Sports

What Major League Baseball can learn from the Japanese

Beer girls. Cheerleaders. Organized chants. Energetic crowds.

This is how Alexander Cartwright envisioned baseball when he invented the game more than a century ago, right? Well, not quite.

Our nation’s pastime feels a lot different in Japan. Is it better? Is it worse?

That depends on the person, of course. But Major League Baseball can liven the experience and draw bigger crowds by taking cues from Nippon Professional Baseball.

These are the things that struck me during a visit to the Tokyo Dome in May for a game between the Yomiuri Giants and Hiroshima Carp. There were some Texas Rangers connections: former Rangers pitcher Miles Mikolas started for the Giants. And former Rangers pitcher Colby Lewis played for the Carp in 2008-09.

Cheering sections

OK, if there is something that MLB should try to adopt, it’s having opposing cheering sections at games. This gives games a college football-like atmosphere (I’ve never attended a European soccer match but that’s another common comparison).

The Giants, of course, had the clear majority of fans with maybe 85 percent. But the Carp had a loud and raucous following in the left field bleachers. And both fan bases kept the game lively throughout.

Instead of “walk-up music,” chants from the fans accompany the NPB players on their trip to the batter’s box. Cheerleaders with pompoms keep the crowd pumped up between innings.

This kept the game entertaining start to finish. And the Carp fans went wild when their team scored five off Mikolas, particularly on a solo shot to start the fourth inning.

My buddies and I spent about $55 for decent seats down the left-field line, but might’ve had the most memorable time just hanging in the back of the Carp section. It was that rowdy.

With the chants and atmosphere, the game went by faster than expected. It certainly didn’t feel like it lasted more than three hours.

Beer girls

As someone who flags down the beer guy more often than he should at a U.S. sporting event, I had no problem spotting the women carrying mini-kegs. The women were dressed much like the Rockford Peaches in “A League of Their Own.”

On the plus side, the mini-kegs kept the beers much colder than the ice crates that most MLB teams use. It wasn’t just beer, either. Some “beer” girls carried mini-kegs that served shochu, a Japanese spirit that tasted similar to a whiskey sour.

The beer girls were efficient and friendly, and even handed out cups of tap water in the ninth inning to help folks sober up. (Most people take the subway to the game.)

As far as the food, there was a section with your typical ballpark food such as brats and hotdogs. Of course, there were traditional Japanese options such as a bento box with rice, noodles and sushi. My buddy got chicken-on-a-stick, which he gave a thumbs-up.

Bye, bye bullpens

The size of the baseball is slightly smaller in Japan. The ball is stitched differently. There six-man pitching rotations. But that isn’t noticeable to the naked eye.

What stands out is the lack of bullpens. That’s right. Relievers warm-up in tunnels behind the dugouts.

Cameras show who is getting loose, but the lack of the bullpens happened to be a welcomed sign.

It made the stadium feel more intimate and eliminated any distraction from the actual game. Instead of caring if a righty or lefty is getting ready, all attention was paid to the game at hand. To me, that’s a positive.

Heads up

Protective netting extends all the way to the foul poles and workers blow whistles when foul ball enters a section.

MLB teams extended their netting in 2016, but it stops at the dugout in most stadiums.

Let’s be honest: It’s hard to stay engaged in a nine-inning, three-hour game every pitch. You’re going to be talking to friends. You’re going to be reaching for your drink. You’re going to be eating food.

A little whistle reminder when a foul ball is heading your way would be appreciated. Nobody wants to be “that person” who gets bopped when not paying attention.

Darvish’s star

There’s no question that Yu Darvish remains a superstar in Japan. Wearing a Texas Rangers hat or T-shirt will certainly get you noticed overseas (and possibly being a 6-foot American).

Darvish’s old team, the Hakkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, is one of the most popular teams. Even at the Tokyo Dome, Fighters gear was flying off the shelves. Every NPB team’s apparel was available.

Shohei Otani, considered the Babe Ruth of Japan, plays for the Fighters, and is expected to join the major leagues in 2018. The Rangers are among the contenders to land him and it’s hard not be infatuated with the idea of him playing in your backyard.

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