Windmills & Wild Finishes

August 14

My in-laws live so close to the Dutch windmill in Sakura that it has become a family tradition to visit it early in our stay. Every time I go, I find myself wondering how many surprised tourists view it while taking the train in to Tokyo. While short term visitors probably don't give it a second thought, I can't help but imagine longer term residents thinking to themselves, "I'm going to have to come back here and check this out at some point."
Sakura Windmill
Over the years, the gift shop has slowly improved its range of offerings, and now they have some actual Sakura branded souvenirs. This is a nice improvement from when I lived in Sakura and could do no better than a set of postcards. It is also possible to rent bicycles here (kind of a heavy duty "mama chari"), and I experienced this for the first time, going about 5.5 km around the eastern portion of Inbanuma marsh.

The highlight of the day was attending the Chiba Lotte Marines baseball game against the always potent Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. We made sure to leave early enough so my son could enjoy the pregame activities and the photo ops available inside the team museum. The main gift shop was jammed to the point that it was impossible to buy anything without missing the start of the game. The silver lining of this first failed attempt at shopping was meeting the bilingual event coordinator outside the store and getting a few extra tips for navigating the ballpark.

This was my fourth game at QVC Field, so I was unprepared for the full house we experienced. This was a problem because we bought general admission tickets and couldn't spot three seats together on the home side of the field. We ducked back down the stairs to head to the visitors' side when we were saved by a member of Team 26 (the team fan club). He offered us the seats he had been saving three rows up from the front of the second deck. I tried to repay him with a beer, but he insisted that he didn't drink. When my mom offered him a Canada pin he responded with a snack bag. As we left after the game he also gave my son a "Team 26" tenth anniversary pin. As my mom said, "He wins." It really is hard to show gratitude when your "host" is determined to get the last kind gesture in.

The game itself was one of the best live contests I've ever seen in my life. The atmosphere for the twilight game was electric, with the supporters' section leading the enthusiastic packed house in all the cheers. Whereas in the previous three games I couldn't make out most of the cheers and didn't participate, this time I was able to pick up the chants and bring my family in on them too. The stadium was rocking as we were treated to eight innings of scoreless ball. The Hawks threatened more often by bunting a greater number of players into scoring position, but starting pitcher Wakui managed to keep any of them from crossing.

The outlook was nervous heading into the ninth. Wakui's pitch count was on the wrong side of a hundred, but his manager seemed determined to leave him in. Predictably, the Hawks started to make solid contact for the first time that night, and Wakui was unable to finish the inning having given up two runs. Going into the bottom of the ninth, admittedly there was little cause for optimism based on the limited production from most of the order. If there was a faint cause for hope, it was that the Hawks starting pitcher, who had made it through eight with a far smaller pitch count, was pulled in favour of the team's closer. He managed two quick outs, but was unable to retire the two best hitters on the Marines, Kakunaka and Despaigne. Aging star Fukuura came to the plate and hit a sharp, but routine grounder to first base. That is when the miracle happened. The first baseman dropped the ball not once, but twice, ensuring that the Marines would get a bonus chance with the bases loaded.

The Hawks closer was visibly shaken and his arm was stressed, having already thrown more than twenty pitches that inning. Still, it was up to Daichi to cash in the runners. He responded by hitting a low, sinking liner to centrefield. The fielder tried to win the game in one valiant, diving play, but it was not to be as the ball squirted under his glove, ensuring that two runners would cross the plate and send it into extra innings.

While nothing is inevitable in baseball, there was a feeling that this game belonged to the Marines. Reliever Minami reinforced the feeling by making quick work of the Hawks in the top of the tenth. The stars continued to align as the Marines loaded the bases with one out, bringing their hottest hitter and batting champion in waiting, Kakunaka, to the plate. He quickly got down two strikes, but it was as though he was only trying to increase the drama. After fouling off a couple pitches, he drove a fly ball to centre. It was not decisively deep, but a good break from third combined with an off line throw guaranteed the win and a vocal explosion in the stadium.

The party vibe continued as the game's "heroes" were saluted and interviewed, before they went out to right field to salute their cheering section. They followed by doing a victory lap for the adoring crowd. If that wasn't enough, the encore was a display of a thousand fireworks for an appreciative crowd, of whom approximately 80% stayed. The fun continued outside the stadium as some of the players sprayed soap bubbles and water on excited fans while the rest of us joined long lines for the shuttle buses that shrunk with somewhat surprising efficiency (I say somewhat, because this is Japan after all. If any country knows how to move a large group of people in an orderly, effective manner, it's Japan).

I went to bed that night with the chants still echoing in my head, and I could still hear them the next day. What an exhilarating day of sports.

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Miracle Marines of Chiba