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On the Path to a Pennant, Osaka's Baseball Team Carries History and Hope

September 14, 2003|Colin Joyce | Special to The Times

OSAKA, Japan — As the Hanshin Tigers close in on their first pennant in 18 years, the notion has gripped this city that only the curse of Colonel Sanders can halt them. Tigers fans worry that the colonel's angry spirit has haunted them since they tossed the likeness of the fried chicken icon into the Dotonbori River in 1985 during boisterous celebrations of the team's last championship.

Divers have searched the filthy Dotonbori in vain attempts to rescue the long-lost mannequin. Other fans have attempted to placate the colonel's spirit by dressing a similar figure at the KFC near the stadium with a Tigers team shirt and draping it with Tigers megaphones.

That's Tigers fans for you: fond of a joke, a bit too rowdy and desperate for a win.

No doubt Osaka needs something to cheer about.

An industrial city in western Japan, Osaka has been hit hard by the country's long recession. Unemployment, at 8.4%, is well above the national average of 5.5%. And Osaka has sat unhappily for centuries in the shadow of Tokyo, which has more world-beating companies, better universities and -- just whisper it -- a more successful baseball team.

Although the Tigers have spent most of the last 18 years in the cellar, the Tokyo-based Yomiuri Giants have racked up seven league victories. That has stirred up regional grudges against the capital, and nowhere more than in the Hanshin area, which includes Osaka and neighboring Kobe, where the Tigers anthem is sung at weddings and parties.

"The Tigers' popularity is a social phenomenon," said former manager Yoshio Yoshida, who was at the helm during the 1985 championship season. "It comes from the unique character of the region and the Tigers' long history and tradition. The Tigers are part of everyday life and socializing in Osaka."

"In professional baseball, the team that stands against the Giants is the Tigers," he added. "It's Tokyo versus Osaka."

The Tigers are close to taking Japan's Central League title for only the second time since 1964. Little wonder that long-suffering fans are in a celebratory mood. Imagine the Boston Red Sox finally capturing an American League pennant against their richer, dominating rivals, the New York Yankees.

Eriya Yamamoto, 27, from near Kobe, who describes himself as "half Tigers fan, half Giants hater," says: "With the Giants, it's all about money. They buy up anything they want, which I think is crafty. These 10 years they have practically monopolized the league. It's been miserable."

Tickets to games at the Tigers' Koshien Stadium are sold out until the end of the season next month. Black market tickets to see the ultimate card of Tigers versus Giants are selling for as much as 10 times the face value of $12 to $30.

Not everyone is fond of the Tigers' wild fans. In a country where good manners and a degree of modesty are expected even at baseball games, many find their behavior antisocial. Hideki Ishii, a 31-year-old Tokyo company employee and Giants fan, says: "It is just a small number of fans, but there are cases of them throwing things onto the field to disturb players or knocking the glasses off the faces of other fans. After games they continue to sing and shout on the trains even as ordinary people are trying just to get home."

Masayuki Tamaki, a baseball writer and Tigers fan, responds: "Basically, Tigers fans are nearer to international norms with their behavior. People in Osaka think they are No. 1 and don't have a complex about boasting it."

The Hanshin Department store, part of the company that owns the Tigers, isn't bothered by the fans' enthusiasm. Even in the midst of a long recession, the team's miracle season has generated a consumer boom.

The Hanshin store in central Osaka has more than doubled the floor space for its Tigers shop this year, where it retails a dizzying array of 400 types of team items. In addition to uniforms, shoppers of all ages are snapping up such oddities as Tiger rice cakes and cans of Asahi beer bearing the gaudy black and gold Tigers emblem. There is even lingerie, featuring a Tiger head on each bra cup and a detachable tail protruding from the pants. No one ever accused Tigers fans of having good taste.

Hanshin enjoyed a 7% increase in the first half of the year. Even the store's rooftop beer garden has thrived through a cold and rainy summer, thanks to live screenings of Tigers games. The price of shares in the company has nearly doubled since the start of the baseball season, to about $7.60.

Call it desperation, but some dare to hope that the Tigers' unlikely revival may point the way out for the ailing Japanese economy. UFJ Research Institute, a Japanese economic think tank, has estimated a Tigers victory could trigger a spending boom among the team's estimated 15 million fans, adding $1.84 billion to $5.38 billion to the economy.

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