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What it feels like to watch a game at the Tokyo Dome

One of the biggest venues in the world’s biggest city, the Tokyo Dome has hosted everything from bowl games to Buster Douglas. After spending 30 hours here over the last three days, a few observations:

The Egg is no spring chicken

Not exactly the Cowboys Stadium JumboTron.

Completed in 1988, the Big Egg is of the same era as Tropicana Field, Rogers Centre and the late Landshark/Sun Life/Pro Player/Joe Robbie Stadium. That’s probably not a group of parks that’ll be emulated whenever the next retro craze hits. Lacking both the high-tech amenities of newer stadiums and the charm of older yards, the Dome features a lot of painted concrete walls and narrow staircases. The center field scoreboard is decidedly standard definition. The playing surface is one step up from Astroturf. The baggy, air pressure-supported roof looks nearly identical to the one that collapsed at the Metrodome a few years ago.

Terrifying creatures lurk in the bowels of Big Egg.

A suite level located between the lower bowl and the upper deck is the lone exception. Recently renovated with seats that pass for stadium business class, a premium hot buffet (cost: 2,000 yen) serves a bougy-er crowd.

You can find me in the club ... seats.

Not a bad seat in the house

Like many older Major League parks, the Tokyo Dome’s seats are steep. I’m pretty sure you can actually fall off the edge of the earth from the third deck. The upside is that no matter where you sit, the infield seems relatively close. The dome roof may also add to that effect, as the place feels almost like an oversized gymnasium from behind home plate.

Safeco Field may have better sushi

Like the rest of  Tokyo, the Dome offers a combination of American favorites and traditional Japanese fare. I didn’t sample the KFC or Baskin-Robbins, but their menus looked pretty standard. Trying to take advantage of the international flavor, I also passed on hot dogs, burgers and fries. Sources tell me they were as expected, although the wieners featured some non-traditional toppings like hash browns, lettuce and a sweet pink sauce. Or maybe that’s what “Chicago style” means, I’m not sure.

The Something Fried Stuffed Inside of Something Fried stand.

I did try some sushi, ramen noodles in soy sauce and beef curry over rice. At least I think that was beef — none of the menus had English translations, so it was basically point and hope. The sushi seemed fresh enough but didn’t taste much better than standard US quality. I’m no food critic, but the noodles would have been subpar even for your average high school cafeteria. And while the beef curry didn’t give me food poisoning, there was a warning twinge in my stomach halfway through the bowl indicating danger ahead. I still had a few more bites — for journalism! — but things were touch-and-go for a minute there. So yeah, eat before you come.

Just ... don't.

The band is back together

The golden age of domed baseball stadiums has likely come and gone, making it easy to forget the other great advantage of a roof overhead: The same way rain can’t get in, noise can’t get out. With fans in the outfield bleachers chanting continuously, the building feels packed even when it’s three quarters empty — what it lacked in population during Monday’s Oakland-Hanshin game was made up in echoes off empty plastic seats. The thump of a bass drum in the outfield bleachers reverberates throughout the entire dome and walk-up music rains from roof speakers at house concert volume. The dueling band effect when rivals Hanshin and Yomiui play each other is probably Euro soccer-esque.

Bang the drum loudly and nonstop.

The beer vendors are an upgrade

“What if we put a keg in a backpack?” It’s the question every college freshman has asked their bros while trying to get those cute girls on the third floor to come to “a pretty chill pregame” in their dorm room. Well, the Tokyo Dome asked it in reference to beer vendors, and the results are spectacular. Instead of cracking a tall boy for each customer, vendors here strap on a backpack with a mini-keg inside — like the Heineken ones — and pour customers fresh droughts right in the aisle. And rather than middle-aged, beer-gutted beeeeahhhhh heaaaaaaahhhhs hawking suds, every vendor at the Dome is young, female and dressed for summer. There’s no yelling, either. Raise your hand like you’re hailing a cab and a traveling bartender will be at your service within seconds.

You don't even know how creepy I felt taking this photo.

Safety first, and second, and third, and …

Tokyo Dome security ... or casting call for an NYPD Blue remake?

Despite Tokyo’s near-complete lack of street crime and a fanbase that couldn’t be politer, it’s hard to turn around in the Dome without bumping into a security officer. Event staff in dark blue uniforms are posted atop nearly every section and at regular intervals on the concourse. More patrol the aisles and walkways while at least a half-dozen mingle around every major entrance. And this is in addition to the ushers in light blue jackets who check tickets and direct fans to their seats. The funny thing is that the stadium has way fewer restrictions than most MLB parks. I walked from the media section to the first row behind home plate and watched an inning unimpeded. Stood in the aisle and shot five minutes of video, no problem. Entered and left the stands in the middle of many at-bats with just a polite head bow from the blue-shirts.

Caution -- do not attempt header save on flying baseballs!

So what does this army do? As far as I can tell, two things. Whenever a ball is hit over the protective netting that runs from foul pole to foul pole, all ushers and security in the area — and there are usually many — blow their whistles as a warning. It’s like a squadron of over-intense but well-intentioned gym teachers.  And during pregame warmups, following a stern pep talk from a commander type, they perform a full emergency situation drill. Ushers walk down each aisle in unison flapping their arms and telling 42,000 empty seats to remain seated. Security officers calmly call out instructions from bullhorns to an imaginary sellout crowd. It’s eerie, but I guess practice during batting practice makes perfect.

"If there is an earthquake, you will all probably ignore me and sprint for the exits."

And one other thing

The toilet seats are heated.

Seattle Mariners vs. Yomiuri Giants

The crowd for tonight’s Mariners-Giants game was a little bigger than the one for A’s-Tigers this afternoon. Like, 32,000 people bigger.

There isn’t an empty seat to be had in the Tokyo Dome with Japan’s two most popular clubs facing off.

There might be some kind of theme here. I was unable to discern it.

No matter what continent you’re on, it’s impossible to go wrong with a hot dog at the ballpark.

Craig Brazell, who went 2-for-3 with a run and an RBI for Hanshin on Monday, had a cup of coffee with the Mets in ’04 and an espresso with Kansas City three years later. He’s spent the last four seasons in Japan, batting .275 with 106 homers in that span.

Kenji Johjima, the Lions’ starting DH, played for 11 years in Nippon Professional Baseball before crossing the Pacific to catch for the Mariners from ’06-’09. According to Wikipedia, “he often called himself ‘George Mackenzie’ as opposed to ‘Johjima Kenji.'”

Scenes from Oakland A’s vs. Hanshin Tigers

You need more than a few baseballs to run batting practice on two cages at the same time.

Attendance for the Tigers-A’s exhibition was relatively sparse, likely because first pitch was at 12:05 on a Monday and Ichiro wasn’t involved. The upper deck and right-field bleachers were almost entirely empty, and even the die-hard section in left was only about half full. The announced crowd of 10,681 (the Tokyo Dome holds 42,000) sounds pretty accurate. That said, one bass drum in a domed stadium can make up for thousands of empty seats.

Many of the fans in attendance were elementary school kids, with several youth baseball teams sitting together in full uniform. One section near the foul pole in right field was mostly filled with a school group, also in full uniform.

This gentleman told me he did in fact attend Lamar Community College in Colorado at the same time as Brandon McCarthy. Despite having many friends who played baseball, he never met the A’s starter and this was his first time seeing a Major League team in person. And yes, he also said he follows McCarthy on Twitter.

Not many fans showed up for Oakland-Hanshin today, but every one who did brought a homemade sign honoring an A's player.

Hanshin jumped out to a 7-0 lead, lighting up Oakland starter Tyson Ross, before the A’s stormed back with a four-spot in the fourth inning. It was a pretty decent game — Kurt Suzuki and Cliff Pennington went yard — but apparently not exciting enough for this dude:

Straight mid-inning news catch-up.

One thing I’ve noticed during these first three exhibition games: fewer Japanese fans seem to dress up in team gear at the ballpark. Player T-sherseys and shirts commemorating past championships are much rarer here than at American stadiums. The fans that do put on for their cities, however, do so with a lot more flare than their MLB counterparts. Witness these Hanshin jerseys:

Attention MLB clubs: If you put wings, a tiger and flaming Japanese characters on your replica jerseys, I will buy all of said jerseys.

I like the thought process: You’re already proving your fandom by showing up to the game. If you don’t want to wear a lame team polo shirt, don’t feel obligated. But if you’re going to rep the squad, go all out. Highlighter tones encouraged.

STOP -- Hanshin Time!

Or you could just wear a Red Sox shirt. It’s the international sign for “I worship Mark Wahlberg and my cell phone has a Dropkick Murphys ringback.”

Day 4: Let’s play two more

Time to get stretched out …

Because we’re back in the swing …

For another day of doubleheader action.

The A’s and Mariners swap opponents and time slots on Monday, with Oakland taking on the Hanshin Tigers at noon followed by Seattle vs. the Yomiuri Giants at 7 PM. Plenty to come from the Dome …

Scenes from Oakland Athletics vs. Yomiuri Giants

The Yomiuri Giants Cheering Club seemed a little more organized than the Hanshin Tigers edition, complete with customized T-shirts for chant leaders and a team of flag-wavers. Even so, the Tokyo Dome seemed quieter during this game than the earlier A’s-Tigers matchup. The stadium wasn’t completely full — odd, considering the Giants play their home games here — and Giants fans had little to cheer about with their team getting shut out.

Found a few Japanese A’s fans in the house, both young and old. This guy told me he’s been rooting for Oakland for 10 years and that he recently adopted Yoenis Cespedes as his new favorite player. Looks like he’s successfully indoctrinated his daughter into baseball fandom but sonny is still dubious.

Young fella was unable to identify a favorite Athletic, but he did come up with “baseball great” when I asked him about Oakland. Someday, I’ll understand why Japanese people love to throw up the peace sign any time they catch you snapping a photo. Today is not that day. Keep chuckin’ deuces, y’all!

The Ichiro impersonator sitting near the band in right-center took the Giants loss pretty hard — especially considering it was just an exhibition and Ichiro doesn’t currently play for either team involved. This guy has serious commitment to his craft with the sweatband, shades and even that faraway “128 million people need me to reach 200 hits again this year” look in his eyes.

We chatted for about five minutes. I understood “Athletics,” “QR code” and nothing else.

This is why we do what we do …

I flew 16 hours and crossed 13 time zones just to see one Hanshin Tigers fan wear a non-ironic Kei Igawa jersey. Worth it.

Mariners vs. Hanshin Tigers, Part 2

Check out Part 1 for the pregame festivities.

A few differences between Japanese fans and their American counterparts were apparent from the first pitch of the Mariners game against the Hanshin Tigers.

When the Mariners batted, the crowd was almost completely silent. Outs prompted intense but quick cheers. Otherwise, it was mostly respectful silence. The Japanese seem to love their respectful silence. The lone exception was Ichiro, who received the loudest cheers of any player throughout the game. Flashbulbs erupted on every pitch to the Mariners right fielder.

The home halves couldn’t have been more different. Led by a section of young fans in left field — many of whom appeared to have visited the combo ice-cream-and-beer concession stand — the crowd sang and chanted nonstop when the Tigers were at the plate. Most hitters had their own unique cheer, no doubt glorifying their strength, good looks and exemplary baseball instincts.

The cheers were coordinated by a band leader of sorts, one fan maybe 35 years, old who stood on his plastic bleacher seat calling out instructions to four trumpet players and a drummer. With a whistle and exaggerated hand motions, he sparked the crowd to life time and time again, enthusiasm never wavering as the Tigers hung onto a 5-1 lead.

Mariners vs. Hanshin Tigers, Part 1

It’s finally gameday, as the Mariners kick off Japan Series week with an exhibition tilt against the Hanshin Tigers.

Pregame activities were mostly the same as yesterday’s workout, with each team taking BP and infield practice in an empty Tokyo Dome. Of course, there were plenty of chances for old friends to catch up. Mariners infielder Munenori Kawasaki embraced Tigers captain Kyuji Fujikawa. Former Major Leaguer Jason Standridge chatted with his old hitting coach, Chris Chambliss. Craig Brazell slipped a ball to a Mariners batboy for Ichiro to sign. Ichiro, well, Ichiro knows everyone. He’s like the mayor around here.

Ichiro chatting with a Hanshin Tigers coach.

Ichiro with teammate Muenori Kawasaki and Hanshin Tigers captain Kyuji Fujikawa.

Fans began to trickle in as Mariners BP wound down, amassing in the first few rows behind home plate and calling to both Seattle and Hanshin players by name. The Tokyo Dome has protective netting between the field and the stands all the way from home plate to the outfield wall, but a few players tossed balls over to fans crowding behind the dugouts.

Of course, the the Japanese media was out in force once again.

After lineup announcements — during which Tigers fans politely cheered for every Mariners player — and national anthems for both Japan and the US, Minoru Iwata delivered his first pitch to Chone Figgins and we were underway.

Check out Part 2 for more on Japanese baseball fans.

Former Major Leaguers Matt Murton, Kenji Johjima, Jason Standridge, Craig Brazell and Randy Messenger are among the Hanshin Tigers taking BP down there.

Exhibition doubleheader coming up today — Hanshin vs. the Mariners in Game 1, followed by the A’s and Yomirui Giants.