The gates swung open precisely on schedule at Meiji Shrine Stadium. Within minutes, a cluster of orderly Japanese businessmen wearing formal suits and ties in the stifling summer heat were filing into the bleachers toting cartons of fresh octopus fritters and beer.
Two giddy girls in kimono-like cotton robes and wooden sandals shuffled in behind them, tapping their long, stenciled nails on high-tech cell phones and snapping digital shots of their favorite outfielder, Mitsuru Manaka, warming up on the field. Nearby, a cluster of well-mannered children patiently begged autographs off bowing players at an entrance gate. The rising sun flag fluttered high above home plate.
All of this could mean only one thing: baseball season in Japan.
There is, perhaps, nothing in this nation so foreign and yet so Japanese as yakyu, or baseball, as the sport is uniquely staged in Japan. The American game, with its often unruly fans and focus on winning at all costs, is transformed here into a highly structured spectacle of entertainment and the highest expression of Japan's gambare -- never say die -- mentality that values sportsmanship as much as victory. It is that philosophy that makes a rumble between teams as unlikely as finding a soft pretzel at a concession stand. Japanese fans are likely to cheer loudest when their team is down 12-3 in the bottom of the ninth -- when Americans fans might be dodging stadium traffic in the parking lot.
The Japanese style of baseball -- this nation's most popular sport despite years on the wane -- infuses the game with a light affability, which was evident in this clash between Tokyo's two professional teams, the Yomiuri Giants and the Yakult Swallows. Especially in the stands, organized fun reigned over rivalry.
At the 48,000-seat Meiji Shrine Stadium, home of the fighting Swallows, the crowd thickened before the 6 p.m. game time. Dozens of stadium employees on ball patrol hopped to attention. Stationed every few feet in the stands, they blew whistles and pointed flags inward to warn fans to avoid being hit by balls.
Walkways in the pristine stadium are built so that fans of opposing teams are kept separated. Into the left-field bleachers came die-hard fans of the underdog Swallows, while the right side filled with supporters of the mighty Giants. One mother mistakenly sat in the Swallows section with her two young sons and was politely warned when one of the boys pulled a bright orange plush rabbit -- the Giants mascot -- out of his knapsack. "We don't want to cause unnecessary friction now, do we?" said a security guard with a smile. Her boy stuffed his toy back into his bag.
In the minutes before the first pitch, Satoshi Takamiya, 17, a volunteer Swallows cheer master, busily distributed official lyric sheets to fans. All cheers are scripted and synchronized, with little tolerance shown for impromptu quips. Satoshi had studied replays of Giants games, he said, searching for weaknesses to turn into mild-mannered taunts. Expect no jeering "blind" umpires here -- harsh insults and boos are informally banned.
The players took the field just before 6 p.m., when two Swallows selected to play for Japan's national team at the Athens Olympics received ceremonial bouquets of flowers from teammates. They bowed deeply in gratitude.
Then they played ball -- and Takamiya sprang into action, barking like a disturbingly polite drill sergeant.
"Honorable customers!" he yelled to the fans. "Welcome! We are fortunate today to be able to cheer for our team. We are sure they will try their best! Thank you for your kind attention!"
No sooner did he utter the words than Giants slugger Karl "Tuffy" Rhodes belted out a two-run home run. And then Roberto Petagine hit another, with two men on base. Both men are veterans of the major leagues in the United States.
In the bottom of the first inning, the Swallows bounced back, scoring twice. The comeback was greeted with collective cheers. With the next Swallows batter at the plate, fans belted out a well-rehearsed tune: "Cut through the roaring thunder with your swing! Bark! Fight! Advance toward glorious victory!" Each player has his own individual song.
By the fourth inning, the Giants were stealing all the thunder, closing in on double digits when Rhodes hit his second two-run homer. That's when a group of Americans at their first Japanese baseball game tried to start the wave.
The Yanks -- the perky touring cast and crew of the musical "42nd Street," playing an engagement in Tokyo -- succeeded in making waves instead. Rising to their feet, hands pitched in the air, they drew surprised stares from the Japanese, including some who stopped in the middle of their memorized cheers. "I guess they thought we were messing with the vibe," Ed Renz, 28, a sax player in the troupe, confided sheepishly.
While a carnival atmosphere prevailed in the Giants section, Swallows fans were far from showing their disappointment. Live baseball in Japan, said Hiroshi Aoki, 78, a die-hard Swallows fan, is a collective sharing of emotion in the stands. "It's not about them so much," said Aoki, pointing to the players on the field. "It's about us, the fans, having the chance to express ourselves together."
By the bottom of the ninth inning, their team down 12-3, hardly a Swallows fan had budged -- except to visit the concession stand. They brought back hot soba noodles and cool sake for the hot summer night. "We can't possibly leave," Aoki said, taken aback by the suggestion. "What if our boys score even one more hit, not to mention a run? How would they feel if all of us were not here to cheer for them?"
At that moment, young Swallows fans in Little League outfits were jumping up and down as a Giants outfielder tossed them a fly ball he had caught. The two girls in cotton, kimono-like robes were holding up their homemade billboard bearing the name of their Swallows heartthrob, Manaka, despite the fact that he went hitless.
And a few seconds later, the Swallows got one last double before heading to the showers.
"You see," Aoki said, grinning despite the loss. "You can never call it quits. Real fans stay until the very end."