PLAY BALL!

Baseball season is here again and getting into the swing of things is easy as this year promises to be an exciting one on both sides of the Pacific especially with the Nippon Pro Baseball league in Japan set to go.
In Japan, defending Japan Series Champions, the Chunichi Dragons of Nagoya are looking to defend their 2007 title and hopefully not enter into another 50-plus year drought similar to the one they endured before winning last year. They will be chased in the Central League by the always-competitive Yomiuri Giants who, with their bottomless pockets are the Yankees of Japanese ball, are looking to win the Central pennant again this year. The Yokohama Bay Stars will look to break into the playoffs this year if they can unseat last year’s third-place Hanshin Tigers. Last season’s cellar-dwellers, the Hiroshima Carp and the Yakult Swallows, have no where to go but up and will hopefully provide some competition to make this year more interesting in the Central League.
In the Pacific League, Japan Series runner-ups, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters are looking to improve on their disappointing loss last year and hope to regain the form that allowed them to win the Series in 2006. The Fighters will continue to rely on strong pitching, particularly from ace Yu Darvish, whose efforts last year carried the team, but were often wasted by the bullpen and a lack of run support. The 2005 Japan Series Champion, Chiba Lotte Marines will be looking for a measure of revenge against the Ham as they finished just two games out of first in the regular season and lost three games to two in the playoffs. The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks are looking to beat back the demons of injuries, inconsistent and unproductive play to get competitive under beloved skipper Sadaharu Oh. The Rakuten Golden Eagles, in just their fourth season, are hoping to continue the improvement they have enjoyed in each of their first three seasons and will hopefully have a shot at the playoffs.
The 2007 basement of the Pacific League contained the once-mighty Seibu Lions who, thanks to money earned with the Daisuke Matsuzaka posting fee, should be able to buy some talent to get them competitive this season and return to the form that carried them to the Japan Championships in 2004. Like the lower teams in the Central league, the Orix Buffalos have nowhere to go but up and will hopefully improve on their disastrous outing of 2007.
While local ball has long been viewed askance by North Americans, the mass emigration of Japanese Pro players to the Majors and with the continued influx of foreign-born players into Japan the level of play is very much equalized. With excellent local talent and over 60 foreign-born players from countries as diverse as the United States, Australia, Venezuela, Canada, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Taiwan and South Korea, there is plenty of talent on this side of the Pacific for hardcore baseball fans.
With Pacific League play already underway and Central League play beginning March 28, there is really no excuse not to get out for a game with a staggering five teams based in and around Tokyo and the remaining seven well spread out around the country.

Story by James Souilliere
From J SELECT Magazine, April 2008

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