In Hiroshima, New Ballpark Proves a Tough Pitch

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 4, 2006

HIROSHIMA, Japan -- The professional baseball franchise in this city is known in Japan as "the people's team," but on a recent evening it was difficult to understand why.

As the Carp took the field against the Tokyo-based Yakult Swallows, fewer than 8,000 people were scattered in the 32,000-seat Hiroshima Municipal Stadium, a drab, cramped 49-year-old facility. Concession stands offered fried squid and bento boxes, but buyers were scarce. The tiny owners' suite behind home plate was empty.

"I love this stadium," said Atsufumi Fujii, 21, a college student who was leading cheers for a group of Carp Club pep squad faithful in the outfield bleachers. "But others say it's too old and too small."

If Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba has his way, a new state-of-the-art ballpark will rise by 2009. Like his Washington counterpart, Mayor Anthony A. Williams, Akiba believes a stadium would not only rejuvenate the struggling Carp, but also give Hiroshima an economic boost.

The effort has drawn an emotional response from residents. As in Washington, people have debated how much public money to spend on the new ballpark and what it should look like. But more important has been the question: Where to build it?

Akiba has championed a plan to relocate the stadium from the city center to an abandoned railroad yard a few miles away, hoping to spur redevelopment of a neglected area -- much as Williams hopes the D.C. ballpark will stimulate growth along the Anacostia River.

But most Hiroshimans support rebuilding at the current location across the street from the Peace Park and the iconic Atomic Bomb Dome, the burned-out building still standing from the Aug. 6, 1945, U.S. bombing. When asked about the ballpark, many residents talk about the postwar days when the birth of the Carp, in 1950, and the construction of the stadium, in 1957-8, restored hope and self-worth to the people.

"The team is a symbol of coming up after the demolition of the bomb, when the stadium rose like a phoenix and showed that Hiroshima could survive," said Hidechika Hanatani, 34, a graphic designer. "The location is very symbolic because it's unique to Hiroshima."

If people are thinking back to an era when residents showed a courageous spirit, it is perhaps because the city could use such moxie again.

It was only two years ago that a hotshot Tokyo Internet tycoon was eyeing a hostile takeover of the Carp, which is owned by the Matsuda family. A few years earlier, the city's largest company and private employer, Mazda Motor Corp. -- founded by the Matsudas -- had to be financially propped up by an outsider -- Ford Motor Co.

The connection among the city, the Carp and the Matsudas runs deep. During the early years of the franchise, city residents chipped in to help the team financially -- earning the Carp the nickname "the people's team" -- and the Matsuda family led an initiative by business leaders to build the stadium.

Hideyuki Watanabe, 76, who worked for the Carp from 1952 to 1984 as a groundskeeper and scoreboard operator, recalled that the team gave ownership certificates to fans who contributed 20 yen a month (about 5 cents at the time). The stadium opened in 1957, surrounded by housing barracks and unreconstructed roads.

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