The last time the Hanshin Tigers were proclaimed the best baseball team in Japan, their fans celebrated by hurling themselves into a canal and carrying out an “abduction” that many believe placed their team under a curse that has lasted almost four decades.
On Saturday, the sleeping giants of Japanese baseball were forced to wait another day for the chance to banish the jinx by winning their first Japan Series title since 1985, after a defeat to local rivals Orix Buffaloes ensured that the season’s finale would go to a seventh and decisive game.
Hanshin never came close to securing their first series title in 38 years at Kyocera Dome in Osaka, after another heroic pitching performance by Yoshinobu Yamamoto helped Orix level the series at 3-3 and set up what promises to be a classic at the same venue – and Orix’s home turf – on Sunday.
A Tigers victory in Japan’s most popular sport would set off wild celebrations in their home city of Osaka, even though their ballpark, the fabled 99-year-old Koshien stadium, is in the neighbouring Hyogo prefecture.
Hanshin and Orix, who were seeking their second title in a row, have set up a tantalising end to the first Japan Series between two Osaka ball clubs for 59 years. With the series on a knife-edge, the Tigers’ raucous supporters filed out of the dome on a sultry evening hoping that their wait would be over in 24 hours’ time.
In 1985, the last time Hanshin were victorious in the series, Japan was on the brink of its asset-inflated bubble economy, Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s prime minister and Nelson Mandela was still in prison in apartheid South Africa.
Some of the team’s fans trace the fallow decades that followed back to the excessive celebrations that greeted their Central League title that year. Not content with leaping, fully clothed, off Ebisubashi bridge into the murky waters of Osaka’s Dotonbori canal, a few uprooted a statue of Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Sanders – who bore a passing resemblance to the team’s star slugger that season, the stocky and bearded American Randy Bass – from outside a nearby KFC and dumped him in the water.
Many suspect his rough treatment at the hands of Tigers’ fans placed a curse on the team, even after the colonel was retrieved from the canal, minus his spectacles and left hand, during renovation work in 2009.
In the 17 years that followed, Hanshin recorded just two top-three finishes and a glut of last-place finishes, and did not win the league pennant again until 2003. They repeated that feat in 2005, but the series and the title of Nippon ichi (Japan’s no 1) eluded them.
“It’s been 38 years, so of course there are more nerves than usual,” Yuko Kawase, a Hanshin fan who watches her team about 90 times a season, said on the eve of the series. “But the fans are totally behind the players.”
Masaki Yamaguchi, a 24-year-old Tigers fan who watched Saturday’s match on TV, said Yamamoto’s pitching had made all the difference. But he had not given up hope. “I wasn’t born the last time Hanshin were the best team in Japan, so I’m desperate to see it happen.”
That two teams from the Osaka region have made it to the series will have delighted many neutrals who tire of the focus on the Tokyo-based Yomiuri Giants – backed by the influential conservative newspaper the Yomiuri Shimbun – whose loss of form has done little to dim their reputation as Japanese baseball aristocracy, not least among the capital’s media.
The Giants dominated the early years of professional baseball in Japan, while the then-named Osaka Tigers, formed in 1935, were considered the country’s second team.
But they became a lightning rod for the hopes of people in Kansai – the region of western Japan that includes the major cities of Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe – and sports fans elsewhere in Japan who bristled at the Giants’ supremacy.
Despite Hanshin’s lack of success, loyalty to the club has spawned a boisterous fan culture unmatched in Japan. When the team are playing at Koshien, the noise can be deafening, especially when an opposition pitch is sent soaring through the sky and into the stands for a home run.
A large police presence in downtown Osaka means there is unlikely to be a repeat of the canal-diving antics should Hanshin win the series decider on Sunday. Instead, the commercial city, whose people pride themselves on their carb-heavy street food and sense of humour, will mark the team’s feat with department store sales and cut-price deals at bars and restaurants.
Jason Coskrey, a baseball writer for the Japan Times, said a Hanshin victory in the Japan Series – the country’s equivalent of Major League Baseball’s World Series in the US – would be a “big deal” for local people.
“The Tigers winning would be a huge celebration for Osaka,” Coskrey said. “The Tigers have not won in so long that the area is ready to burst if they finally get it done again. They have a huge, passionate and proud fanbase.”
As they approach the end of their pennant-winning season, Hanshin fans, players and management have imposed an unofficial ban on uttering the word yusho (victory), fearing they will be jinxed by the merest hint of overconfidence. Instead, they refer to that longed-for outcome as are (you know what).
Only a Japan Series victory will convince Hanshin’s long-suffering and superstitious supporters that the curse of the colonel has truly been lifted. All they can do is wait and hope.