Scene, Sunday, May 27, 2007

Squid balls and baseballs — a perfect marriage.

The squid balls are breaded, topped with fish flakes and hide chewy bits of tentacle like a Christmas surprise.

Foul balls crack into the stands, yet fans — in polite, Japanese fashion — pass the potential e-Bay collectors items back to the field for reclamation.

OK, so squid balls aren’t the usual ballpark fare for an American. Neither is waiting for your “turn” to cheer. And under no circumstances would you see a woman with a keg on her back bob and weave through the stands at a stateside game without any jokers trying to relieve her of her burden. Nope. Wouldn’t happen.

But in Japan, it does.

That’s why going to baseball games in Japan is so completely out of the park. Granted, I’m no expert. I went to one Yokohama BayStars game, but I hope it’s the first of many, because I had a ball. A squid ball, actually. And then some edamame, which are soybeans in the pod. Then some cheese in a tube with a distinctly fishy taste.

Hordes of beer vendors leaping up the aisles like smiling mountain goats helped me wash everything down. Beer is cold and cheap (compared to bar prices in Japan, anyway) — 480 yen a glass. But, if you’d rather, the traveling cocktail mixer can stop in to stir up a cold beverage.

Now THIS is what I call baseball.

I do realize that some people are interested in the game itself — bats, balls, bases. The whole nine innings. Me? I like the “scene” — the food, the cheering, the people in my section.

I’ve missed many Important Sports Moments this way, says my dad. When I was a kid, he got so annoyed with my inattention to The Reason Why We Came that he made me keep score as penance.

But on this particular sunny May afternoon, I was free to watch the off-field action as much as I wished.

Something struck me, er, right off the bat — there’s no heckling in Japan! No “hey batter, batter, saw-wing batter.”

Japanese fans take turns cheering. For the most part, only fans of the team batting cheer, while the fielding team fans rest.

And the cheers!!! All are sung in unison, and the fans chant the words and beat their drumstick bats in the same rhythm.

Folks were decked out for the occasion in full fan regalia — newborn babies were even swaddled in Bay Stars blankets. The unity reminded me of an uplifting church service, only with more beer.

And then there’s the food. Japan has played ball almost as long as America has, but they bring their own flavor to the game.

You can slurp ramen in the stands. Cram down some curry in the crowd. Peck at some pork with brown sauce. Even the vanilla ice cream is different. In Japan, it’s genetically engineered not to melt all over your fingers.

Between the food and the fans, cheering and drinking, I had a hard time keeping my eyes on the game. The strange starhead and unicorn-horned baseball creatures dancing around on the field didn’t help my concentration.

And after the Bay Stars had won, 7-4, no one from my section left to beat the traffic.

Everyone stayed to finish their beers and watch an awards presentation for the game’s top players.

So, while the rules are the same, baseball in Japan is a whole different ball game. And it can be delicious.

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