Hiroshima is known as a place of peace, parks, pigeons and, this year, pennant fever. The western Japan city and its residents have had a lot to celebrate during the summer of 2016 as the local baseball team won its first Central League championship in 25 years.
The Hiroshima Carp baseball club was established on November 28, 1949, just four years and three months after Japan surrendered to the Allied Powers, ending a brutal four years of fighting that was World War II.
Hiroshima had been totally destroyed on August 6, 1945, when the world’s first deployed atomic bomb was dropped on the city. Approximately 140,000 people died as a result, and it was predicted no vegetation would grow in the city for 75 years. That turned out not to be true, and the Carp were playing at Hiroshima Shimin Kyujo (Citizens Stadium) on green grass five years later.
The founding of the ball club played a great part in lifting the sprits of the Hiroshima populace and helped heal the wounds of war. However, it took a quarter-century for the Carp to win their first league pennant in 1975, led by American first baseman Gail Hopkins and superstar Japanese players Koji ‘Mr Carp’ Yamamoto and Sachio ‘Iron Man’ Kinugasa.
The team went on to win Central League titles in 1979, 1980, 1984, 1986 and 1991 and even won the Japan Series final in ’79, ’80 and ’84. Yamamoto managed the ’91 team, but another 25-year drought followed until the Carp this year put together a fantastic team of veteran and younger star players.
As of September 19, with four games remaining in the regular season, the Carp led the second-place Yomiuri Giants by a whopping 16 games in the Central League standings, having clinched the pennant with a victory over the Giants at Tokyo Dome on September 11.
Though they had to settle for a celebration on the road, there was no lack of hometown support. Thousands of Carp fans traveled from Hiroshima to watch the winning scene in person, and others living in the Tokyo area but who grew up in Hiroshima donned the team’s familiar red jersey to cheer the team to victory.
Office worker Mariko Kawashima, 28, said, ‘I just had to travel to Tokyo to watch the Carp win the pennant with my own eyes. I was crying when I saw the players toss the manager (Koichi Ogata) in the air during the doage (a traditional celebration).’
Tokyo-area college student Shun Tominaga, 21, grew up in Hiroshima. ‘I was not even born the last time the Carp won a pennant, so I am very happy to be at Tokyo Dome to see them win this one,’ he said.
It should be noted that this is the first time the Carp have won the Central League championship since moving to the beautiful, major league–style, 33,000-seat Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium in 2009. The park is located near Japan Railways (JR) Hiroshima Station and bullet trains rumble by just behind the left-field stands.
Through 2008, the team played home games at Shimin Kyujo located across the street from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and iconic Atomic Bomb Dome.
The old ballpark was demolished in 2010 but, every year prior to that on August 6, during the ceremony to remember the victims of the atomic bombing, the light towers of the stadium could be seen in the background as a reminder that baseball contributed to the city’s recovery from the horrors of the war.
The lights are gone now but a portion of the right-field stands was left intact to commemorate the stadium’s existence and the role it played in Hiroshima’s post-war history.
In addition to Mazda Stadium opening a new chapter for baseball in Hiroshima, the team switched to a brilliant red uniform in 2009 and almost every Carp fan wears one today.
The Carp have improved in recent seasons, earning a berth in the post-season playoffs in 2013 and 2014 after finishing in third place both years. This year’s team, though, is by far the best.
It is loaded with talent and, looking back, it’s not surprising the Carp won the 2016 league championship so easily. The heart of the roster centers around two well-loved veteran players, pitcher Hiroki Kuroda (41) and first baseman Takahiro Arai (39). Both had left the Carp several years ago; Kuroda for a stint in the Major Leagues and Arai for a rival Japanese Central League team, the Hanshin Tigers. They returned to Hiroshima in 2015 and were welcomed back with great enthusiasm.
American pitchers Kris Johnson, Jay Jackson and Bradin Hagens and outfielder Brad Eldred also made significant contributions to this year’s effort, backing Japanese stars including pitchers Yusuke Nomura and Shota Nakazaki, second-baseman and defensive magician Ryosuke Kikuchi, shortstop Kosuke Tanaka, and outfielders Yoshihiro Maru and Seiya Suzuki.
It is estimated the team’s success will have a positive effect on the local Hiroshima economy to the tune of about US$350 million, as hotels, restaurants, transportation systems and other businesses stand to benefit. That is, with the expectation the team will play in this year’s Japan Series.
The Carp, as league champions, will host the final round of the Climax Series of playoffs beginning October 12 at Mazda Stadium against either the Giants or the Yokohama DeNA Baystars. The winner goes to the Japan Series against the Pacific League champion.
As a Hiroshima tourist attraction, Carp baseball this year is right there with the Peace Memorial Park (visited May 27 for the first time by a sitting American president when Barack Obama went there), the Peace Memorial Museum, the Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima Castle and Miyajima Shrine.
Even the pigeons are celebrating.
Main image: Getty
Body images: Greg Thompson and Wayne Graczyk
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