Japanese Pro Baseball
October has always been a month for Major League Baseball (MLB) playoff drama, but what I’ve come to learn is that across the Pacific in Japan, similar stories are playing out as well. Without many other competing professional sports leagues, baseball is by far the most popular professional sport in Japan. Baseball was first introduced in Japan in 1872 and the Japanese Professional League was formed in 1936. So while the St. Louis Cardinals’ Albert Pujols’ homerun with two outs in the 9th may have put on hold or ended a long over-due Houston Astros party last night – the Chiba Marines fans in Japan were celebrating the end of their 31-year old drought with a 3-2 victory over the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. With the win, the Bobby Valentine coached Marines will now face the ever-popular Hanshin Tigers in the finals.
The Hanshin Tigers, once in a similar pennant drought 2-years ago, managed to overcome 18-years of losing and put an end to the dreaded "Curse of the Colonel." No stranger to baseball curses as well, the Japanese have their own share of unique superstitions to explain years of losing. In 1985, an overzealous Hanshin fan threw a statue of Colonel Sanders taken from a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet into Osaka’s Dotonbori River. The statue was never retrieved and the team’s losing ways were attributed to the missing mannequin. In 2003, Hanshin lost in the Japan Series in seven to Fukuoka, but still won back fans and was given a victory parade as if they had won the championship. By chance, I found myself in Osaka during this celebration where hundreds of thousands of fans stood outside in the pouring rain to pay tribute to the players and coaches. Having only been removed from the Japan Series for two-years this time, expectations are much higher for the 2005 Tigers’ team to win it all.
With only 12 professional teams and 2 leagues in Japanese professional baseball, the format for competition is always subject to debate. Prior to this year, there were no playoffs and the team with the best record from each league competed in a best of seven Japan Series. However, the less-popular Pacific League chose independently from the Central League to create a playoff this year between their top 3 teams, where the Marines came out on top last night. The Hanshin Tigers and the Chiba Marines are set to battle beginning next week in the Japan Series, Japan’s equivalent to the MLB World Series.