At Hohokam Park on Friday night, the events accompanying the Mesa Miners' game were slightly unorthodox, even for minor league baseball.
Pregame festivities included a demonstration of shinkendo, the art of
As "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" concluded during the seventh-inning stretch, balloons were released by fans, as is the custom in Japan.
The baseball culture lesson was inspired by the visit of the Samurai Bears, a traveling team in the Golden Baseball League, an independent circuit which is in its inaugural season.
While Japanese squads have trained and played in the United States since the early 20th century, the Samurai Bears are the first to be part of an American baseball league.
"To say the least, it's very unique," said manager Warren Cromartie, a
former major leaguer who became a star in Japan, winning the Central
League's most valuable player award in 1989.
"The first year of the league, and the first time a Japanese team is doing
what we are. That's a statistic I like a lot: The first. That adds spiciness
to it, to help us get through the wear and tear."
Cromartie's team has no white uniforms, because there is no need for them.
The Samurai Bears don the visiting gray the entire year, playing all 90
games on the road, taking the bus to such exotic locales as Mesa, Surprise, Yuma and Chico, Calif.
"It's going to be difficult," outfielder Hiroshi Yamauchi said through an
interpreter. "One nice thing is that there is meal money for road teams.
Since we're the road team all the time, we'll get meal money every day."
Despite the schedule - and losses in four of their first five games, the
most recent a 3-1 setback to the Miners on Friday - the Samurai Bears are not griping, Cromartie said.
"Japanese players don't complain," said Cromartie, whose team faces Mesa in a doubleheader today. "It's not in their culture. It's not that big of a deal. It's almost a summer vacation to them."
The Samurai Bears' oldest player is first baseman Yuji Nerei, a 31-year-old who many in Japan felt would become the first position player from the country to make it in the major leagues.
Nerei advanced to the Triple-A level in the Montreal Expos' system but went no higher, and Ichiro Suzuki became the first non-pitcher to star in North America.
Still, he is as a mentor to the team's younger players - a responsibility
he takes seriously.
"I think that, after this season, the tools will be in place for Japanese
players to start advancing to a high level, either here or in Japan," Nerei
said. "I want to help the young players improve at this level and make that next step."
The Samurai Bears are no gimmick for the league. There is an altruistic purpose behind the franchise's existence - to change the way the sport is organized in their homeland.
"Japanese baseball is hurting a little right now," Cromartie said. "All the
top players are coming to play in the United States, and finding the guys to replace them isn't easy."
Professional baseball in Japan is composed of 12 teams in two leagues, Pacific and Central. Each squad has 70 players, divided into "A" and "B" rosters, and there is no minor-league system.
From a talent base made up of more than 4,000 high schools, less than 90 players are drafted each year. The rest are left out in the cold.
"It really is a faulty system," said Blair Sly, the Samurai Bears' director
of operations. "The guys drafted go straight to the pro teams, but there is so much talent that is being overlooked."
As a result, a movement - spearheaded by Takenori Emoto, a former pitching star and politician in Japan who is now vice commissioner of the Golden Baseball League - to reform developmental baseball in the country has taken flight, with the Samurai Bears the launching pad.
The team aims to raise awareness of independent baseball in Japan. A good start occurred at the Samurai Bears' season opening-series against Surprise, which was reported on by six Japanese television networks.
"If this team does have that type of a result, I'd be very happy to be a
trail blazer," Yamauchi said. Sly said it is possible the league could
start an arm in Japan.
"One way or another, the baseball system there is going to change," Sly said. "I think the Golden Baseball League will be a big part of that."
Before the Samurai Bears can be an agent for change, they must withstand the rigors of always being the visiting team. Five games into this season has hardly been an endurance test, but a stretch of 21 games in 20 days - without an off-day - awaits in August.
"Whoever came up with that schedule should be doing something else,"
For the players, most of whom are playing outside of Japan for the first
time, the strain of the schedule is exacerbated by the culture shock.
"The language barrier has been tough," Sly said. "And the food choices have taken some getting used to."
Some players have dealt with the latter by bringing their own cooking
equipment to use in their hotel rooms, making such meals as rice, curry and Japanese noodles.
For the Samurai Bears, occasional tastes of home are coming, thanks to what the team is gradually gaining - fans. On Friday, the Samurai Bears were given a pregame meal of onigiri (rice balls) and fruit, prepared by Glendale resident Mamiko Sugiyama and a friend.
Sugiyama, who lived in Japan before moving to Arizona in 1998, met the team at a welcoming party hosted by a local chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League.
"One of the players said that they have to eat out all the time, and it
would be nice if someone would prepare food for them," Sugiyama said. "They really appreciate it."
Sly said the team figures to have fan followings in Long Beach, Fullerton and San Diego, cities that have large Japanese-American populations.
And next season, the Samurai Bears expect to have a permanent home, possibly in Long Beach.
"We won't be like the 'Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings' any more," Cromartie said, referring to a 1976 movie. "That's cool."