A couple of weekends ago, a few things happened. I went to a festival in Osaka and then Hiroshima beat Osaka to win the Central League, which is a baseball league in Japan.
I don’t know much about baseball. We don’t have it much in Australia: I know more people in Australia who regularly play Ultimate Frisbee than who have ever regularly played baseball, and this is not an exaggeration. I knew one kid at school who played baseball, and his dad was American. I did play softball at school, which I gather is related. So I can kind of understand the very basics.
Something I still don’t really understand is the different leagues within Japan. In 2016, Hiroshima Toyo Carp was the champion of the Central League series for the first time in 25 years. This was a big deal in Hiroshima, which is baseball-mad as of the last few years, apparently (the ‘apparently’ is that I’m told it used to be not quite so big as it is now). So everyone was really excited about the win… and then the baseball season kept going, and everyone kept watching. Apparently if they hadn’t won the match that made them champions, they would have stopped for the season, but because of winning, they kept playing. I now realise that this is because there are two regional leagues, the Central League and the Pacific League, and the ‘best teams’ from both then play against each other in what is called the Climax Series. Also known as… the Japan Series? Wait, I need a cup of tea.
No, the Climax Series is not the Japan Series. The Climax Series decides who gets to play in the Japan Series. Important distinction.
Also, Osaka has a team in each league. The Orix Buffaloes play in the Pacific League and the Hanshin Tigers in the Central one. That’s not fair, Osaka. Except… it seems the Hanshin Tigers are actually not based in Osaka anymore, but Hyogo. Even though they used to be called the Osaka Tigers. But even at that time their home ground was always in Hyogo? My friend tells me that’s just because Hyogo is close to Osaka.
Furthermore, most of the teams are named after the companies who sponsor them. Hiroshima Toyo Carp, I have been told, is the exception – it’s supposed to be sponsored by the City of Hiroshima. But I looked this up just now and Wiki reckons Mazda is the biggest sponsor. Mazda’s name used to be Toyo Kogyo. So when Toyo Kogyo became the principal sponsor in the late ’60s, Hiroshima Carp became Hiroshima Toyo Carp. Their home ground is Mazda ‘Zoom-zoom’ Stadium, pronounced by locals as Matsuda Sutajiamu. Speaking of which, did you know the spelling of Mazda is just a stylisation? It’s said Mr. Matsuda thought it looked cooler than ‘Matsuda.’
Back to baseball basics. In the Central and Pacific Leagues both, the best teams are decided at the end of a 144-game season. The top 3 get to Stage 1 of the Climax series, in which no. 2 and no. 3 compete for the chance to play in Stage 2. In Stage 2, those winners play the no. 1 team from their leagues. The winners of Stage 2 advance to what is not Stage 3, but the Japan Series. Wiki has a handy diagram of this progression.
The Japan Series, it turns out, is a series of up to 7 matches between just the two teams who were the winners of the Climax Series. It’s a best-of-7 tournament, so whoever is the first to win 4 matches becomes the victor. That’s the end of Japanese Professional Baseball for that year.
So… in 2016 when Carp won the Central League, Hiroshima went mental.
The streets in the city filled with people, the izakayas served free beer, there were all sorts of sales. Various shops started selling/displaying V7 (7-time Central League Victors) stuff.
Then they kept playing and people kept watching. I was confused, because I didn’t know about the Climax Series and Japan Series, but when a friend invited me to go and watch a match where a bar had turned one of their TVs out to face the street, I went. It turned out to be the 6th match of the Japan Series, and at the start of the match it was 2-3 where the 2 was 2 wins for Hiroshima Toyo Carp and the 3 was for Nippon-Ham Fighters from Sapporo… and Carp lost, which made Nippon Ham the champions of Japanese baseball for the year. There was a point where the match was really close, and then one particular pitcher went on and the other team got about 3 batters home safe, and the Hiroshima fans were pretty angry with that pitcher, and with the manager or whoever was responsible for putting him on the field at that point. It was Halloween and a friend I was watching with was dressed up as a zombie or something in a Carp uniform, and standing out as she did, some TV crews kept watching us and filming us. So they got her saying, ‘I HATE that pitcher!’ in Japanese.
A few weeks after this, my parents came to visit Hiroshima and came to a couple of the schools where I was working at the time. I’d told Mum and Dad about how the championship had gone to the other team and how disappointing it was for the Hiroshima crowd. The principal of the junior high school, though, said something like, ‘Oh, do you know about our baseball team, the Carp?’ and Dad started to say something commiserative like ‘Yeah, sounds like they got so close!’ and the school principal continued, ‘We are all so happy and proud because they won this year.’
Mum, Dad and I were all a bit dumbfounded. I think we said something like ‘Yes, that’s good.’
So, Mum and Dad, now I think I understand what happened – they were simply choosing to acknowledge the results of the series they had won, as opposed to the later one they entered (and ultimately lost) as a result of that win.
Tell you what, in AFL (Australian Football League, no, not soccer and not rugby) there’s just the one season. It goes for ages, but it’s got its quarter-finals, semi-finals and the ‘grand final’ and whoever wins the Grand Final is the winner. Then it’s finished. Seems so simple. Are rugby and cricket leagues/series easy to understand?
This year, 2017, Carp won the Central League again, on Monday the 18th of September, the day of the national holiday ‘Respect for the Aged Day.’ That day, I had just come back on the train from Osaka where I’d been to a particular local festival and then had dinner in a place where the beer mugs had Hanshin Tigers on them. It felt weird and traitorous to drink from those mugs.
So now it’s V8. I think the Climax Series starts soon. So in Stage 2, Carp will play either Hanshin Tigers or Yokohama BayStars for the chance to play in the Japan series. Right?