Baseball in Japan Can Throw You a Curve - Part 2, the Pacific League
Part Two of Baseball in Japan Can Throw You a Curve looks at the six teams in NPB's Pacific League.
The Pacific League corresponds to MLB's American League as a Designated Hitter is used – in the Central League, pitchers must hit.
Fast trivia factoid: Baseballs used in the NPB league are slightly smaller and harder than those used in MLB play, due to their being wound tighter during manufacturing.
1) Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters
The Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters are the poster boys for weird Japanese team names, an honor only slightly diminished by the “Hokkaido” appended to the name in 2004 when the team moved north from Tokyo to play in snowy Sapporo.
Founded in 1946 as the Senators, the name became the Flyers from 1947 through 1973 before meat-packing company Nippon Ham took control. The Fighters' biggest star is half-Japanese, half-Iranian pitcher Yu Darvish, the winning pitcher in the final game of the 2006 Japan Series. (Yu Darvish image via Darvish Watch)
Some Fighters trivia for you: the team's former mascot, “Fighty”, was a bright pink pterodactyl whose head looked like a bone-in ham leg.
Seriously, who can make this stuff up?
2) Chiba Lotte Marines
The Chiba Lotte Marines , based in Chiba province to the east of Tokyo, are one of the founding members of the Pacific League (est. 1950) and spent their first 41 years as the Orions. If you guessed the original owner was a newspaper (the Mainichi Daily News), then this is your lucky day.
The “Lotte” refers to team owner Lotte Group, a huge corporation with South Korean roots that has dual head offices in Tokyo and Seoul. The Marines have been managed by former MLB player and manager Bobby Valentine since 2004.
Valentine has done much to shake up Japanese baseball by introducing unconventional concepts yet is warmly admired by Marines fans, not least because in 2005 he led the team to its first Japan Series championship since 1974. He still has a sense of humor as well - check out the “Bobby Burger” shown above at Valentine's blog, Bobby's Way.
3) Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks
The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks call the city of Fukuoka in southern Kyushu island home. The team can trace their origins back to 1938 as “Nankai”, sponsored by (here we go again)... the Nankei Electric Railway Company. From 1947 to 1988 they were the Nankei Hawks, then through 2004 played as the Daiei Hawks until the Daiei department store chain collapsed – financially, not literally.
The team is on much more secure ground now with Softbank, a major Japanese cellphone service provider, and with the venerable Sadaharu Oh (above) gripping the managerial reins. (Sadaharu Oh image via Getty Images)
Some Hawks trivia: during the 1946 and 1947 seasons the team was known as the “Kinki Great Ring”... surely one of the weirdest team names of all time!
4) Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
The 2005 merger of the Kintetsu Buffaloes and Orix Blue Wave had several side effects, one being Japan's first-ever player strike in September of 2004.
Though the strike only lasted two days, both the team owners and the players union got what they wanted: a new team in the Pacific League named the Rakuten Golden Eagles that would ensure nobody lost their jobs, and an equally balanced baseball league with more secure financial backing.
Rakuten, a huge online retailer, owns the new team which plays in the city of Sendai while “Tohoku” is the name of the northern part of Japan's main island of Honshu. (Golden Eagles crowd image via ampontour)
5) Saitama Seibu Lions
The Saitama Seibu Lions joined the NPB league in 1950 and, after one season as the Nishitetsu Clippers, have been “Lions” of one kind or another ever since. Oh yeah, Nishitetsu... newspaper or railway? Flip a coin.
Seibu's mascot is based on the popular “Kimba the White Lion” anime character – said by some to be the inspiration for Simba in “The Lion King” (but denied by Disney). Since 2008 the team has stuck Saitama (the province just north of Tokyo) onto their name but retain Seibu, the team owner who owns neither a newspaper nor a railway, but a flagship Japanese department store. Kinda like the Macy's Mets or the Wal-Mart Walruses. Walri. Whatever.
The Saitama Seibu Lions' main claim to fame outside of Japan is that they were the team Daisuke “Dice-K” Matsuzaka played for from 1999 through 2006 before jumping over the pond to pitch for the Boston Red Sox. (Dice-K image via Time.com)
6) Orix Buffaloes
As mentioned earlier, the Orix Buffaloes are actually a conglomeration of the Kintetsu Buffaloes and the Orix Blue Wave. The former, owned by “your travel consultant, Kintetsu” was based in Osaka and the latter, owned by Tokyo-based financial services company Orix, called the city of Kobe home. The two teams merged in 2005 and now play “home” games in both cities. It's recommended fans become very familiar with their calendars.
Orix Blue Wave was Ichiro Suzuki's team for 9 years before he signed with the Seattle Mariners. (Ichiro image via Collecting Ichiro)
And that wraps up our quick overview of Japan's professional baseball teams. Interest in Japanese baseball has been on the rise in the USA thanks to the exploits of superstars like Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kosuke Fukudome and many others.
The many similarities and curious differences between the American and Japanese games allow fans on both sides of the Pacific to better appreciate the essentials of the Game as a whole.
For sure, Japan has “a league of their own”, but they like it that way. Check it out, I'm sure you will too!