As the dust settles and the jet lag clings on, I’m trying to reflect on an unbelievable week watching baseball. In Japan. As soon as I knew the A’s would be opening up the season there I had to go. If nothing else, I was seeing Major League Baseball a week early. Even better was the fact @OaklandAUK would have two representatives there, Dom (@bigbadclarkey) and myself. So, flag packed and kelly green jersey on, I blindly headed to Tokyo.
First game: A’s v Nippon-Ham Fighters.
We were in the ‘excite’ seats. Meaning in the firing line. Batting helmets and gloves were provided. In terms of view it wasn’t great but we were front row, basically on the field, and got to see the players up close. The atmosphere was rocking when the Fighters were at the plate. Brass band booming, a different chant for every batter. It reminded me of a football match. It reminded me of The Coliseum. When the A’s stepped up it was silent, until they got an out. Cue @OaklandAUK and our new friends, the Tokyo Dome RF bleacher crew. What a fantastic group they are. And what a noise we made with them! The game looked lost until Khris Davis stepped into the batter’s box and promptly launched a game tying bomb. We celebrated like we’d just won the World Series as the Fighters fans went silent. As it was an exhibition game, it ended all square with no extras. And with that, we headed off with some fellow A’s fans to have a beer and celebrate the draw.
Post game surrealism.
After the game, something quite marvellous happened. Thanks to the wonderful Steve, a fellow Oakland fan, we had sashimi and tempura on a boat on Tokyo harbour with the Rainbow Bridge as a backdrop. I got to meet The Athletic writer Dan Brown and Susan Slusser. Even if you’re not an A’s fan, you may have heard of the SF Chronicle A’s beat writer. I’ve been supporting the A’s for over 25 years and she’s been a fixture for most of that. Without gushing too much, she’s a great writer and in my opinion provides the best coverage. Especially for us Athletics fans in the UK. After a beer or three I made no secret of my fan girl appreciation of her work.
Interlude: Tokyo Yakult Swallows.
This is another Tokyo based team whose stadium I visited during a friendly game. It was an impressive stadium with a big crowd, complete with the requisite brass band. In terms of atmosphere, the games involving a Japanese team were the best. Obviously. This was a midweek, mid afternoon game and you could hear the cheers a block away.
Opening Series: Game One.
Before the game started I met up with Joey, aka Baseball Brit, for a beer. It’s always so novel for me to talk baseball with a fellow Brit. And the bizarre fact that we were British baseball fans meeting while watching the sport we love in Japan wasn’t lost on me. I’ve been watching baseball my whole life, basically in a sort of British exile. These past few years, however, have been incredible and the rise in popularity – or maybe just that existing fans have been brought together – is so good to see. It was great to finally meet Joey and share my enthusiasm for the A’s while he described his plans for his big 162 game summer. I won’t talk about the game too much, mostly because we lost and I hate losing, but the night was a fantastic experience. As a neutral, I don’t think you could have asked for more.
Opening Series: Game Two.
Prior to the game we met Chris Giles, COO of the Athletics, who was giving out ‘A’s on the road’ pins and free merchandise to thank the fans of Oakland for coming out to Tokyo. This was a great gesture and it was brilliant to meet one of the guys who is helping to shape the future of the team. So, armed with yet another new A’s hat, we headed into the Dome for the final time. Again, we met up with Joey for a beer. The stadium was beyond crowded, the standing room only sections were 5 or so deep, everywhere. This was our night. Oakland was going to even up the series. Only it wasn’t and we didn’t. The A’s wasted a lot of chances and, after extra innings, the Mariners triumphed. I was convinced that when Davis hit a 2 RBI single to tie up the game in the 7th we would be victorious. But it wasn’t to be and another defeat followed. I’m sure those of you who watched the game heard and/or saw us in the RF bleacher section of the dome. The passion these guys had for the A’s was magnificent. We’d met our Japanese counterparts, rooting for Oakland from thousands of miles away. It was a pleasure to be able to join forces with them to cheer on the A’s and we had so much fun doing so, despite the results.
Game Two wasn’t really about the result in the end. It was about number 51. I’ll admit that every time he stepped up to the plate I was rooting for Ichiro Suzuki to strike out, fly out, any kind of out. If you heard someone cheering when that happened, it was me. I’m an A’s fan first and foremost and I didn’t want his party to prevent us winning. In the end, we lost anyway and my disappointment slightly got in the way of me appreciating just how special a moment it was. As A’s fans we’ve seen him play more than fans of most teams. He’s had a magnificent career and, though I was more than annoyed by my view being constantly obstructed by camera phones and iPads every time he stepped on the field, it was an honour to be there for his final MLB game. No doubt I’ll get to relive his final moments 500+ times this season during the “popular clips from MLB” segments that us UK fans are treated to every commercial break…
Take home points for the London series:
- It’s too late for this now but I got tickets for 3 games (2 regular season) in Tokyo for the price of my Saturday ticket at the London Stadium.
- Admission aside, the concessions were also reasonable, especially in comparison to MLB prices. A curry(!) was ¥1000 (£6.80ish) and a beer ¥800 (around £5.50). A packet of edamame beans crushed into pellets with a couple of almonds was ¥200 yen (1.30), but I wouldn’t recommend.
- In stadium vendors: I feel the need to give a special mention to the girls who had to run up and down the rows of seats lugging a keg of beer on their backs. During the London Series, I really hope that they have food and drink vendors walking around the stadium shouting about their various offerings but I highly doubt we will. Which is a shame because from all of my experience at the various MLB grounds I’ve visited, they really add to the atmosphere and buzz.
- Merchandise: I was really let down by the souvenir offerings. I’m not a fan of Fanatics items to start with but for an Oakland home series the merchandise was extremely one sided. I get the Ichiro effect, of course, but all I came home with was a t-shirt with the opening series branding. I dread to think what we’ll get in London (there’s no way I’m buying anything Yankees related anyway!) but I hope that whoever has the contract does a better job. The UK is basically a brand new market and first impressions count for everything.
- Fans: Japan already has an established fan base. I’ve no idea how we will grow us few hundred / thousand UK MLB fans into anything like the audience the game gets in Japan. If the London Series can capture 10% of the atmosphere generated in Tokyo (*Ichiro effect not included) it will in my opinion be a huge success. We’ve got two sellout games to look forward to so couldn’t ask for a better start. Let’s make it count.
- Don’t meet up with Joey/Baseball Brit before a game, your team will lose.
Seeing the A’s play baseball in Japan, despite getting swept, was an experience that has been difficult to put into words. The passion of Japanese fans was infectious, particularly during the exhibition games against the Nippon-Ham Fighters. It was remarkable and I want to do it all again. As a UK fan – or a fan from anywhere for that matter – if your team plays in Japan and you have the means to get there, GO.
Sore heads today, but how much fun was last night?! We went down to the RF in about the 4th inning to cheer from there. Today we’re just going to set up down there. #LetsGoOakland pic.twitter.com/hMe2jjXoF0
— UK Oakland Athletics 🌳🐘⚾️🇬🇧 (@OaklandAUK) March 21, 2019