Special Correspondent in Tokyo
Tokyo, Oct. 15, 2003
— In 1985 when the Osaka-based Hanshin Tigers of Japan's Central League won the most coveted prize in Japanese baseball for the first time since their founding on Dec. 10, 1935, little did they realize that it would take almost another two decades before Japan's second most popular team would be in a position to seriously challenge for such glory again.Finishing more often than not well adrift of the leading pack in the majority of seasons following their sole ascendancy to the summit of Japanese baseball, the perennial cellar dwellers of recent years this year, once again find themselves face to face with destiny, nose to nose with their own self confidence and squaring off against the Pacific League Fukuoka Daiei Hawks from the southern island of Kyushu for the title of Japanese Baseball Champions 2003.Far more aptly named than the state-side 'World Series' with its geographical North American limitations, the 2003 Japan Series will be fought between a side that set a blistering pace early on in the season, leading the Central League for what seemed like an eternity and a team that essentially lacked that 'knock out' punch when it mattered most. Wrapping their own season far later than the Tigers, the Hawks of Fukuoka looked tired just when it mattered most during the run in with the title all but falling into their laps with their closest rivals the Seibu Lions losing more than the Hawks could win. Come mid-season and the Tiger's annual road trip of around three weeks to let their famous ivy-walled Koshien stadium accommodate the mid-summer Japanese High School baseball tournament, the Central League Season was to all ends and purposes over bar the shouting. The fat lady started her warm-up in July having seen the (Chunichi) Dragons, (Yakult) Swallows and (Yomiuri) Giants all flapping about looking for the spoor of the distant Tigers but all too often finding it cold and of little use in determining a weakness in their formidable Kansai-based predator.Packed stadiums at every homegame, wine featuring manager Hoshino's face and hordes of screaming stripey faced fans roaming the Japanese rail systems have made the Hanshin machine an entertainment in itself since the season started way back on March 28 in Yokohama. Even in Tokyo, where Giants fans traditionally rule the roost signs have started appearing that Tiger fever has traversed the Tokaido and reached the capital. With no-games to be played in Tokyo during this season's Japan Series, a cynic's indication to the Giant's hierarchy that yen alone doesn't buy titles, Tokyo Dome for once stands rejected and ignored as fans of the two teams to which the Big Egg is home look in opposite directions: the Pacific League's Nippon Ham Fighter's fans to the north, the future and Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido, new home to their beloved sluggers whilst Giant's fans gaze westwards down the Tokaido through the green mists (of envy perhaps) thrown up by the Shizuoka area tea fields and onto the 55,000 capacity Koshien Stadium soon to be creaking at the seams in its return to the glory days of 1985 and the much longer ago hosting of U.S. all time great ballplayer Babe Ruth.With the Series set to start on Oct. 18th at the home of the 'PA' League Champions; the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, their own icon of yesteryear and former Yomiuri Giants manager Sadaharu Oh will undoubtedly be the man towards whom the bitter Giants and other anti-Hanshin fans turn in their hour of need, armed with the prayer that the yellow and black tiger of the Kansai be prevented from skinning and devouring the pride of Kanto's most popular team—the Giant's 'Jabbit' rabbitty type mascot with a win over one of their old boys.Heading the Pacific League for most of the season with no real contenders in what is sometimes called Japan's minor league, the Hawks have performed steadily and reliably all season long, have been the targets of the annual claims that unsporting like behaviour by Daiei pitchers prevented a foreigner (Kintetsu Buffaloes Tuffy Rhodes) from breaking their current manager's long standing single season home-run record (Oh being a Taiwanese born naturalised Japanese meaning the record is 'acceptably' domestically held) but, as always have failed to grab the headlines in a manner comparable to their Central League cousins. So, with the showdown set, tickets as hard to find as is a solution to the eternal bad economy generated by Tokyo and Hanshin fans probably lining up as I write, the question on the lips of all Japanese baseball fans is simply; Will they do it? Will it be the first since the days of Randy Bass & co.? And, of course, will KFC's life-size statue of Colonel Sanders be saved from a ducking in the Osaka slime canal called the Dotonburi in the Osakan standard jump in the river celebrations seen so rarely in recent years? Fukuoka, Seibu or any other PA League side going head to head with the Tigers come Oct. 18th are, in the eyes of many non-Giant's fans, merely making up the numbers in this year's Series. Time alone will tell and history will record whether this is truly to be baseball's 'Year of the Tiger' or if it is the turn of the Hawks once more to don the swimming goggles and roll around in the beer for their standard post-game
celebration.For now though, my yen is on the Tigers in 4! A straight sweep.
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Mark Buckton, a Tokyo-based freelancing journalist contributes his articles to a number of world's noted newspapers including The Seoul Times.
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