Breakfast, coffee and the Yomiuri Giants
For the first time in 234 days, I watched a competitive, non-exhibition baseball game today. Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), the highest level of play outside North America, had its Opening Day at long last, ending almost eight months of baseball winter.
Sure, the Korean Baseball Organisation (KBO) has provided sustenance amid the coronavirus pandemic, but that circuit pales in comparison to its more esteemed cousins. I have not watched a single KBO game this year, whereas the thought of NPB returning has put a spring in my step all week. The gulf in class is that stark.
Indeed, I leapt out of bed this morning, excited to watch the most talented assemblage of ballplayers to gather for a meaningful game since Game 7 of the World Series in October 2019. After 33 weeks and 3 days, or approximately 64% of an entire year, baseball was back, and that old familiar buzz throbbed through my soul.
The difficulties of following Japanese baseball from afar
Alas, when tethered to Japanese baseball, such surges of anticipation are deeply unsustainable. In fact, they are frequently consumed by the convoluted nightmare of trying to watch NPB games online. The process is so confounding that NASA should eschew its current recruitment protocol in favour of making rocket scientists try to find Hiroshima Toyo Carp streams on the dark web. You need a degree to figure this shit out, man.
Fortunately, I had plenty of time on my hands this morning, a grey and rainy affair in Liverpool. Japanese baseball's Opening Day coincided nicely with my week of annual leave from work, giving me something to focus on during state-mandated lockdown. Moreover, the favourable time difference of Tokyo being eight hours ahead of London fit well with my early morning routine. The prospect of breakfast, coffee and the Yomiuri Giants put a smile on my face, quarantine ennui be damned.
I woke at 08:00 am GMT, two hours before first pitch at the Tokyo Dome, where the Giants faced the Hanshin Tigers. I poured my morning coffee and dug out that old battered Asus laptop from underneath the bed. I anticipated a barrage of virus-packed popups in the herculean crusade to watch yakyū from Britain, so an antediluvian device devoid of cloud technology would give an extra layer of cyber protection.
Likewise, Mozilla Firefox was my go-to browser this morning. Google Chrome is sleek and responsive, but it has a habit of automatically downloading malware and welcoming popups. Private browsing seemed a sensible option, even if that does not necessarily mean much these days.
How to watch NPB Japanese baseball games online
When my laptop eventually caught its breath and connected to the internet, my first port of call in search of Japanese baseball content was the NPB community on Reddit, a sequestered fiefdom of tireless yakyū zealots. If you want to know anything about Japanese baseball, the NPB reddit is your go-to portal.
Those guys must grow so tired of answering the same questions from green newcomers looking for a quick-fix to NPB’s ancient broadcasting troubles. Nevertheless, the reddit members dutifully field innumerable requests along the same lines every single day, pointing people towards a crowdsourced wiki that contains possible links to live Japanese baseball games.
At this point, it is pertinent to broach the staid traditionalism of NPB, which seems averse to global commercialisation in almost any form. Despite having stadiums and uniforms slathered with corporate sponsorships, Japanese ballclubs can never seem to agree on how best to push their collective product overseas. The result is a fractured media landscape that leaves international fans out in the cold, unable to devour the content they sorely crave.
There are options to watch NPB games online, but each one is incredibly flawed. For instance, Pacific League TV is a paid subscription service akin to mlb.tv, but its signup page is written exclusively in Japanese and its ecommerce currency is yen. Additionally, this product only grants access to the games of Pacific League teams, namely the Chiba Lotte Marines, Fukuoka SoftBank Haws, Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, Orix Buffaloes, Saitama Seibu Lions and Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.
If you do not root for one of those ballclubs, Pacific League TV is a recipe for frustration, especially in the absence of interleague games this season due to the pandemic. Rakuten TV is a similar service, albeit cheaper in price. It suffers from the same pitfalls, though, with the addition of one more team – the Yakult Swallows – offering slightly better value for money.
How to watch Yomiuri Giants games online
However, I’m a Yomiuri Giants fan, so the quest for adequate coverage of my adopted team is altogether more difficult. As a leading club sponsor, DAZN streams Giants games, but only in a select few countries. Britain is not one of those countries, unfortunately. Furthermore, DAZN actively blocks VPNs, while the service only accepts payments from Japanese credit cards. Ouch.
After a prolonged session of googling this morning, I found a promising product called Giants Live Stream. However, that was only available in Japan, too, further minimising my options. Next, I scanned YouTube to see if anybody planned to stream the Giants’ Opening Day coverage live, but that produced another dead end, as did a brief Twitter search. I sighed and took a brief break, showering and trying to conjure a backup plan.
Delving into the murky underworld of bootleg streams, I navigated through several mainstream sites, but NPB was apparently too niche even for that unhinged audience. The betting ads and herbal tea popups became more frequent, and my laptop began to overheat from the unexpected exertion. As 10:00 am approached, hope of seeing the Giants’ game live fizzled to a bare minimum, but I continued searching, nevertheless.
What's the deal with Japanese baseball broadcasting rights?
Ultimately, it is absurd that, at a time of potential global exposure, when billions of people are yearning for coverage of any live sport to ease their quarantine boredom, NPB makes it ridiculously difficult for interested and passionate fans to access its content.
Right now, as MLB tears itself apart with labour disputes, Japan has the best active baseball product in the world, but it is hidden behind a labyrinth of insecure paywalls and broken links. That shame must finally be addressed.
Digging deeper, it astounds me that the Yomiuri Giants - by far the most illustrious and eminently recognisable team NPB can muster – do not actively seek to make their games accessible on the internet. In the year 2020, that blows my mind.
As modern humans, we can order McDonalds to our doorsteps via apps and we can have ink delivered without a single click whenever our home printers run dry, but we cannot easily watch one of the most successful sports teams on the planet play its games. How is that even possible?
Why Japanese baseball needs an mlb.tv equivalent for NPB
If there was a genuine mlb.tv-style option for NPB coverage, or even just a package revolving around the Giants, I would sign up in a heartbeat. Millions of people around the world would do the same. Even paying two or three hundred pounds for a season of reliable streams would not faze me.
The thought of being able to kick back, relax and watch an NPB game without the stress of wading through a tsunami of flashing banner ads is idyllic. At some point, the commercial potential of that pining will reach critical mass. One day, Japanese baseball will realise its true potential, and we will look back on these days in puzzlement.
For now, though, we must wade through the cesspit of shady internet streams and half-baked highlight videos. Until Japanese baseball reaches a technological enlightenment, all we can do is hope for a brighter future. Sure, there are more pressing concerns right now, but surely there is a way to figure this out.
How I watched the Yomiuri Giants on Opening Day 2020
Ten minutes before scheduled first pitch at the Tokyo Dome this morning, I was ready for a nap, exhausted from the toil. My virus protection software was similarly fried, barking red-letter messages when I traversed particularly dangerous pathways. I wasted a lot of time reading the chat transcripts that appear at the side of each potential stream. In the space of an hour, I was offered the chance to earn $3,800 in bitcoin cryptocurrency just by clicking one single link(!), in addition to winning the Nigerian lottery for the third time this week. What a world we live in, people.
Finally, at 10:07 am, in a miraculous feat of cyber serendipity, I somehow stumbled upon a working live stream of the Yomiuri-Hanshin game buried deep into a nondescript Blogspot page. The creepy cardboard cut-outs of Giants fans plonked behind home plate were the only distinguishing feature of Opening Day 2020. Those evil eyes peering at me through a dusty laptop screen were the only way I could tell this was the right game, as opposed to a random repeat from 2017.
Indeed, those cut-outs were recently pioneered in German football, with clubs attempting to get creative when faced with empty stadiums amid stringent social distancing measures necessitated by COVID-19. Naturally, the system was quickly abused by piss-taking Brits, who happily paid a few euros to make morbid serial killer Harold Shipman appear in cardboard form on the terraces of Borussia Mönchengladbach. I'm happy to report that the NPB version seemed altogether more wholesome, and it was pleasing to see Yomiuri at least make an effort to spruce up the monolithic Tokyo Dome.
What is it like to follow Japanese baseball from the UK?
In the end, I never missed a single pitch this morning. Pre-game ceremonies delayed the contest’s start, so I got to see Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano strike out the first batter swinging. I was a little anxious at first, unsure to what extent my personal data was being mined in the background while I watched a baseball game taking place 6,000 miles away. Still, it was great to see the iconic Yomiuri uniforms again, and a sense of calm washed over me by the middle innings. Baseball does that to me, even when therapy and Prozac cannot.
As an occasional NPB follower rather than a diehard veteran, I often have to google player’s names during games to read about their lives. Sometimes, it is difficult to identify players, and I’m routinely amazed at the faded stars who wash up in Japan. For example, Kosuke Fukudome played for Hanshin today at the age of 43! I did not realise until the fifth inning, and I have spent all day trying to reconcile the improbability of that fact.
Former big leaguer and recent World Series champion Gerardo Parra is a big draw for Yomiuri these days, and the Tokyo Dome radiated to the sound of his Baby Shark parody this morning. Meanwhile, Justin Bour, a burly slugger once of Miami Marlins fame, played first base for Hanshin, rekindling hope for just about everyone on the planet who wishes to play professional baseball one day.
Sugano began the game well, throwing over 150 km/h, or touching 95 mph in conventional parlance. However, in a week where MLB has openly discussed the concept of introducing a universal designated hitter rule, Hanshin pitcher Yuki Nishi provided grist for the traditionalists’ mill by launching an absolute bomb into the second deck. The joy on his teammates’ faces reminded me why I love baseball. The corona-proof, phantom high-fives offered a sweet vignette of our times, and the wonder of pitchers who rake settled like pixie dust over the Tokyo Dome rug.
Such was my stupefied malaise, I did not realise until a fourth inning camera shot that Yomiuri was hitless. However, the broadcast seemed to jinx Nishi’s progress, as the Giants unleashed a two-out rally that culminated in an infield single from Hiroyuki Nakajima that tied the game. Unperturbed, Nishi picked up his bat in the fifth and promptly lofted an RBI double, putting Hanshin back ahead, 2-1. The pitcher was hitting 1.000 and slugging 3.000 through two season at-bats. We may never see anything like it again.
The differences between Japanese baseball and MLB
While Nishi embodied the beguiling potentiality of pitchers hitting, Sugano demonstrated the ghoulish predictability of their baserunning ineptitude. Leading off the home fifth with an unlikely single, Sugano almost snapped his leg while trying to break up a force play at second base. Accustomed to the sanitised pandering of MLB, I winced at the wreckage, but Sugano rubbed his shin, walked to the dugout, then later returned to the mound to complete his pitching duties within minimal fuss.
Such stout determination defines the NPB brand of baseball. Ballplayers are not mollycoddled in Japan like they are in America. As a nation, the US has a collective meltdown whenever a pitcher has to even run the bases, let alone when they hurl themselves into an Opening Day collision that raises eyebrows and rattles bones. By contrast, Japan demands such brazen selflessness from its ballplayers, who are almost faceless in their pursuit of communal success. NPB is baseball without the bubble wrap, and I kind of like that.
In short, Japanese ballplayers are just that – players. They are pawns in a team game rather than individuals in a vanity parade that happens to require eight acquaintances just to get going. Japanese ballplayers are versatile, flexible and malleable in their pursuit of victory. They do whatever it takes to win, and they respect whatever their manager asks them to do in that shared journey. The NPB enthrals so many people because it minimises ego while maximising skill. There is a utilitarianism to yakyū that hearkens back to the smallball of 1970s America, and sometimes it is pleasant to travel back in time.
Yomiuri Giants top Hanshin Tigers on NPB Opening Day 2020 at Tokyo Dome
To that end, the Giants used the enticing melodrama of a sacrifice bunt, that staple of Japanese baseball, in a seventh inning rally that transformed their Opening Day mood. Kota Yamashita pumped his fist and beamed all the way back to the dugout after laying down his bunt, setting the table for Noaki Yoshikawa, who promptly launched a two-run homer to put Yomiuri ahead, 3-2.
Even Tatsunori Hara, the Giants’ legendary manager, cracked a smile when Yoshikawa returned to the dugout. In his 32nd season of service to Yomiuri as a player, coach or skipper, Hara brings a searing focus on the game’s minutiae that is compelling to watch. He pulled all the right levers in this one, coaxing his team to a welcome Opening Day win.
Hara called upon former Dodgers, Red Sox and Diamondbacks enigma Ruby De La Rosa to close out the victory, which he did by inducing a rally-killing double play from Bour followed by a sumptuous strikeout of Fukudome. The Giants unfurled their phantom high-fives again after recording the final out, waving and smiling with the contentment of a game well played.
In this regard, there is something so refreshing about Japanese baseball’s energetic optimism. In a world where we demand instant gratification, and where we have grown accustomed to accessing constant satisfaction at our fingertips, there is something strangely affirming about NPB’s unwillingness to conform. There is something achingly nostalgic about fending off pernicious internet popups to watch the Yomiuri Giants win another ballgame.
Here, we see how the NPB has such a brilliantly intoxicating product, but foreign fans are left to conjure their own ecosystem of yakyū. We must rely on an illegal stream here and a Reddit threat there; a Wikipedia deep dive here and a Twitter trove there. Imagine if we could package this up and deliver it to the masses in a polished format. Imagine if I could watch the Giants on-demand one day. Imagine if we could get this right.
Shortly after today’s opener reached its pleasing conclusion, I found myself checking the NPB website for its forthcoming schedule. It turns out the Giants and Tigers are tabbed to meet again tomorrow at 06:00 am GMT. Intriguing, I thought. Exciting. I will set my alarm for 04:00 am to ensure I find a stream.
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Ryan Ferguson is the author of Conflict: The Yankees, the Red Sox and the War for My Heart, available now in paperback and Kindle formats through Amazon. Click the link below to get your copy now!