Some Lessons on Baseball - From Tokyo

Philadelphia Daily News, June 29, 2001

By John Allen Paulos

Baseball is still the national pastime, but the nation is now Japan. On a recent visit to Tokyo, I went to a game at the Tokyo Dome and was amazed at the intensity of the fans' involvement. The contest was a nothing game in the middle of the season, yet the stadium was packed, standing room only.

Every measly single by the Tokyo team, every slightly difficult catch in the outfield, every double play was greeted with cheers and noisemakers so loud the enclosed Dome seemed to rock. The enthusiasm was never raucous, but it was contagious and made the experience fun, even though I couldn't have cared less who won.

Another remarkable aspect of baseball in Tokyo was the cleanliness of the stadium. Every couple of innings, people came and emptied garbage cans, polished vending stations and cleaned restrooms. Graffiti and litter were nowhere to be found (a condition that characterizes the whole city - from the sparkling subways to the swarming streets of the business and entertainment areas). Families in the stands collected their wrappers and cardboard boxes until a designated member dutifully disposed of them.

If you couldn't make it to the game, the local English-language paper had extensive coverage of baseball throughout the country. There were long reports on play in the American major leagues as well, with particular attention focused on the growing contingent of Japanese players here in the United States.

When I returned to the hotel, employees with whom I had not spoken asked me how I enjoyed it.
Apparently, news of my asking the doorman for directions to the Dome had spread to the staff, who seemed very anxious to hear my reaction to the game and pleased at my positive comments.

Up in our room, two of the nine available television channels were devoted to baseball. As a numbers man, I was particularly impressed with the emphasis on statistics. The cameras regularly scanned the scoreboards, which had information on the speed of every pitch, everyone's batting and fielding averages, and a host of more arcane figures that, not knowing how to read the Japanese ideograms, I couldn't make sense of.

Aside from World Series and pennant playoffs, the only comparable baseball experience I've ever had was as a kid in Milwaukee when the Braves first moved to the sports-starved town.

My childhood adoration of Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron was matched, it seemed, by that of thousands of Japanese kids in the crowd who cheered on their idols.

During a fifth-inning break in the game, they and their parents even sang - in English, no less - all the words to "Take me out to the ball game. Take me out with the crowd. Buy me some peanuts and Crackerjack. . ."

If there's a Platonic version of an ideal baseball experience, this was it. It was everything baseball should be.