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The Key To Having Fun At A Baseball Game Is Flying To The Other Side Of The World

A photo of the baseball field and the scoreboard at Meji Jingu Baseball Stadium stadium in Tokyo. The night sky is a dark blue and, despite the rain, the outfield seats still hold a good number of fans. There's also a runner on second base.
Mr. Diana

TOKYO AND LOS ANGELES — I should have bought the cheer bats. That's what I kept telling myself. All around me, fans packed into the tiny plastic seats of Tokyo's Meiji Jingu Stadium; somewhere below, a baseball game was happening. I had been prepared to watch Nippon Professional Baseball—unlike one of the Aussies a few seats over, I already knew the rules of the game—but I had been unprepared for how much cheering was involved in being at a NPB game. The cheers for each individual player. The cheers for the team overall. The cheer for the team's star player, whose status I figured out because the crowd sang that cheer through his entire at-bat. And by cheer, I mean a full song, with coordinated clapping, provided by the fans; the brass band playing along in the stands filled things out nicely. Whereas the United States plays baseball amid a lot of ambient crowd noise—vendors, sometimes an old-timey organ and sometimes not, the occasional woooooos—there is no such space at NPB games. In Japan, the game is played either alongside or within a dynamic, fan-crafted environment that rises to meet the key moments and lowers in the lulls. If you want to be a part of it, I can attest that you should really buy the cheer bats.

Mostly that's because it's hard work to clap that much. After a while, my hands hurt, and then I understood the cheer bats, which are small plastic bats, about 10 inches long and a skosh more than an inch at their widest, that you tap together to make noise. Think of them as a smaller version of thundersticks, which originated in Korea. Cheer bats are tiny but loud; more importantly, they keep your hands pain-free so you can use them for more important things, like eating chicken and tortilla chips out of a souvenir plastic baseball helmet with chopsticks, or recording video of the seventh-inning-stretch mini-umbrella dance.

I went to a baseball game in Japan because everyone said I should. I am aware that a Westerner going to baseball in Japan isn't novel or new; Hollywood made a studio movie premised on an MLB player moving to Japan more than three decades ago. It is as much Japan's sport—and Korea's and Cuba's and the Dominican Republic's and Venezuela's—as it is ours, and that was true even before Shohei Ohtani and Japan bested the U.S. in the most recent World Baseball Classic. The bloom is off baseball somewhat—it's not the biggest or the coolest or the healthiest pro sport, and it's no longer really very close—but there's still something sacrosanct about it, despite or because of that decline. If it's no longer America's pastime, baseball still feels, in ways that are flattering and ways that very much are not, like the United States itself.

It's still baseball that we wrap up in the gossamer of fiction. It's still baseball we saddle with the hyper-patriotic weight of "God Bless America." So why is baseball overseas so much more fun?

I should start by admitting that I had planned to go to a KBO game in Korea. The itinerary had my husband and me spending nine nights in Korea, across Seoul, Jeju Island, and Busan, followed by three nights in Tokyo. A Saturday afternoon matchup between the LG Twins and Doosan Bears in Seoul seemed like the perfect fit. I planned out a game day outfit (Dodgers jersey over tank top, Dodgers hat, comfortable jeans), and visions of Korean fried chicken with French fries and a beer danced in my head as we walked up to the stadium.

Except the game sold out before we got there. (Tickets to KBO games are very difficult for a foreigner to get online.) A worker explained to us that our best bet for going to a game would be the one on Tuesday, which was the same day we were leaving for Jeju. Given that I was hungry—because I had planned on eating all that fried chicken at the game—I received this news poorly.

On our sad walk away from Jamsil Baseball Stadium, with excited fans streaming in the opposite direction past me and my grumbling stomach, I decided that we would go see a game in Japan instead. I couldn't bear the thought of traveling all the way to Korea and Japan and not seeing baseball. It felt incomplete, like going to Paris and skipping the Louvre. NPB tickets were easier to get; we bought two on our phones as we were walking, tickets to see the Tokyo Yakult Swallows take on the Yokohama DeNA BayStars. Hours later, I randomly found a Swallows sweatshirt and team hat in a Seoul vintage store and bought them both, declaring myself a Swallows fan for life with the confidence of the newly converted. I had the outfit, and I would figure out the rest as I went along.

We were in Tokyo about a week later and emerged from the subway to walk to the stadium. Street vendors already had food for sale blocks away; it is common in Japan (and Korea) to allow food from outside the stadium into the games. The smell of grilled chicken and edamame wafted by; banners strung on buildings showed various Swallows players, all wearing facial expressions that conveyed they were very intent on winning, and let us know we were getting closer. There was also the team's mascot, Tsubakuro, an adorable and human-sized red swallow who always wears a jersey, a batting helmet, and a smile.

Just outside Meiji Jingu Stadium were even more food vendors and a tent selling team merchandise, including those all-important cheer bats. The sound of the crowd and the music from the band spilled onto the street. Two giant inflatables of Tsubakuro greeted us near the entrance, while a cardboard cutout of a Swallows player holding two heart-shaped balloons urged us to get the sweet potato chips. I probably should have bought those too, but at least I got a photo to go with the mental note that more U.S. baseball players should pose with heart-shaped balloons.

A giant cutout a Tokyo Yakult Swallows player in an advertisement for sweet potato chips. in one hand, he is holding a heart-shaped balloon that says "Sweet Potato Chips." The other hand, he is holding a heart-shaped balloon that says, "Lucky 7."
A cutout of Hideki Nagaoka advertising sweet potato chips.Diana Moskovitz/Defector Media

Looking back on all that coulda-shoulda-woulda edamame and sweet potato chips and cheer bats, I suspect that my abstention was the inevitable outcome of my American-ness. Decades of experience at large gatherings have taught me to travel light. I don't want anything to set off the metal detector. I instinctively avoid anything that will violate the lengthy list of items I have been trained to understand as Things That Cannot Be Brought Inside. I don't want to have the wrong-sized bag or the wrong type of bag—maybe they have to be clear, or maybe they need to have certain dimensions, or maybe both, or maybe they don't allow bags at all, unless you have a child at which point you have to go through the specific line for those. I barely even notice these little indignities anymore.

In Tokyo, I don't remember if I even went through a metal detector. I might have? The entire process went so fast that, weeks later, neither my husband nor I can remember. We walked inside; a worker scanned our tickets; another worker, standing by a basic work folding table, looked inside my purse—which was my normal purse that I had been using all day—and that was it. The entire process took a minute. I didn't even have to take off my Swallows hat. We climbed the stairs to our seats.

The baseball unfolded ... pretty much like baseball, just with a vertical scoreboard. The visiting BayStars quickly jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first inning, followed by four more runs in the second. The Swallows gave up runs seemingly with each crack of a BayStars bat; rain started falling. Virtually no one left the game; fans without awnings over them donned bright green rain slickers. They never stopped chanting.

Nothing prepared me for how loud an NPB game is. Everyone is chanting, and that chanting rarely stops; there is the added noise of the cheer bats clapping along and the live band. For each batter, fans chanted. The band played. The cheer bats clapped. The chants changed for different players and different situations but they always carried on, regardless of the weather or the score or anything else; the only time it stopped for any significant stretch was between innings. I did my best to clap along when I figured out the rhythm and left with sore hands to show for it. (Visiting teams also have their own fan sections, who cheer for their team as well. At NPB games, someone is always cheering.)

And yes, there were cheerleaders. There were beer girls, which is a concept I would have enjoyed more had there also been beer boys, which there were not. At one point, Tsubakuro did a ribbon dance. When the Swallows finally scored a run, every fan celebrated by opening mini umbrellas and hoisting them in the air while singing. During the seventh-inning stretch, in place of "God Bless America" or "Take Me Out To The Ballgame," were the mini umbrellas, more dancing and max-volume singing, and the band. In the U.S., baseball is patriotic church. In Japan, it's a party.

Video taken by another fan of the umbrella dance at a Tokyo Yakult Swallows game earlier this year.

I was dead-set on eating fried chicken at a baseball game, and finally made my move. But even here, it wasn't as easy as I'd hoped; I bobbled my cup of chicken nuggets as soon as I got back to my seat and spilled more than half of them on the floor. I ate the two surviving nuggets, but can't remember how they tasted. Like shame, mostly.

During a later inning, with the BayStars again at bat and a Swallows comeback already feeling unlikely, I tried my food luck again. If there was an upside to my newly adopted Swallows being behind, it was that I didn't feel bad taking time to try and get more food. So I descended into the lowest level of the stadium, slowly translating the signs of various vendors through my phone app, and pricing in my desire for a souvenir plastic hat. I ended up getting a good-sized serving of tortilla chips, topped with a green sauce, with fried chicken on top, all served inside a light blue Swallows helmet, with a pair of disposable chopsticks.

A photo of friend chicken on top of tortilla strips, served in a souvenir plastic baseball hat with chopsticks.
A photo of the fried chicken that I finally acquired.Diana Moskovitz/Defector Media

I learned from my first attempt and decided, instead, to eat while standing by one of the many TVs that showed the game. I took one bite of the fried chicken and immediately felt elation. I do not know if I ate the best fried chicken in Japan that day, and I'll guess that a quick scouring of food literature would tell me that I did not, but it felt like the best. I have no idea what the green sauce was, but it tasted fantastic too. The entire meal cost me $8.42, a fraction of what the same meal would cost me here. Before going back to my seat, I saw a small girl, maybe age 5, calmly walk herself to the bathroom, unaccompanied by an adult, and then make her way back to her seat. The game was still going on.

We left early. The Aussies near us had bailed innings earlier, but we hung in there until after the seventh inning, as it became clear that the Swallows weren't coming back and the rain wasn't letting up. Outside, I finally bought my cheer bats and mini umbrella as souvenirs.

A few weeks later, back in the States, I prepared to go to a Los Angeles Dodgers game. This time, getting ready took longer than normal. My muscle memory of the American sports security apparatus had vanished. I didn't know where my mandated clear plastic bags were. Once those were found, my husband grabbed our water bottles—only unopened plastic ones are allowed—and I did my best to trim my bag down to the essentials: keys, wallet, sunscreen, hoodie for when the sun goes down, and snacks because, luckily for us, Dodger Stadium does allow outside food. As we stood in line for security, we both emptied our pockets and lifted our hats as we walked through the metal detector to prove we weren't hiding anything.

Inside we dashed to our seats, past the $7.99 hot dogs, $11.99 souvenir nacho helmet, $14.99 chicken tenders and fries, and $16.50 cans of beer, all of which we rarely purchase. I had always known going to any sporting event was expensive, but after our trip to Korea and Japan, I felt it viscerally. I realized that, despite the lack of evidence showing that metal detectors and various other security layers installed in our stadiums made us any safer, our games strip us down to little more than a wallet and then shuffle us—hungry, thirsty, eager to be entertained—into giant pseudo-malls where we will have to buy nearly everything we need for the next several hours, at prices much higher than we'd ever pay outside those walls. In Japan, so much of the experience felt fun and natural and easily accessible. Yes, some profit had to be made, but it didn't seem to define the entire experience.

Back in the U.S., I still have a good time at sports events, but that feels more like a happy accident, or at least incidental to the main purpose, which is the maximum extraction of all my financial capital until nothing is left but the husk of my corporeal body and a credit card, ideally one with a low interest rate. The mind reels at how much a big-league team would charge for cheer bats, if it could sell them at all. I did briefly consider bringing my cheer bats to use them at that Dodger game, but quickly set that idea aside for fear they'd have been confiscated as a possible weapon.

While stepping down from the high of our trip, I rewatched that Hollywood movie about a New York Yankee who gets sent to a team in Japan. Released in 1992, Mr. Baseball starred Tom Selleck as the player, Ken Takakura as his Chunichi Dragons head coach, and Aya Takanashi as a team publicist; I don't imagine it's spoiling anything to note that she's later Selleck's love interest. It held up better than I had expected, though it still had its fair share of jokes made at the expense of Japanese people. The fact that I wasn't cringing the whole time might have been due to the fact that an American baseball player who played in NPB, Leon Lee, worked on the film and the movie was distributed by Universal Pictures, which was owned at the time by the Japanese company Matsushita.

The film garnered praise at the time for capturing the frenetic energy of Japanese baseball—the cheering, the music, the non-stop energy. As a child, I remember watching the movie when it would show up on TV and marveling at the shots of people eating sushi and noodles in the stands, at a baseball game. Those shots stood out less now. Of course you might eat sushi and noodles at a baseball game in Japan. Or chips and fried chicken and a mysterious tasty green sauce out of a helmet, if you'd rather that. It's a ballgame.

On this most recent viewing, I latched onto a few things. Cheer bats, it seemed, were bigger in 1992. So large, in fact, that they looked as if they doubled as hand-held megaphones. Soon after I caught that came a pivotal scene, in which Selleck's Jack Elliot tells Takakura's Uchiyama that he needs to let his players have more fun at the ballpark. I laughed at the remarks, though I'm sure they did not strike me as funny in 1992, because I now found the idea of an American ballplayer telling a Japanese ballplayer to have more fun to be absolutely hysterical. I've seen American baseball players, and I've been to a Japanese baseball game. It's clear who has more fun at the ballpark.

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