Hanshin Tigers Prowling for the Pennant

Junior reporter Junko's weekly interrogation is a standard part of the job. But this Monday she had a little more ammunition to work with: a complaint letter from a taxi company.

She stood in my office, as usual, ready to rumble from the start. "I'll skip the general introductory pleasantries and get straight to the recalling of the incident as reported by the female driver who picked you up outside Tokyo Dome on a late evening last week."

I turned both palms upward and shrugged - the accepted look of innocence. She then started reading.

After slumping into the backseat, he immediately rolled up one of his shirtsleeves to the shoulder. "Look at this!" he demanded, pointing at his flexed right bicep.

Junko gave a muffled laugh.

Then, at a red light, he screamed, "Blow the light!" When the driver wouldn't, he directed her to the nearest liquor store, where he quickly exited the car but didn't return. She left the car and found him standing and guzzling large quantities of alcohol at the store's entrance.

After gently coaxing him back to the car, she sensed that maybe something was really wrong with his health and drove him to the nearest hospital.

In the end he indeed paid the fare, but we feel that this matter should be brought to the surface for the future health and safety of all parties involved.

I tipped my chair back. She glared at me and folded the sheet of paper.

"That must have been when I was hard at work on my Hanshin Tigers story," I told her. "Sure, it is all coming back to me now."

It could even threaten the supply of chicken dinners in Osaka.

Preparations are being made, supplies readied, and safety measures taken in anticipation of the explosion of mayhem, the uncontrollable mobs that will take to the city's streets as a result of something that hasn't happened since 1985: the clinching of the Central League pennant by the beloved Hanshin Tigers.

"It will be crazy all night," laughs 33-year-old Kozo Fujita, a Tiger fan who for work reasons moved to Tokyo from Kyoto, in anticipation of a similar celebratory scene to that of 18 years ago - which included the pitching of a life-size promotional statue of Colonel Sanders into the area's historic canal - in the city's Namba entertainment district.

Tiger fans are getting ready for a party. Perennial punching bags to the rabidly popular Yomiuri Giants of Tokyo, Hanshin is a few weeks away from securing a trip to the Japan Series. And with the local area in need of an economic - and morale - boost, their devoted fans are doing their best to ensure that the entire country knows that it has been a long time coming.

Though in the middle of a four-game losing streak, today the Tigers sit atop the Central League with a comfortable 14 1/2-game lead. With their starting rotation anchored by southpaw Kei Igawa - with his 15 wins and league-leading 2.73 ERA - and a well-rounded offense led by Makoto Imaoka's (.348) push for the batting title, the team hasn't looked back since late April.

Last year got off to a similarly auspicious beginning, and excitement in the Kansai area (including the cities of Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto, and Nara) built around the team. But it was not to be; a thin bench and a lack of pitching depth resulted in the Tigers being dropped to third place by late June and the eventual crown going to the hated Giants to the north.

This year's team is different. Fujita believes that one of the keys has been second-year manager Senichi Hoshino's ability to balance his notorious fire in the dugout with a friendly demeanor off the field, a combination that has bred a sense of dedication amongst his players.

"Nomura used to have so many meetings after the games," says Fujita of former Hanshin skipper Katsuya Nomura. "But Hoshino doesn't talk about baseball with his players after the game - only with the media."

Off-season additions have been important as well. To the surprise of many, a rejuvenated Hideki Irabu, whose last two years in the big leagues were filled with mostly tumult, has provided the team with solid starting performances. And the free-agent signing of Tomoaki Kanemoto has added a bit of left-handed thunder to complement the steady stick of George Arias, now in the middle of his fourth Tiger campaign.

"Kanemoto changed the Tigers - he's a fighter," Fujita explains.

With a legacy for losing (only three pennants since two-league play began in 1950), fans and companies alike have been sure to take advantage of this special season.

Tiger consumables in unending varieties have not been in short supply. Even in enemy territory like Tokyo, shops and convenience stores have been stocking up on potato chips, ashtrays with matching lighters, and plush dolls - all in the team's yellow and black signature colors. Hoshino's smiling cartoon image is prominently featured on an energy drink and cream wafer cookies.

And it hasn't stopped with mere souvenirs. Frenzied female fans can now show their support with the Hanshin Tigers bra, a faux tiger skin top featuring the image of the Tigers' furry mascot "Truckee" positioned over each cup. On sale last week in a limited edition of 500 for 10,000 yen by Triumph International Ltd., the brassiere - with matching striped bottoms and detachable tiger tail - will ensure that the squeeze play will never be the same again.

Economic experts are expecting such consumer activity to be a home run for the ailing economy of the Kansai area, where unemployment exceeds that of Tokyo and the area's manufacturing companies have been hit hard with restructuring. Hopes are that a Tiger win will mean nearly 150 billion yen in additional consumer spending for the local area.

As the summer has moved along, the swagger of the prowling Tigers has not shown any signs of subsiding. From early July, tabloid sports rag Daily Sports has been counting down the Tigers' magic number needed to clinch the title in splashy gold or red print on its covers. Likewise, that same month saw Osaka officials dredging the Dotonbori Canal - a move that is intended to ensure a safer landing for fans who traditionally leap into the murky water during times of celebration.

Caution is getting to be the norm as the party approaches. In addition to increased security measures at the Tigers' historic Koshien Stadium, KFC officials are pondering removing their statues of the Colonel from their restaurants in downtown Osaka in order prevent a repeat of the rampage of the '85 season. (Rumors have persisted that the dunking of the statue - a standard entry ornament for most KFC establishments in Japan - has jinxed the team, guaranteeing no championship crown until the chicken icon's plastic likeness is retrieved from the ditch's cloudy depths. To date, dredging crews haven't reported any such finding.)

These outward signs of arrogance and anticipation by the Tigers and their followers haven't provided motivation for any contenders. The dreaded Giants' season has been filled with injuries and slowed by its inability to fill the void left by the departure of hero Hideki Matsui to the New York Yankees.

Talk of jinxes and even the Pacific League's charging Fukuoka Daei Hawks, the team looking to be the Tigers' opponent in the Japan Series, aren't a concern for Fujita; he's satisfied just enjoying the regular season.

"This year we already beat the Giants in the season series - that is probably most important anyway."

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