In Japan, take the family out to the ballgame

A week of Red Sox mania spotlights the ways Japanese teams are trying to attract more fans.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    New Style: In Kamagaya, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters offer family friendly fun, like dancing on the field.
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As a teenager, Megumi Shiina hesitated to reveal that she was a fan of baseball, because it was considered to be a "boys' sport."

"I rarely found a girl like me," she recalls. At ballparks, she was surrounded by boys and businessmen in gray suits, a number of them inebriated.

No more. More than a decade later, "you see so many women and girls," she says.

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Ms. Shiina was one of the 2,500 enthusiastic fans who packed the Kamagaya Ballpark, 40 miles northeast of Tokyo, the hometown of the farm team of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

Local children get free admission. Fans enjoy dancing in the playing field, getting autographs, singing the national anthem, having photos taken with players, and shaking hands with them. Fans say they feel closer to players as players acknowledge their cheers by waving or bowing.

This week, Japanese are breathlessly tracking the visit of the Boston Red Sox, with their high-profile Japanese pitchers Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima. The team is playing to sold-out crowds, with exhibition games over the weekend and the first two games of the regular season against the Oakland A's on Tuesday and Wednesday. And the ballpark spirit has a feel that would make most Americans feel quite at home.

To be sure, the hot dogs aren't quite as iconic as a Fenway Frank, and they compete with bento of rice, vegetables, and meat or fish. Few adults sport baseball caps, and fans sit in specified cheering sections.

Still, the Fighters, like many other teams, want to be more community-based. "What we are aiming for is a Disneyland, and baseball is like one of its attractions," says Ryutaro Narita, the team's business operation leader.

Last year, the team sent seven employees to the US to watch not only baseball games in the major and minor leagues, but other sports, too. "We don't intend to copy US examples at all. While learning from them, we are creating our own," says Narita.

The Fighters used to be an unpopular franchise in Tokyo. The Tokyo-based Yomiuri Giants were the most popular in Japan's pro baseball – its parent, the Yomiuri Media Group, able to dig into its deep pockets to scoop up Japan's best players, writes sports critic Masayuki Tamaki.

But pro baseball has lost a bit of its luster in recent years, even in a nation that has long worshiped baseball, and which welcomed visiting American baseball starts throughout the past century.

Hence the bid to be more family friendly – or to connect better with local boosters. The Fighters, for example, moved from Tokyo north to Hokkaido, and won the Japan Series title in 2006, the first since 1962. The manager was Trey Hillman, who now manages the Kansas City Royals.

"One big change in pro baseball is that some teams showcase regional characteristics," says Satoshi Kusaka, who covers MLB for the SKY Perfect Communications, a digital satellite TV provider. "As more people want to support their local team, the number of viewers for their games [which were not televised before] has steadily increased." That stands in sharp contrast to the Giants, which have seen a falloff in viewership.

One of the things that has not changed in Japan are the unique cheers of fans.

When the Red Sox played their exhibition game against the Hanshin Tigers Saturday, fans pounded drums, tooted horns, sang special songs when their teams came to bat, and choreographed cheers throughout the game. That caught the attention of the Americans – who, nonetheless, were treated to the trademark "Sweet Caroline" at the top of the eighth. (Japanese fans looked puzzled, apparently, when the "Cheers" them came over the loudspeakers.)

"It was different. I'm not sure we knew what to expect," says Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "With all those things – they were beating and yelling and singing – it was a good experience."

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