A Hot Summer Night

Koshien (10 of 2)

Nishinomiya, Japan – This is the Mother Church of Japanese baseball, and there is no place I’d rather be on a hot summer night.

Koshien Stadium in this Osaka suburb is the home of the Hanshin Tigers and their passionate – and often inebriated – working-class supporters decked out from head to toe in Tigers’ yellow and black.

For decades, it also has been the stuff of dreams for Japanese boys, as it also hosts the finals of national high school baseball tournament, a riveting event known only as “Koshien.”  All high school teams throughout the entire nation start out as equals in the tournament, but only the survivors get to march into the stadium. So all over Japan, boys dream of making it to Koshien.  Business and commerce in Japan often come to a halt in August as Japanese businessmen – little boys who dreamed once themselves – crowd around to see the nationally televised high school games.

Bult in 1924, Koshien is revered as a sacred ground, and the high school players traditionally bow before entering and before leaving its hallowed field. The losing team in any high school baseball game there is allowed to scoop up handfuls of black dirt from Koshien’s all-dirt infield, stuffing the holy clay into tiny plastic bags.  The high school tournament takes priority even over the Tigers, who are sent away each year in August for a two-week road trip while the high school teams take over the stadium. Can you imagine the Yankees being told they cannot use Yankee Stadium for two weeks every August because of a high school tournament?

Koshien is sacred in a different way to the rowdy Tigers’ fans, who keep up a constant din throughout the game with their cheers, trumpet calls and songs with each Tiger at-bat. The Tigers are the second-oldest professional team in Japan, but Koshien was already 12 years old when the Tigers were born.

Babe Ruth played here. There’s a monument there commemorating that game. There’ also is Shinto shrine out beyond right field where Tiger fans in team jerseys pray to the gods for a Tiger victory.  I ask you, what other sports stadium has an adjacent, active religious shrine?

It’s old, rickety and decrepit, with tiny, cramped seats, weird food and a low-hanging tunnel entrances. It is like a lovable, cranky, crotchety old aunt. A favorite aunt.

The moment I eagerly await in each Tigers game is the seventh inning stretch. That’s when the Tiger fans, who’ve had six and a half innings worth of beer and liquor by that point, sing the team fight song at the top of their lungs. And then all 55,000 of them release long, colorful, air-filled balloons that whistle and spin in the hot Kansai night.

There’s no better moment in sports.