After seeing a ballgame in Shinjuku Tuesday night, we rose early to take the train from Shinjuku to Tokyo Station to catch the Shinkansen to Sendai for an early afternoon ballgame. Since we were leaving Tokyo for a few days, we checked out of our hotel, taking our luggage with us. Typically, we would not take the train during morning commute in Tokyo (considering the crush of people during this time), but we made a reservation on the Narita Express. This gave us some breathing room while lugging our bags.
Upon arriving at Tokyo Station, we boarded Car 9 (the Green Car) on the 0910 Hayabusa (the Falcon) for Sendai station. During the one hour and 30 minute trip, we were treated to sweeping vistas of the terrain. While a flight would have been shorter, taking the bullet train afforded us a view of Japan that was well worth the extra time.
Arriving at Sendai station around 1040, we were too early to check into our hotel (located across the street from the station). However, we planned for this. Within Sendai station were rows and rows of lockers, many large enough to easily hold our bags. Conveniently, we were able to pay with our Suica cards. Luggage secured, we headed out toward the ballpark.
2. Rakuten Seimei Park Miyagi
Initially, we planned to take the subway from the station to the ballpark, a distance of a little more than a kilometer. Confused by which direction was which down in the subway, we abandoned this option, and instead decided to walk. The weather was cloudy and cool, perfect for an early April stroll. The walk also allowed us to take in more of Sendai.
We were far from alone on the walk; it seemed as though much of Sendai was headed to the park for the early afternoon game. Reaching the park well ahead of the start time, we had plenty of time for pictures. Like most Japanese ballparks, there was plenty to do and see outside of the park, with games, food stands and places to purchase team apparel.
There were signs outside the park indicating the stadium was cashless, meaning we needed to buy a card to make purchases within the ballpark. This was something we had not yet seen. Should you plan to catch a game in Sendai, this is something to consider.
Our seats were just to the third base side of home plate, at the top of the lower level. These seats allowed for a great view of the field. For the 1300 start, the Sendai Rakuten Golden Eagles hosted the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. Unlike other parks we’d visited, there was less English here, with just some on the scoreboard and on the field. In a strange sense, it felt like we were really in Japan, as Sendai is NOT an international city (like Tokyo or Osaka).
Rakuten Seimei Park Miyagi was as appealing as expected, in spite of the gray skies. The capacity is small compared to other NPB ballparks, holding less than 25,000 people. Nearly every seat in the park was filled, even with the early afternoon start. It seems that, unlike MLB contests, the start time of the game does not curtail crowd size. Like some MLB parks, it was interesting to note that the home team’s dugout was on the third base side.
As was the case in other NPB ballparks, we were limited as to how much of the park we could access. This did limit of our ability to fully explore the stadium, as well as take pictures. However, the view from our park was excellent, with only the far left field corner obscured. After the typical pre game pageantry, the first pitch was thrown precisely at 1300.
The Golden Eagles struck first, scoring three runs in the bottom of the first. Due mainly to his inability to contain the Golden Eagles offense early, the Fighters starting pitcher lasted only 1 2/3 innings. The teams settled into the game by trading scoreless innings through the fifth inning. The Golden Eagles offense erupted once again in the bottom of the sixth, scoring eight runs and putting the game out of reach of the Fighters.
As the game continued, the clouds slowly dissipated, with sunshine providing some warmth toward the end of the game. The increasing sunshine also lifted the veil over the ballpark, revealing its colors. The Golden Eagles won the ballgame 11-3, with a game time of nearly 3 hours and 40 minutes. Rakuten Seimei Park is a cozy ballpark, barely larger than the biggest MiLB parks in the US. Its size holds a charm not generally not found in MLB parks. If it was not so far away from Tokyo, I would readily visit the park again.
On the way back to the hotel, we discovered the Golden Eagles team store. In the store we found a MUCH larger selection of team apparel than at the ballpark, which allowed my brother to find a Tohuku jersey (a reference to the region of Japan). We noticed many older Golden Eagles fans wearing the same jersey at the game. Following some exploration of nearby Sendai, we had an early dinner, then relaxed after a long day.
The last stop on our 2019 stadium tour brought us to Yokohama Stadium, the home of the Yokohama DeNA BayStars. Unlike the previous stops on the tour, the weather was much more agreeable, with a hint of spring in the air.
1. Getting to the game
We did not go straight from our hotel in Tokyo to the stadium. After walking through Tokyo (admiring the cherry blossoms), we headed out in search the Seibu Lions team store in the Ikebukuro section of Tokyo. We took the Marunouchi line from Tokyo Station to Ikebukuro station, a journey of about 20 minutes. After a few false starts, we found the Seibu Department Store. The Lions team store was located on the 8th floor. The team store was surprisingly small, but my brother was able to get a Lions jersey.
From the Ikebukuro station, we took the Fukutoshin line to the Nihon-Odori station, with the trip taking about 50 minutes. From the station, it was a short walk (about 400 meters) to Yokohama Stadium.
2. Yokohama Stadium
It was a beautiful afternoon at Yokohama Stadium, as the DeNA BayStars took on the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants. We arrived about an hour before the 13:00 start, which gave us time to explore the surroundings. Unlike most Japanese ball parks, there wasn’t much to see outside the park, so after a cursory look outside we entered the ballpark.
Quite intentionally, the BayStars team store was located just beyond the gate. Of course, we perused the store, purchasing apparel and a yearbook (completely in Japanese). Prices here were higher than other team stores. For example a Giant cap sold for nearly 10,000 yen (about $100 USD). Not yet possessing a Giants cap, I was tempted, but ultimately passed on the opportunity.
The information on the ticket was barely discernible, so we heeded advice given early on to show our tickets to team employees until they showed us our seats. We sat on the left field side, beyond third base in the lower level. Even an hour before the game, the stadium was packed (which we found to be true just about everywhere in Japan).
Just before of the start of the game, there was an audible murmur in the crowd, as a young man walked out to the mound to throw out to the first pitch. The crowd clearly knew who he was, though we didn’t have a clue. The young man was a member of a J-Pop band, whose name escapes me.
The lineups were announced before the start of the game. Quite unexpectedly, the lineup announcements were in English, which was a first at an NPB game. In fact, the announcements sounded as though they were being made in an American ballpark. The English continued for each at bat, a nice touch for a foreign baseball fan. Unlike the other ballgames we saw in Japan, there were many foreign fans in attendance. Our entire row was comprised of Americans, except for the Giants fans sitting next to us.
The visiting Giants had a large cheering section in left field (as is customary in Japan). The section sang a different song for each player. Being the third time we’d seen the Giants, we actually recognized the batters by the fight song chanted by the fans.
Not to be outdone, the remainder of the stadium chanted for the BayStars in the bottom of the 1st inning. Having been to eight NPB games, it still amazes me that the fans have either stamina to maintain the cheering the entire game (want to hear the chanting? Check it out here.) The fans, the warm weather, and the ballpark made this my favorite stop on our NPB baseball tour (though my brother would disagree).
The game itself was fairly one-sided, with the BayStars taking an early lead and holding on for a 5-1 victory. Rather than stretch during the middle of the 7th inning, the Japanese have another tradition we’ve seen at every ballpark so far. Fans inflated balloons and released them when instructed. The resulting display is quite colorful, and view a montage of balloon tradition is available here.
Like most other ball games in Japan, we saw some foreign players, though none of names were familiar. Seemingly, most of the foreign players were fireballers, with fastballs over 95 mph (a skill homegrown pitchers did not appear to possess on a consistent basis).
The game time was a reasonable two hours and 45 minutes, the shortest game we saw on this trip. Typically, NPB games last between three and three and one-half hours. However, unlike the US, nobody in Japan seems to mind. For the Japanese, baseball is more than a game; it’s an event.
During our visits to Japan, we experienced a culture to which we had no direct connection. Even though the culture was different, there were many touchstones from home. Below are some of the customs about which we learned traveling in Japan.
1. The Language Barrier
Traveling to a land where you neither read or speak the language can be daunting. However, we found that in urban areas, there is enough English present to put you at ease. Virtually all signage has English as well as Japanese, so navigating your way is relatively easy.
Traveling outside of the major urban areas could present more of a challenge when it comes to communicating with locals. For example, we found that Fukushima and Sendai had much less of an English presence than Tokyo or Osaka. These cities offered us our first taste of being in Japan. Still, in these areas, there were still some reminders of home.
If you plan to travel outside of the more urban areas of Japan, it might be a good idea to load Google Translate (or something similar) on your phone. To be safe, I loaded a version of Translate with a static dictionary, in the event we found ourselves outside of good cell reception.
2. Walking on the left side
The Japanese drive on the left side of the road, and they, for the most part, walk on the left side of the sidewalk, and the left side of stairs. The only large scale exception to this rule we saw was in Osaka, where it seemed customary to walk on the right. Of course, not everyone does this. In Tokyo, this custom seemed less rigid, with people walking on each side (much like you might find in Manhattan). Overall, to be considerate, try to walk on the left side.
2. Interacting with locals
As a rule, it seems as though the Japanese shy away from dealing with foreigners. In urban areas, this not quite as evident as in more suburban or rural areas. In fact, we had a young Japanese woman ask if we needed help purchasing train tickets at Tokyo Station. By contrast, I offered to help an elderly couple in Tokyo carrying boxes that were clearly too large for them. They politely declined and went about their way.
Don’t be insulted if a seat next to you on a train remains empty, even during peak travel times. It’s just their way.
In Japan, there is no tipping. Unlike everywhere else we have been, the Japanese see tipping as rude or an insult, as though you were paying them extra to do their jobs well. This includes restaurant servers, hotel employees and cab drivers.
5. Eating on the Run in Japan
While most places we’ve been have convenience stores in abundance, there are ubiquitous in Japan. In virtually every urban area we’ve visited, there are 7-11 stores. Just like in the US, you can grab a quick snack or drink. Unlike the US, however, you can actually get a small meal at the 7-11, and even eat it there. In fact, we saw as many people eating at 7-11s as more traditional fast food restaurants.
The 7-11 stores are far from the only convenience stores in Japan. On seemingly every block stood a Family Mart or a Lawsons. These stores have plenty of snacks and drinks too, and some are even located near or within hotels in Tokyo. In addition, there are vending machines almost everywhere, offering drinks and water. If you travels keep you busy, convenience stores and vending machines will keep you fueled until you time for a meal.
Going to a baseball game in Japan is much like going to a game in the US. However, being in a place where we could not speak or read the language did pose some issues not experienced here. Below are a few of the things we learned going to Japanese baseball games.
1. Getting to the ballpark
While the specific directions of how to get to the park are contained in the review of each park, there are a few common themes. First, review the route to the game, including the specific train lines that get you to the park. Sounds simple, but planning could save you some stress later on. Plan to leave early, in the event you miss your train. Many Japanese ball parks open two hours early, and have things to do and see around the park itself.
Baseball parks in Japan are located close to train stations (we’ve noticed very little in the way of parking for cars at the games). We’ve found that most are within walking distance (generally a kilometer or less). If that distance seems excessive, you can probably get a taxi to the game and back.
2. Entering the ballpark
After you arrive, survey the landscape to identify your gate for entry. The tickets we’ve had vary with respect to readability. Some are fairly easy to decipher
The above ticket was for a Giants game against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows at the TokyoDome on September 22nd, 2018. Note that much of the vital information (gate, row, seat) have English next to them, making navigation fairly easy.
However, most of the tickets we received looked more like the ticket above. The gate number, row and seat are decipherable, but not easily as the ticket for Tokyo. If you are unsure which gate to enter, simply ask. In the case of the above. I handed the ticket to a security guard, who pointed me to the correct gate. Once inside, keep handing your ticket to staff members until they bring you to your seat. (FYI; there is no tipping in Japan)
Unlike American ballparks, the Japanese stadium setup usually restricts you to the section in which your seat is located (with the TokyoDome being an exception). This hampered our ability to get as many pictures as we would have liked.
One of the major differences between American and Japanese ballparks is the cuisine. As you might expect, the menu is dominated by Japanese fare (though some parks did offer hot dogs). My palate is not very sophisticated or varied, so I shied always from much of what was available. However, bento boxes were popular, containing vegetables, rice and fish.
Ordering can be a challenge, given the language barrier. In Tokyo, there was enough recognition of English to allow for rudimentary conversations regarding ordering food. Elsewhere, we’ve seen most ballparks offer a picture book of the selections. Often pointing to the book and indicating the desired quantity with fingers accomplished the task. The vendors are typically very helpful, and I didn’t face a situation where I couldn’t get what I wanted from the concession stand.
Drinks can also be obtained at the concession stand. We discovered there is no diet soda (as we know it) in Japan, but zero calorie soda is available. We mostly drank water, which is a must when traveling through Japan in the warm season.
We didn’t see too many vendors selling food in the crowd, but there were people delivering drinks. Dubbed beer girls, there were dozens of young women hawking alcohol, wearing brightly colored shirts and carrying packs on their backs.
Like ballparks in America, each of the ballparks we visited had a team store. Most of the team stores had a selection of apparel you might find in a team store in the US, as well as programs, yearbooks and baseball cards. In addition, the stores had items that appeared to be more popular in Japan than back home. These items included pom poms, dolls and noise makers shaped like cones (which the crowds put to good use during the games).
However, for the avid baseball fan, the team stores often seemed to lack a greater variety of hats, jerseys and pictures. My brother Jeff found that larger teams stores were often found outside of the ballparks. For example, there are two team stores in Sapporo (home of the the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters). The team store for the Sendai Rakuten Golden Eagles is down the road from their ballpark, and the team store for the Seibu Lions is on the 8th floor of the Seibu Store in the Ikebukuro section of Tokyo. If you seek a larger selection of team items, especially hats and jersey, you should Google the location of the official team stores.
In the previous post, we covered some of the aspects of planning the trip we felt were important to prepare you for the journey. In this post, we will review some of the things we discovered about traveling while you are in Japan. Hopefully these tips can make your travels easier.
1. Getting to where you are staying from the airport
If you arrive at Narita Airport (where most international flights arrive), the best place to get to where you are staying is the Narita Express. This limited express train gets you from Narita to Tokyo area locations. You can make reservations online, which is remitted at Narita, or you can make the reservation once you arrive in Japan.
We recommend Googling the station nearest your hotel, and determining the distance between the two. If you are unsure of how to get to the hotel from the train station, we recommend taking a taxi. Tell the driver the name of your hotel, and they will know how to get there. The taxi stands are clearly marked, though it is possible that some cabbies may shy away from transporting foreigners (try not to take it personally). Taking a taxi after a long flight might be the easiest way to conclude your travel day.
2. Using Mobile Devices in Japan
During our previous two trips to Japan, we simply used our phones with an international data plan from Verizon. The plan, for $10 USD a day, we made calls, texted and surfed the Web, using Verizon partner networks. Each day we used data on our phones, we were charged the $10; if we didn’t, we were not charged. Our 8 day stays therefore cost $80 for data, text and call. In most places, the cell coverage was sufficient to meet our needs. However, there were times when the drop off in coverage caused some issues using a google Maps while using the Tokyo area trains.
In preparation for our upcoming return to Japan, I have been researching alternatives. Using a SIM card with my locked iPhone appears to be more of a hassle than it’s worth, but others have been ingenious to work with the iPhone to get the SIM cards to work.
The other alternative seems more attractive: a portable WiFi router. Research points to the same provider as being the best in Japan: Japan Wireless. For our 8 day visit, the cost would be about $60 USD. When we experiment with this option during our next rip, we will provide more information.
3. Using Tokyo area trains
If you plan to use train services in the city in which you’re staying, get a Suicacard. The card can be obtained at any JR East station, and can be used on JR East trains, subways and buses, as well as some vending machines and taxis. We found the card to be invaluable when navigating the subway. On our first trip to Tokyo, we used tickets obtained at a kiosk. This approach meant accurately determining your destination beforehand, and tabulating the cost before getting the tickets. This approach proved cumbersome, and my brother’s research provided a better alternative.
The Suica card can be purchased at any JR rail or local/regional train station, at the black kiosks, which have English buttons. You can preload any amount up to 10,000 yen (which is roughly $100 USD), and you are ready to go. The Suica card can be used at any turnstile labeled with IC, even if it is Passmo or other service is in the area, as well as any Tokyo Metro train. Just swipe the card as you enter the station, and swipe out as you exit (much like metro areas in the US). The card doesn’t expire, and you can reload the card at the train station as well.
Make sure you have Google Maps on your phone before you get to Japan. We discovered that this app provides incredibly detailed information about train service. For example, after choosing your starting point and destination, selecting the train option tells you which train to catch, on which platform and when the next train arrives
It might save you some time and stress if you review your route choices in Google Maps BEFORE you travel. Japanese trains stations can be difficult to navigate, even for locals. Leave yourself some time to acquaint yourself with the station, and don’t be surprised if you experience some frustration trying to navigate the station. Don’t worry too much; you’ll figure it out.
Finally, it is worth noting (for people who have difficulty getting around) that there are not many places to sit in Japanese train stations. Fortunately, there are usually escalators within the stations, but you can still expect to have to climb stairs in Japan.
4. Using the Bullet Train (Shinkansen)
If you have not done so , you want to plan your travels on the Shinkansen. Japan Rail (JR) operates bullet trains on JR East and JR Central, the lines you are mostly like to use. As mentioned earlier, there are two good sites to use when planning your travels (for travel from Tokyo and east, for travel fromTokyo and west).
To begin your journey on the bullet train, take your JapanRail pass and make a reservation at the nearest JR Rail Ticket Office (or Travel Service Center). Tell the representative the your destination and preferred travel time, and you will be issued a ticket for a reserved seat. For a Green Card holders, your reservation will be in a first class car, which are typically less crowded and quieter (which, for me, was worth the upgrade). Making a reservation guarantees you seat; otherwise, you may not get a seat on the train car you wish.
Check the information boards for your track (if the representative does not tell you). From what I’ve seen, all of the train information is displayed in Japanese AND English. Head to the gate, and once you arrive, keep to the right of the turnstiles. Show your JapanRail Pass to the JR representative, who will wave you through. At the gate, you will see lines on the floor, showing you where to stand for entry into your car number (listed on the ticket). If you have a Green Card, there is a good chance you will need to look for Car 8.
Once aboard, find your seat. If you are carrying luggage, be aware that you can carry 2 pieces of baggage on JR trains. The total of height+width+depth of each item must be under 250 cm and the weight less than 30 kg per bag. This is because there is limited overhead storage space in the cars. Starting in May 2020, if you have oversized luggage, you must make a reservation for a seat with oversized storage (which is free)
The Japanese are immensely proud of their train system, and it shows. People from around the world come to Japan just to ride the bullet train. The accommodations are comfortable, and the ride smooth and quiet. Most cars have power outlets for charging devices, and some of the trains offer drinks and snacks. Phone conversations are discouraged; if you need to make a call, head to the vestibule.
Service announcements aboard the train are in Japanese and English, as is the signage. Announcements concerning the next stop occur well ahead of time. Timeliness is a staple of the bullet train, and each announcement ask you to be prepared to exit the car BEFORE the train reaches the station.
1. Look for the Narita Express once you land in Japan. You might want to check out the website to find the stop closest to where you are staying beforehand.
2. Determine how to use your phone to communicate in Japan. We used our Verizon iPhones with the International plan, but obtaining a WiFi router may be a cheaper and better alternative.
3. Get a Suica card as soon as possible. It helps traveling on Tokyo area travels better. Also use Google Maps to make navigating the train routes much easier.
You want to see baseball games in Japan? Having been there twice (with another trip scheduled for May 2020), I would say GO! While baseball is baseball, regardless of where it’s played, the Japanese passion for the game alone is worth the visit. A Japanese baseball is more like a college football game in the US, or a European soccer match. If you want a taste of what a Japanese game is like, check thisout.
There are companies that specialize in Japanese baseball tours, such JapanBall Baseball Tours. The tours provide chaperones who know Japan, and provide tickets and activities while you are in Japan. If you are not comfortable traveling through a foreign country unescorted, this choice is probably for you. However, if you are a bit more adventurous, it IS possible to travel in a Japan to see the games without engaging the services of a tour group. My brother and I have done it twice, having never been overseas before.
The most important part of the trip is planning. Due to my brother Jeff’s careful and extensive research, we have some tips for putting together a baseball trip to Japan, including how to get tickets to games, getting around Japan using the amazing train system, as well as some insight about what we’ve learned about Japanese culture. Of course, the list we provide is by no means comprehensive, nor is it offered as such. Instead, it is a list of things we’ve learned that could help you to plan a trip to see Japanese baseball in person.
1. Check the Nippon Professional Baseball schedule to start planning your trip.
The definitive source for the schedule of Japanese baseball games is here. Of course, this site is in Japanese, but any modern browser should be able to translate the schedule competently. When viewing the schedule, it is important to note that the home team is on the left side under the Match Card header. To learn more about the teams and the cities they call home, check out the NPB home page.
Another good source for the NPB schedule is JapanBall Baseball Tours. That site breaks down the schedule to make it much easier to understand. The schedule there is colored coded, with additional information about the teams and their home cities.
2. Get your baseball tickets BEFORE you leave for Japan
Baseball is exceedingly popular in Japan, and all teams draw very well (the notable exception being the Orix Buffaloes in Osaka). While it is possible to get tickets from either box office at each park, or from ticket kiosks at 7-11 stores, that might end up being a disappointing strategy. For example, the Hiroshima Carp frequently sell out for the season long before the first pitch on Opening Day.
Attempting to get game tickets from the team website can be tricky. My brother used thissite to follow step-by-step instructions to by tickets for the Hanshin Tigers. Purchasing tickets for the Tokyo Giants was fairly simple here. For other teams, the process of buying tickets can be daunting, if not impossible if you don’t read Japanese.
In order to avoid the disappointment, I’d suggest getting the tickets through a ticket broker. Be careful when choosing a vendor for the tickets. I had a VERY frustrating experience with Viagogo while trying to secure tickets for a game in Hiroshima. There are a few others that I have not tried, and cannot impart any intelligent review of their services.
Though it may sound biased (since I’ve mentioned this company twice so far), we have had a very good experience using japanballtickets.com. Using this website, we were able to select the numbers of tickets we needed (though we were not able to select our exact seats, as you can in the US) for each game we wanted to attend. We were quoted prices for the seats, and even received rebates when the tickets were obtained for less than the quoted price! For more information on tickets and pricing, check out the site above.
When ordering the tickets, you are prompted for an address in Japan to which the tickets will be delivered. You don’t need to do this immediately; when we purchased the tickets, we did not yet know where we would be staying in Japan. Once you know what hotel you will use, you can provide that information to them. The tickets for all of our games were delivered to the hotel in which we stayed the first night. We were VERY pleased with their services, and plan to use them again this year.
3. Traveling while you are in Japan
Early in our planning to visit Japan, we ruled out driving. Driving through busy streets on the left side of the road while trying to read road signs was not my idea of a vacation. My brother Jeff did extensive research about traveling in Japan, and decided the train system was the way to go. Part of that system in the bulletin train, or Shinkansen. Japan offers a significant discounts for visitors, much less than Japanese nationals would pay. You can buy 7, 14 and 21 days passes, depending on the length of your stay.
You can read about the JapanRail (JR) passes here. We recommend obtaining the Green Pass. This option allows you to make reservations for the bullet train, assuring your seats will be available for your excursions. While the prices may seem steep, this service is HIGHLY recommended. Just two trips on the bullet train pays for the pass, and we’ve traveled from Hokkaido in the north to Hiroshima in the south on the bullet train.
If you plans in Japan are firm, you might want to map out your travel on the Shinkansen BEFORE you leave. Since we knew the cities we would visit to see the games, my brother visited the JR sites (For trips from Tokyoand west, for trips fromTokyoand east) to plan the route we would take. He then used the information to make reservations for all of our travels within Japan on the bullet train at once.
There are a couple of things to know about the JapanRail pass. When you purchase the pass online (which you should do no more than 60 days before you arrive, but leave enough time to receive the information at home before you leave), you will receive an Exchange Order. The Exchange Order is the redeemed for the rail pass once in Japan. You can obtain the pass at any JR Exchange Office. You may want to a google the location of the JR Exchange office nearest to where you are staying; it may not be coincident with the nearest JR Office. We discovered this staying in Shinjuku. The processes takes about 20 minutes, at which time you can make reservations on the bullet trains during your stay.
4. Using money in Japan
Despite being a modern nation on the cutting edge of technology, Japan is still a largely cash society. More places are accepting credit cards, though these places may NOT accept foreign credit cards (we experienced ourselves at the Buffaloes team store in Osaka). You can check with your credit card company to see if their services are accepted in Japan.
In any event, we would recommend taking some Japanese currency (called yen) with you. You can get some yen from your bank before you go. The cash could help with purchasing train tickets from the airport to the city in which you are staying, for example. Once you arrive, you can obtain local currency at an ATM at any 7-11 store or Japanese post office (remember your card company will charge a fee for foreign transactions).
The first mini road trip on the 2019 baseball season in the United States took place on the weekend of June 15th/16th 2019. My brother came down to Maryland the night before, and our trip began after 900 am Saturday morning. Google mapped out a 250 mile trip in a little more than four hours, placing us at the hotel outside Durham, NC in the early afternoon. Following lunch in VA about halfway through the trip, we stopped at Target store to purchase a clamp for my GoPro Hero 7 Black camera.
We found the clamp quickly, but waited for what seemed like an infinity on line to buy it. Lines simply weren’t moving, and nobody in the store appeared to know why. There were whispers of problems with the registers, and we were informed by management that Target’s online presence was also offline. Not wanting to waste any more time waiting, we left the store. Google informed us there was another Target nearby, so we headed there. Before we could get to the door, someone told us that the store was closed, due to register problems. We read later than Target’s entire system was down for nearly two hours, just as we tried to buy a part.
We found the part at an adjacent Best Buy, and we were on our way. The delay placed us nearly an hour behind, and we didn’t reach the hotel until nearly 400 pm. Luckily, the weather was wonderful, warm with relatively low humidity. Not being a fan of heat or humidity, my worst fears went unfounded.
The stadium was about 15 minutes from the hotel, ensconced in downtown Durham. Like most urban ballparks, there was parking offsite, and we found a garage that was reasonably priced. Typically, we are wary of parking in multiple level garages, which can result in a VERY long wait at the end of the game. Since we had some time before the gates opened, we explored the environs adjacent to the ball park. As is the case with urban parks, the area was filled with shops, bars and restaurants, and it seemed as though this location was in the process of renovation.
Before going into the park, we looked through the team store. On the wall next to the store were plaques of retired Bulls numbers. Of course, not being a Bulls fan, we did not recognize the numbers and the significance behind them. However, there WAS a number we did recognize. Any fan of the movie Bull Durham would know this number instantly.
Once inside the team store, there were MANY references to the movie (not surprisingly), with Crash Davis and Nuke Laloosh jerseys on display. To be sure, I expected some nod to the movie, but this was more than I anticipated. However, I’m sure that the merchandise with these names sell very well here, as fans take home a little piece of the movie.
We entered the ballpark at the home plate gate, and conducted our typical pre game tour of the stadium. While this is NOT the same stadium from the movie, Durham Bulls Athletic Park is a beautiful park nestled in an urban setting. Even though this wasn’t the park from the movie, there WAS a familiar site in left field.
In Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the snorting bull is located in left field; in Bull Durham, the bull was in right field. There were no other obvious nods to the past, but this park didn’t need them. It stands on its own as a great minor league experience.
Typically, we select seats for baseball games in a particular manner. The preferred location is in the lower level between home plate and third or first base. These seats are best for taking pictures, and depending on the stadium, the best view of the field. If these seats are not available, we prefer to be higher, as close to home plate as possible. This usually occurs at major league parks with strong fan bases.
For this park, we chose seats in the lower level, right behind home plate. Because of the netting, these seats are worse for taking pictures, but here, it offered an amazing view of a beautiful ballpark. Like many urban ballparks we have visited, there were condominiums in left center field. If I worked in the area, I’d certainly have to investigate the feasibility of living in one of these homes.
While we knew the Bulls’ opponent for this game would be the Scranton Wilkes-Barre RailRiders (the AAA affiliate of the New York Yankees), what we didn’t know is that there would be two major leaguers on rehab assignments tonight. Both Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton were in the lineup, batting first and second, respectively. Based on the buzz from the crowd, they were fully aware these players would be here. Of course, the two players were fully cognizant of the attention they would garner, and made sure they were in view of the crowd at every opportunity.
In fact, Judge signed autographs near the on deck circle before each at bat. Normally, even at the minor league level, this behavior is either strongly discouraged or outright forbidden. Given the situation, it seemed as though the Bulls’ management was content to look the other way, especially since it did not interfere with play. Each hitter had four at bats, with Judge DHing and Stanton in left field. Though neither player had a hit tonight, most fans didn’t seem to mind. Their mere presence was enough to make the fans’ night.
The RailRiders had a couple of other major leaguers in the lineup, as well as a few players that have been rising through the Yankees minor league system. My brother lives near Arm and Hammer Park, home of the Yankees AA team in Trenton, NJ, and he saw a few of these players there recently. We did not recognize many of the players in the Bulls lineup (the Durham Bulls are the AAA affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays) . The game itself was a tight affair, with the RailRiders starter Raynel Espinal allowing one runs in six innings of work.
The Bulls starter, Jake Croneworth, pitched the first inning, followed by four reliever. The quintet blanked the RailRiders on just two hits. The Bulls tacked on a run in the 7th, winning the game 2-0.
After the game, we headed back to the hotel, ending a long day of travel and baseball.
Sunday, June 16th
Our next stop on the abbreviated road trip was High Point, NC, home of the High Point Rockers. The Rockers are the newest franchise in the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. High Point is about an hour from Durham, and since the game didn’t start until 205 pm, we had time in the morning to explore the area. Our target was Eno River State Park, located in Durham. Walking paths located adjacent to the parking lot made for easy access to the park. The portion of the park we visited contained the remains of the Cole Mills, along the banks of the river.
We walked along the river, reaching a waterfall. Beyond the waterfall, the river continued upstream into a field ringed by pine trees. While we didn’t see much in the way of wildlife on our journey, we did find some turtles sunning themselves on fallen tree trunks. These particular turtles were very skittish, plopping into the water whenever we made sounds, or wandered too close to the riverbank. Following several attempts to get better looks at the turtles (during which time all of the remaining turtles jumped into the water), we headed back up the trail, leaving the turtles in peace.
Wandering down the path, we enjoyed the warm but dry morning, splashed by wall to wall sunshine. Despite the beautiful weather, there were few others in the park. Before we knew it, we’d spent more than an hour there. After crossing a bridge spanning the river, we headed back toward the parking lot. Before leaving, we made one last visit to the waterfall. The serenity of the waterfall was inviting, and we spent some time there before getting back on the road. If there was more time, we could have spent the morning there. If you are in the area, I highly recommend a visit.
Driving along Interstate 40 toward High Point, we realized we would be passing fairly close to Greensboro. Originally, we attempted to fit Greensboro into the schedule for this weekend, but the Grasshoppers were out of town. Since we were nearby, we decided to make a quick stop to see the stadium. Located in downtown Greensboro, First National Bank Field is the home of the Grasshoppers, the South Atlantic League single A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
When we arrived, that portion of Greensboro was very quiet at noon. Even though the Grasshoppers were away, the ballpark was in use, and apparently open to the public. Assuming that to be true, we entered the park to see a game in progress. There were no outward signs of the names of the teams playing, nor what league they were in. Like any other park we’ve visited, we wandered around the ballpark, taking pictures along the way.
After spending about 30 minutes at First National Bank Field, we continued on our way to High Point, reaching the stadium about an hour before the scheduled start time. BB&T Point is the home of the High Point Rockers, the newest addition to the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. The ballpark is located on the edge of downtown High Point, surrounded by commercial property .
Parking was a bit confusing, as there did not seem to be a dedicated parking lot at the park. We arrived early enough to park on the street, but even that option came with some question marks. We opted to park in a private lot across the street, and parking was reasonable ($5.00). We walked over to the nearest gate to enter the ballpark not long after arriving, as gates open about an hour before game time.
However, the gates did NOT open on time. With an increasingly restless crowd waiting at the gate, fans were finally allowed to enter less than 30 minutes before first pitch. The late entrance left us little time for our pre-game ballpark tour, but we managed to take pictures before heading to the seats. The obligatory stop at the third base concession stand provided standard ballpark fare. My hot dogs were fried, but ultimately tasty, without the aftertaste common to ballpark dogs.
One of the aspects of the ballpark that caught our attention was the playing surface. Many newer ballparks have some version of turf, but BB&T Point had something we’ve never seen before. Not only was the “grass” made of AstroTurf, so was the “dirt” portion of the field (including the mound and batters boxes). Presumably an attempt to mitigate maintenance costs, the unique field was as attractive as it was interesting. The weather was pleasantly warm for the 205 pm start, as we took our seats in the lower level on the third base side. Much like we’ve seen elsewhere, the Sunday afternoon game was lightly attended, which is odd considering this is the inaugural season for the Rockers.
The Rockers’ opponent this afternoon was the Long Island Ducks. The Ducks have a strong connection to the New York Mets (our favorite squadron). The connection starts with manager Wally Backman, the 2nd baseman for the 1986 world championships, and Ed Lynch, a starter for the Mets in the 1980s. The starting lineup for the Ducks featured former Met outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis, and former Met farmhand LJ Mazzilli (son of perennial fan favorite Lee Mazzilli).
The game was tied 2-2 entering the bottom of the 10th. The Atlantic League, like Minor League Baseball, starts every extra half-inning with the batter who made the last out in the previous inning placed at 2nd base. This rule change was implemented to spur scoring in extra innings, in hopes of shortening games. In this case, the rule change worked, as the runner placed at 2nd base scored on a single, giving the Rockers 3-2 win.
With a long drive back to Maryland ahead of us, we did not linger at the ballpark long. Overall, the experience was enjoyable; a very good game at an interesting ballpark. If you find yourself in the area, the ballpark is worth the visit, if for no other reason than to see the unique playing surface. However, the sustainability of Atlantic League baseball in High Point may be difficult, even with a brand new ballpark. There are other baseball options within driving distance, and from just one visit, it was tough to determine the level of baseball interest in the area.
Yet another road trip was scheduled for the weekend of July 7th and 8th. The destination for this trip was Syracuse, NY, the new home of the AAA affiliate of the New York Mets. After a very long run as the Tidewater as the Tides (which started in 1969), the team (under new ownership) moved to Norfolk in 1992. The Mets ended their affiliation with Norfolk after the 2006 season. Since that time, the Mets AAA team bounced around, spending time in New Orleans and Buffalo before landing in Las Vegas (as the 51s).
Despite an inclination to see the team out in the desert, we did not get to Las Vegas while the team was there. However, with the team moving to Syracuse at the end of the 2018 season, we decided it was time to see the Mets top farm team in person. Scheduling dictated a trip to Syracuse at the end of the July 4th long weekend, and we headed out from central NJ on the morning of Saturday, July 7th. The 262 mile trip was expected to take about four and one-half hours, but threatening skies and occasional showers with heavy rainfall cut into out travel time.
Driving and in and out of showers and storms brought us to the hotel outside of Syracuse just after 330 pm. Since the weather was still threatening, we decided to hang out at the hotel before heading to the park. The line of showers and storms responsible for the wet drive moved out of the area shortly before game time, but conditions remained warm and humid as we arrived at the park.
NBT Bank Stadium was adorned in the familiar blue and orange. The 11,000 seat stadium was the former home of the Syracuse Chiefs, the AAA affiliate of the Washington Nationals. A quick walk around the stadium showed a fairly unremarkable park. Though the showers had ended, the clouds remained. Perhaps the stadium would be more appealing in the light of day, which was scheduled for tomorrow afternoon.
As usual when visiting a new ballpark, we toured the stadium from foul pole to foul pole, taking pictures along the way. Before finding our seats, we stopped at the concession stand. Like most minor league ballparks, the hot dogs here were fried, though not as badly as some others places. Our seats for this 705 pm game game against the Buffalo Bisons (the AAA affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays) were in the lower levels just past first base. Despite the threatening weather earlier, there was a decent crowd for the game.
As soon as Tim Tebow walked onto the field, there was an audible buzz in the crowd. Not surprisingly, Tebow was affable, taking with Bisons players during warmups. Just before ducking back into the dugout, Tebow spent some time greeting fans and signing autographs. It was clear from his demeanor and actions that his interest was genuine. In an era where professional athletes seemingly go through the motions with fans, it was refreshing to witness the Tebowmania in person.
Fortunately, the weather continued to slowly improve, allowing us to enjoy the game. It was clear from the Mets starting lineup that the future of the NY Mets was troubled. No less than five Mets starters were former MLB players, suggesting the the organization does not have the talent to fill these positions from within. Other than the Mets starter, Corey Oswalt, the remainder of the Mets pitchers are known by fans of the big club.
As feared after reviewing the lineup card for the Mets, the home team’s offense sputtered under the weight of the aging roster. The Mets pitching fared no better, with lefty Daniel Zamora surrendering four runs in one-third of an inning’s work. The home team lost 7-1, with The Bisons’ Bo Bichette going 3 for 4. Following the Mets loss, we headed back to the hotel to rest after a long day. Perhaps the Mets offense would show more life tomorrow afternoon.
Sunday, July 7th
Ahead of the 105 pm game time, we headed out to explore nearby Onondaga Lake Park. Cloudiness obscured the sunshine early, but as the morning wore on, the sunshine ultimately won out. With the sunshine came an increasing in humidity, though moderate when compared to what the Fourth of July weekend can bring.
Walking through the park afforded us a great view of the lake, as well as its inhabitants. Apparently, Canadian geese call the park home (at least during the warmer months), and for the most part seemed content to share the park with us. There was one goose who appeared to be less than enthusiastic about our visit, and was not shy about showing his distance. Fortunately for us, he (or she) eventually allowed us to leave unharmed.
After wrapping up our visit the lake, we headed to the ballpark for the final game of the series at NBT Bank Stadium. Arriving early, we took our time reviewing the ballpark. In the light of day, it was clear that the stadium had been recently renovated. The two level stadium looked much bigger than the night before, especially when viewed from the poles. This stadium is probably the largest minor league ballpark we’ve seen, with respect to capacity.
The stadium is conveniently located a short distance from Interstate 90. Parking is ample, seemingly day and night, and reasonably priced at $5.00.
As is usually the case with minor league games, this Sunday afternoon affair was much more lightly attended than the previous Saturday night game. For this game, our seats were on the 3rd base side, in the first few rows of the lower level. Once again, the star of the pre game was Tim Tebow. Just like the night before, he took the time to greet and speak with fans, posing for pictures before ducking into the dugout just before game time.
The Syracuse Mets lineup was again packed with former big leaguers, with Ervin Santana taking the mound for the home team. Though he didn’t get rocked, it was clear that Santana didn’t have it today, giving up four runs in four innings’ work. Based on what we saw today, perhaps Ervin’s best days are behind him.
The Mets bullpen wasn’t much better, with Brooks Pounders getting pounded for four additional runs in a third of an inning. Some of the younger relievers fared a bit better, but this weekend made clear that the parent club cannot count on this staff to bolster their ranks anytime soon. Unfortunately for the Mets, the offense wasn’t not any better than the pitching. Despite scoring five runs. The team struck out 16 times against the Bisons pitching.
With the loss, the Mets dropped the series to the Bisons. Shortly after the game, we were back on the road, headed back to NJ. While the stadium was a good venue for minor league baseball, it was not as impressive as some of the others we have seen in our travels. We enjoyed our time in Syracuse, but I’m not sure when, or if, we will return.
After spending the night in Independence, OH, our next stop was Altoona, PA, home of the Curve. Since we had some time before getting on the road to Altoona, we made another trip back into Cleveland. Waiting until after the morning commute, we visited Edgewater Park, along the shore of Lake Erie.
During our last visit in 2000, the cold and lack of time prevented us from seeing Lake Erie. On previous trips, we’d seen the shores of Lake Michigan (in Milwaukee) and Lake Ontario (in Toronto), and time afforded us the opportunity to see the lakefront on a warm and humid morning. As was the case with the other Great Lakes we’ve seen, the lake extended to the horizon, much like the view of the ocean from the beach. Being August, the wind off the water didn’t provide much relief from the building heat, as we explored a largely deserted lakefront.
However, the lakefront was not completely empty. Standing on the lake’s edge, we saw something bobbing on the waves. From a distance, it was difficult to identify. As brother ventured closer, he was able to see what was coming ashore.
It would be difficult to understate my surprise at the prospect of a snake coming ashore right in front of us. The snake, between three and four feet long, got within a few feet of us, before slithering back into the lake. Some checking identified it as a northern water snake, which bore a striking resemblance to the water moccasin. Northern water snakes are non-venomous, and the water moccasin (which can be found in my home state of NJ) are definitely venomous and can be deadly.
Not being able to top that, we left the park and started on our way to Altoona.
The drive to Altoona was rather uneventful, as traffic was generally light. A quick bite at a local diner along the way was the only stop, and we reached the hotel just outside of town before 500 pm. By that time, clouds were building on the horizon, a harbinger of things to come.
A 15 minute drive from the hotel, we arrived at People’s Natural Gas Field, home of the Altoona Curve, AA affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Nestled among the ridges of the Allegheny Mountains, the 7200 seat stadium is famous for its roller coaster in right field. Most of the die hard baseball fans with whom I’ve spoken said this stadium was a must see, and shortly after arriving, it was clear why.
We wandered the park from foul pole to foul pole, soaking in the ambience of a beautiful minor league park. Sitting along the 3rd base line, we had an unobstructed view of the mound. However, the burgeoning clouds at the hotel continued to build, and soon thunderstorms began to develop on the ridge lines behind centerfield. As the 630 pm game versus the Richmond Flying Squirrels (AA affiliate of the San Francisco Giants) began, the storms swept toward the park, threatening from the first pitch.
Just after retiring the Flying Squirrels in the top of the first inning, the skies opened up. One of the thunderstorms on the ridge tops descended upon the field, bringing with it torrential rain and gusty winds. The heaviest of the rain lasted about 30 minutes, after which time the ground crew took to the field. In a VERY impressive display of teamwork, the crew removed the tarp, then started to tend to the infield. Even though the tarp was placed on the infield quickly, there was still a fair amount of water ponded on the foul lines, especially behind third base.
People seemingly came out of nowhere to tackle the problem of the drenched field. One of the ushers (whose name escapes me) told us that the front office personnel were lending a hand, and that the team’s general manager was tossing diamond dust on the infield near third base.
The rain delayed totaled 45 minutes, and the Herculean effort of the crew returned the drenched field into a playable surface. The teams returned to the field for the top of the 2nd inning, though storms continued to lurk nearby. A one-two-three top of the second inning was followed by yet another storm. This time, the storm won the evening, and the game was postponed before 800 pm. All told, we saw 10 batters come to the plate in one and one-half innings. Disappointed, we left the park, headed back to the hotel as the rain stopped and breaks in the clouds appeared.
Because of our travel schedule, we would not be able to stay for the completion of the game the next night. Despite the rain out, we felt fortunate to visit the field. People’s Natural Gas Field richly deserved its reputation as one of the best ballparks in the Eastern League.
Following our stay in Akron, we made the short trip to Independence, where we stayed the night. Our plan was to visit Progressive Field for a 705 pm game between the Texas Rangers and Cleveland Indians. It is our first visit to Cleveland since 2000, when the stadium was called Jacobs Field.
A short drive into Cleveland brought us to the lakefront, where we wondered along the lake’s edge, waiting for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to open at 1000 am. The morning was warm and muggy, and by 1000 am I was ready to get out of the heat. Even before the Hall opened, crowds were gathering outside, complicating the opportunity to get a clear shot of the front of the Rock Hall.
We had been to the Hall once before, during our last visit to Cleveland back in 2000. Since the Hall frequently changes exhibits, we fully expected a much different experience this time around. Walking among the exhibits and memorabilia, there was a palpable sense of music history. However, it seemed as though there were fewer exhibits than in 2000, and worst of all, there was no Led Zeppelin exhibit!!! For most people, that wouldn’t be that big a deal, but being a lifelong Zeppelin fanatic, this omission was unforgivable.
Again, it is understandable that some performers are underrepresented. There is only so much space in the museum, and rotating exhibits gives visitors the best viewing experience. The Beatles and Rolling Stones exhibits were well done, as was the exhibit for The Beach Boys.
Still, the Hall seemed to have less charm and content of the last visit. Perhaps I’m being too critical with my review of the Hall; any true Rock and Roll fan should make the pilgrimage here when near Cleveland. In contrast, despite its humble appearance, Sun Studios in Memphis had a much better feel, in my opinion. The place has a PRESENCE that the Hall seemed to lack. In any event, it was time well spent.
After lunch back closer to Independence, we took in a movie before relaxing in advance of the game. We saw Once Upon a Time inHollywood. Being a Tarantino fan, I enjoyed the movie immensely. In true Tarantino style, he took a fairly well known story and made it his own, complete with a rewrite of history at the end.
Ahead of the 705 pm game time, we arrived at Progressive Field around the time of the evening commute. Traffic heading to the ballpark was manageable, which made finding parking fairly easy. Prices just a block from the park was very reasonable ($20) especially for an urban setting. The downside of the parking adjacent to the park was that we were packed in like sardines, making me wonder how easily we might escape after the game. Considering the parking nightmares in other cities (yeah I’m looking at you Philadelphia, though it has gotten better with the new stadium) , we felt fortunate to finding parking so easily.
As is our custom, we walked around the stadium before entering. We were here nearly 20 years ago, so my memory of the surroundings is fuzzy at best. In any event, the outside of the stadium was nicer than I remember, but the last time we were here, I was more concerned about staying warm than enjoying the view.
Walking around the inside of the park, we found a nugget I didn’t expect to find. Just after entering through the centerfield gate, we saw a space suit. Upon closer inspection, we found that it was a mock-up of the one worn by Ohio native son Neil Armstrong. A lifelong obsession with NASA and space travel, the suit was a pleasant surprise ensconced within another lifelong obsession (baseball, of course!!!). In fact, it might have been my favorite part of the visit to the park.
We had great seats for the game, in the lower level on the third base side of home plate. The weather was markedly better for the start of the game than the last time we were here. Instead of a raw day, with temperatures in the lower 40s and a wind off the lake (which Oil Can Boyd famously referred to as the ocean), it was clear and about 80 degrees for the first pitch. The warmer weather allowed us to enjoy the experience much more than 19 years ago.
The concessions in Progressive Field offered the standard fare for MLB parks, with plenty of concession stands, and reasonable prices. Typically, I would sample the hot dogs, as I do at almost all of our baseball stops. However, I passed this time, with memories of the greasy hot dogs at Canal Park fresh in my mind. Upon finding our seats, we found great sight lines and a generally unobstructed view of the field. Sitting fairly close to the field for an MLB park, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were still far from the action. Attending many more minor league games over the past few years, we had become spoiled by the access they provide. This is not a knock on Progressive Field; almost all MLB parks feel this way. However, it did not detract from the charm of Progressive this night.
The game was excellent, a tight affair as starters Mike Minor (Rangers) and Aaron Cevale (Indians) were in firmly command. The score was 1-0 Rangers going into the bottom of the 9th inning, when closer Jose Leclerc entered the game. A lead off triple by Jose Ramirez put Leclerc on the ropes. Seemingly unfazed, he retired the next three batter to notch the save.
Overall, it was a great game in a very nice ballpark. We took out time getting back to the car, since we were packed into the lot. To our pleasant surprise, the lot has cleared sufficiently to allow us a clean getaway from the park and out of Cleveland. Since we anticipated a late evening, we stayed in Independence one more night, after which we would continue our road trip, bound for Altoona, PA the next day