Friday, September 09, 2005


Our team may have had the home advantage, but the Ham Fighters had apparently been employing an amateur psychologist with vocal training to motivate their batters, placing him inconspicuously in section 10, row K. “Give us a hit Shinjo! Let’s see something here! Doesn’t even have to hit the stands, I’ll shut up if you knock us a nice line drive!”

I wonder how in the hell they recruit the beer girls for Japanese baseball games. They must be making more than the average shit part time job, because these girls work, each of them lugging a full keg of beer on their backs, backpacked in a heavy plastic case emblazoned with brand colors. No single brewery had a monopoly on the stadium, three of the big four beer makers hawking at least two versions of their top beers. (Sapporo must be spending all their publicity money on those ridiculous televised adverts that blast out every three minutes on Tokyo’s jam packed Yamanote trains: squeeling girls and handpuppets, animated dogs that teach English phrases and hawk beer synthesized from pea proteins). I have never felt so desperate to tip anyone in my life as these poor young ladies, burned red and sweaty in the direct sun, lilting voices hoarse from hawking beer, some of them with beef jerky packets draped across their chests like long Vietnam-era GI bullet loops. There were more of them than I could count, the avian strangeness of the bills neatly folded in their left hand and customer calls occasionally drew my eyes from the game, even the minor dramas of business overwhelming the spectacle of organized sport.

Koike-san had stumbled onto four tickets to yesterday’s early season match between Hokkaido's Nippon Ham Fighters and the Chiba Marines. Best seating I’d ever had at a sports event, about ten rows behind the visiting team’s dugout, with a clear wide view of home plate and those poor girls breaking their backs and pouring beer. Koike is a fan of Baseball, spends his Saturdays as the third baseman for a local amateur league, will watch whatever game is on the tube, gets out to the ballpark two or three times a year driven more by circumstance than loyalty than any particular set of uniforms. Yamamoto and Sayo and I knew better: baseball is about winning. None of us had any personal or regional ties to Chiba, Hokkaido, Marines, Fighters or Ham, so our cheering was spurred by other loyalties: Sayo has a massive crush on the Ham Fighters Center Fielder, Yamamoto has a massive crush on Sayo and I wouldn’t be caught dead rooting for a team called the Ham Fighters.

Besides, it was a home game for the Marines, and the fans were as primed and practiced for the new season as the boys on the field. They sat directly across from us, just behind right field, a pixilated field of identical white and black Marines jerseys that was less like a tipsy baseball crowd than a massive transistor radio, the volunteer brass band cueing up one of the dozen or so fight songs and chants that made up the Marines songbook. Seemed almost every player had his own melody, from the Fukura batting cleanup to Bennie, the American shortstop. There was nothing simple or oom-pa, oom-pa about these either, it took me about seven innings of constant repetition just to figure how to clap along. The supporters box was like a tenth player, occasionally starting a low rising “aaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh...” at the opposing pitcher during his windup, several hundred fans all focused on the single task of doubling his heart-rate.

Let’s have one, come on! Morimoto! Mo-ri-mo-to! I know what you’re feeling! I just finished my summer vacation too, but it’s time for both of us to get back to work!

The game lolled along, a solid line drive from the Marines' Fukura prompted a sprint towards home base from the guy on second, but the ball got there with time to spare, which would push it up to three outs. I was just lamenting the loss of another inning when the ref called him safe, and the game stopped to give the catcher and the Ham Fighters coach a few minutes to scream at him for being such a blind fucking asshole. The grumblings about a payoff continued into the next inning when he called an outside ball a strike, knocking it up to three outs. Even the Marine’s cheering section seemed a bit subdued by the string of shady calls.

Each seat had a little “No Smoking” sticker printed on its back, so Sayo had to head back inside to breath one of her light menthols. Yamamoto-san went where she went, Koike-san wanted some foi od from inside, and the game wasn’t interesting enough to watch by my lonesome, so all four of us headed inside. Just as Sayo had lit one of her absurdly long Kool’s we all turned around to the indoor TV screen to watch a replay of the two run homer that some Ham Fighter had plunked out. By the time we’d resumed our seats the best inning of the game had ended, the Ham Fighters (Ham Fighters!?!) now with four runs against the phantom one run of the Marines. The game loped along for a few more innings, with the Ham Fighters (a pro-league team called the Ham-Fucking-Fighters!) knocking around the Chiba team on both sides of the field, racking up two more runs without much thought. The Marines got a second wind with a replacement pitcher and a surprise one-run homer from my new man, Fukura, and by the bottom of the ninth they were down by four but had a solid momentum going. One ball arced towards right field, and arrow straight to the heart of the monster of the supporter’s section, but it dropped just short of the stands, straight into a Ham Fighter’s waiting glove (how in the hell do you fight ham?).

The game ended there, the four of us moving between the giant geometric hotels and convention centers that lay between the stadium and the train station like the tombs of future kings, none of them more than ten years old. There must have been thousands of other baseball fans and weekend shoppers there, but it still felt quiet and empty, the wet Chiba plain stretching out in all directions, the sky the color of a damp pair of jeans, these alien gray structures risen out of the soft earth, and resting on this sharply gridded concrete crust. My friends began to twitter at the sight of the Chiba outlet mall placed innocently next to the station, and just as I felt myself being pulled along with them I found my excuse in a young woman doing tricks with a trained monkey just outside the entrance.

Charlie was a Macaque Fuscata, the breed of monkeys native to the forests and mountains of the Japanese islands, bane of rural farmers and frequent trespassers in secluded hot springs. But his trainer had saved him from a life of delinquency and had been put to the honorable trade of amusing Sunday shoppers for pocket change. Pays better than typing all day with dreams of Shakespeare, and with more immediate gratification. Besides, he had a comic's timing and was as nimble as a... monkey, hand-springs and vaults, leaping around on stilts, clearing a small arsenal of hurdles, hoops and bars. All done with a Buster Keaton deadpan that didn’t waver through all the hugs, high-fives and whispers with his trainer, who seemed to do most of the talking anyway. By the time the hat came around I emptied out what coins I had into it, to the tune of just about three hundred yen, less than half of what I’d paid for a beer.

By then my three friends had emerged from the outlet mall satiated, Yamamoto and Sayo with brand name bags in their arms, Koike always just content to watch and smile. The monkey act started again, pulling in two or three dozen returning baseball fans and Sunday shoppers to make a small stadium of their own, all eyes tuned to the flick of his tail and the arc of his jump, all eyes turned away from the great catacombs of money and power.

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