the bleachers.
I spent the last few innings hanging out here:
I had to show my ticket to get into the tunnel from the concourse on the lowest level, but once I was there, no one ever asked for it or told me to move.
As for the game itself, the best part was seeing Ichiro go 4-for-5. Just about everyone else there would’ve agreed. Not only do Japanese people understandably worship him, but the crowd was overwhelmingly rooting for the Mariners. In the top of the 11th inning, the Mariners scored two runs, and that was your ballgame. Final score, Seattle 3, Oakland 1. Look at the scoreboard:
After the final out, most people stuck around for the on-field ceremony, during which Dustin Ackley (who’d gone 2-for-5 with the lone longball) was named the game’s MVP. During the ceremony, I noticed a little boy standing beside with me with an empty glove, so I pulled a (non-commemorative) baseball out of my backpack and held it out for him. The kid didn’t speak a word of English, but his excitement needed no translation. Here he is playing with the ball:
Here’s a random photo for you — a group shot of the Mariners’ girlfriends and wives:
Wayne pointed them out to me as we were heading for the exit. They were all posing there while some random guy was taking their picture, so I climbed up on a seat and asked if I could take one too. Turns out that the “random” guy was the team photographer. (Heh, sorry!)
Here’s one final photo of me inside the stadium . . .
. . . and here’s a photo that I took outside before heading into the subway:
Phew! What an awesome way to start the season.
• 793 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 318 consecutive games with at least two balls
• 182 lifetime games with ten or more balls
• 49 different major league stadiums with at least one ball
• 5,831 total balls
(I’m raising money again this season for Pitch In For Baseball, a non-profit charity that provides baseball equipment to underprivileged kids all over the world. Click here to learn more about my fundraiser, and click here to see the prizes that I’ll be giving away to donors.)
• 9 donors
• 46 cents pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $5.52 raised at this game
• $19,162.52 raised since I started my fundraiser in 2009