My first baseball experience came in August 1994, almost…
Working for a few weeks on Nellis Air Force Base just outside Las Vegas, Nevada as part of an RAF Harrier squadron, we had been told an MLB team would be appearing at the base one weekend to play an exhibition game.
However, as a young fella in my early 20s, the flashing lights and temptations that came with being accommodated in a hotel on the Vegas Strip saw a few beers the Friday night before the game turn into an all-nighter that ended the following afternoon; a combination of no clocks in casinos and ‘gentleman’s clubs’ plus American beer tasting and flowing like water.
As such the day passed without my presence.
It would be three years later, in September 1997, out of the RAF and living in Tokyo that my next baseball experience would take place.
That time out Tokyo Dome was the destination, and Nippon Ham Fighters were the home team back in an era they used to share the Dome with Yomiuri Giants.
A few days earlier, a friend covering baseball at The Japan Times had sent me a pair of tickets. Mrs B was not interested and at the time I knew few people outside work so I went alone.
Alone in a roofed stadium so cavernous I could almost count the fans, of both teams. It was at this point I realised that the Pacific League was the poorer cousin of Japan’s Central League that featured nightly across Japanese golden time in packed stadia.
Truth be told I don’t remember the winner, or even the other team taking part, although I suspect it was the PaLeague’s Buffaloes as those games often came with giveaway tickets.
Over the next couple of years I went along to see the Giants at the same stadium several times, all the while learning the rules and reasons for certain plays and techniques.
Then one day, just as I was making a name for myself in sumo coverage in Japan – and for 12 years working as the sumo columnist at Japan Times – I was invited along to a game at Jingu Stadium, also in Tokyo.
It was a hot summer’s afternoon and after meeting up with a friend we made our way to the open air memorial to a bygone era, and I have never looked back.
Exploring the stadium pre-game I fell in love with its complete lack of anything sterile and boring as was the norm at Tokyo Dome across town. The brickwork in many areas was original and dated back well over half a century. I later learned that Babe Ruth had played at Jingu whilst on a tour of Japan and somewhere a famous photo exists showing the legend sheltering from the Japanese sun in the outfield with a traditional waxed umbrella on one hand.
The game I saw that day was less than memorable with the Swallows losing at home to the Chunichi Dragons from Nagoya.
Repeat visits over the next few months cemented the Swallows as ‘my team’ in Japanese baseball and near or far I have kept an eye on them over the years since; sometimes even sitting outside Taiwanese lottery shops and watching games through the window on hot summer evenings.
At the time I had no idea I would later be working behind the scenes at Jingu, interviewing players and enjoying the sumptuous spread put on in the press room many a time in between 2005 and 2011. That opportunity came by way of a magazine column I had in a Japanese magazine and looking back peaked professionally when I got to interview Aaron Guiel post game with many of his team mates looking on. Privately a few too many beers once or twice and a player missing a game ‘injured’ must remain private.
All the way up until 2015 when I had made the decision to move to Taiwan I was lucky enough to keep my press pass and oftentimes made my way to Jingu, sometimes to Tokyo Dome too and on occasion to the Yokohama Baystars stadium down in Kannai. I will never forget my baseball related experiences in Japan, but new pastures were calling and by early 2016 I was living and working in Taipei, Taiwan – home of the CPBL.
I soon got in touch with the league and knocked out a few small pieces for English language speaking fans up in Japan whilst getting used to the way the authorities in Taiwan worked and reacted to foreigners covering the sport.
In general CPBL authorities are a lot more flexible and easier to deal with than those in Japan and this is helped by some fantastic contacts in the head office, and over the past couple of years others made at individual teams.
With the move south from Japan, I had also decided to stop shooting league football in Taiwan although I still do cover the national team, and rugby went out of the window altogether with no easy access to the Sunwolves. Sumo, my bread and butter for almost 20 years is also non-existent. As a result, more time opened up to cover baseball.
The summer of 2017, thus saw me covering all things Japanese – baseball, football, and various other sports as part of my magazine’s 2017 Taipei Universiade coverage, and in the wind down to the regular CPBL season I checked off shoots at all of the stadiums used in the CPBL bar the home stadium of the UniLions down in Tainan.
2018 came and went, starting for myself at Tianmu which has become a personal fave with it so close to home, and I was fortunate enough over the course of last season to shoot regular season and Taiwan Series games in Taoyuan, Taichung, and Xinzhuang as well as at Tianmu. More memorable for myself at least, I have never felt so welcomed in sports stadia as I have here in Taiwan by those behind the scenes at the league and team levels.
Late on in the season I even had the chance to meet Andy Brown – the artist currently in the US – who paints the stadiums and games he watches as well as the mastermind of all things CPBL behind CPBL Stats. This was at the opening game of the Taiwan Series at Taoyuan, and I did request a print from Andy of said game but never heard back. So, if you are reading this Andy………….
And then we were in 2019. As has become the norm I shot a few ‘warm-up’ matches at Tianmu including a couple of CPBL-NPB games with the Rakuten Eagles getting in some preseason matches in Taiwan against Lamigo Monkeys.
Soon after I was heading down to Taoyuan for the season opener, got to meet up with Tom Chapel briefly, and ended up being gifted commemorative baseballs to mark the 30th anniversary of the CPBL.
This season too I have been very lucky with ideas and pitches and am currently working on projects with the Guardians that must remain under wraps for now, as well securing an interview with Mitch Lively of the Brothers set to take place a couple of days after I sign off on this piece. Wish me luck – first foreign pitcher interview to date and whilst it will appear in a newspaper in the US, I am waiting to see if the Nerds at Bat Flips can also publish it. Fingers crossed.