My final road trip of the 2014 season ended at PNC Field, the recently renovated home of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. This was the 10th Minor League stadium I had visited in a 10-day span, but my travels paled in comparison to those undertaken by three individuals who were also at the ballpark that afternoon.
Junichi "Jay" Inoue, Yu "Buffalo" Matsumoto and Tetsuhiro "Freddy" Usui were visiting the RailRiders from Sendai, Japan as part of a tour of American sporting venues. All three men work in the "enterprise department" of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles -- a Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) team commonly referred to simply as "Rakuten" -- and they were in America on business.
Inoue, Matsumoto and Usui wanted to learn about how professional sports teams operate in the United States. The hope was that, after careful observation, they could apply some of these American ideas to the Rakuten baseball experience.
This trio of international travelers was accompanied to PNC Field by Morris Morioka, a native of Japan who has just completed his second season as the Lehigh Valley IronPigs manager of marketing and promotions. Two years ago, Morioka and IronPigs promotions director Lindsey Knupp traveled to Japan to share ideas at sports promotional seminars in Tokyo and Sendai. While in the latter city, they met Usui, who kept in touch with Morioka and solicited his help in planning a trip to the United States.
The journey began in Kansas City, where the Rakuten staffers saw the Royals as well as a Sporting Kansas City Major League Soccer match. They then headed for Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley to see the IronPigs, and Morioka traveled with them to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. It was there, in the early stages of a game on Aug. 31, that I spoke with Inoue, Matsumoto and Usui about their impressions of the American sporting life.
The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles play in Sendai, Japan.
Rakuten, the reigning Japan Series champions, have a roster with plenty of name recognition -- even to American fans. Kevin Youkilis and Andruw Jones are among the foreign players on the roster, and Rakuten also has veteran Japanese standouts with American big league experience such as Kaz Matsui and Takashi Saito.
Japanese baseball enthusiasts will always be interested in seeing players of this caliber, but Inoue, Matsumoto and Usui want to make the stadium experience welcoming to everyone while enhancing fans' connection to the game.
"How I feel about sports in America is that it seems that it's so much closer to people's lives. Sports is always there," said Inoue with Usui serving as his translator. "In Japan, you need to prepare yourself for a sporting event, and intentionally get ready for it. But in the States, it's just a part of life. ... We want to break that wall down and make sports feel that much closer."
"In Japan, if [potential fans] don't know baseball or don't like baseball, then they hesitate to go to the ballpark," added Morioka, "because the ballpark is seen as a place for people who like baseball. But [in the United States], it's like 'Who cares?' Anyone can go to the ballpark. You can play catch, you can just hang out."
Therefore, the Japanese visitors have been keeping an eye out for ballpark entertainment options that appeal to all ages and aren't reliant on baseball knowledge.
"In Kansas City, we saw an in-game event where kids draw the picture of a player and then the players have to guess who it is," said Usui. "All of the players were having a hard time [guessing]. That's one example that we thought would work in Japan and we'd like to bring it back."
At the previous evening's IronPigs game, the trio from Sendai was very intrigued by Launch-A-Ball. (For those not familiar, Launch-A-Ball is a common Minor League postgame activity in which fans purchase tennis balls to throw at targets placed on the playing field.)
American fans have a different relationship to the playing surface than Japanese fans do. (Benjamin Hill/MiLB.com)
"That is something we had never seen before!" exclaimed Usui.
Still, Launch-A-Ball is not likely to debut across the Pacific any time soon.
"The people in Japan think the field is for the players, a very sacred place," said Inoue. "We can't do something bad or playful, because it's a special place for the players. It's not a playground."
"One of the reasons you couldn't do it is that, after a [Japanese] Minor League baseball game is finished, the players practice afterwards," Usui added. "So operations-side people, we wait longer hours. We wait for them to come in and we wait for them to leave."
While American Minor League Baseball encompasses 160 teams over six levels of play, the Japanese system is much simpler.
"Every organization has both a first and second team, and second team is the Minors," said Usui. "So [the Rakuten Golden Eagles] are the Major League team, but we also run the Minor League team in the same organization. Our stadium is small in the Minor League operation. Here we see things like the videoboards. [In Japan] we don't have things like that at the Minor League level."
"We can bring back ideas for both out Major and Minor League teams," added Matsumoto with Usui translating. "Some we can do right now. Instead of waiting until next season, we can do it right away."
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It's a two-way street, of course. If Japanese teams can learn from American teams, then certainly American teams can learn from their Japanese counterparts.
"Something that America doesn't have is beer server girls, it's just big guys [vendors] carrying a big case of beer," said Usui. "Beer server girls carry a backpack full of beer, and walk around selling draft beer right in front of you. ... They know when you're going to finish drinking, they know the timing. So when you finish, they come around and say 'Second?'
"And in our Minor League operation, we sell sponsorships not to companies or corporations but to individuals," he continued. "We sell it for [the equivalent of] $300. You get a ceremonial first pitch and autographs from the starting members of that game. ... They get to sit in a special seat, and after the game they get to interview the players. Their name is on the website -- it's [the sponsoring fan's] game tonight. Happy wedding day or happy birthday."
On the afternoon I spoke with Inoue, Matsumoto and Usui, they were just a few days away from returning to Japan. Upon doing so, they hoped to immediately apply some of the things they learned.
"We have a fan appreciation day coming up later in September where we would like to use some of these ideas," said Inoue. "That's probably one of the first things we'll do."
But for Matsumoto, there was an even more pressing item on his agenda.
"The first thing I'll do after getting home is say thank you to my wife," he said.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.