March 2012

3/28/12 at the Tokyo Dome

Hello from Japan!

Let’s skip the B.S. and get right into the photos. Here I am standing outside the Tokyo Dome:

Okay, I lied. I actually do need to unleash a bit of B.S., so bear with me for a minute . . .

Because I was here to see an actual Major League game — the Mariners and A’s were opening the 2012 season with a two-game series — I decided to count it in my stats. I mean, since the wins and losses were going to count for the teams, and since the individual stats were going to count for the players, then everything *had* to count for me. It was that simple. Back in 2008, when I attended the Jays/Rays regular-season series at Champion Stadium, I counted those games in my stats — same deal in 2010 with the Mets/Marlins series in San Juan — and now here I was in Japan at my 49th “major league” ballpark.

Anyway, when I started walking toward the Tokyo Dome, I looked to my right and saw this:

It was a little past 1pm. The game wasn’t going to start for nearly six hours, and as you can see in the photo above, fans were already lining up. But what the hell were they doing? Making signs for Ichiro? Displaying their Hello Kitty beach towels? I had no idea what to make of it.

When I walked closer to the stadium and turned to my left, this was the view:

The roller coaster looming up in the distance is part of an entertainment complex called Tokyo Dome City. As for those smooth rock-like things protruding from the sidewalk . . . I think they’re supposed to be eggs. The Tokyo Dome is sometimes referred to as “the big egg,” so there must be a connection.

Here’s what it looked like as I continued making my way around the stadium:

In the photo above, do you see the sign on the right? Here’s a closer look at it:

Here’s another sign that was behind the closed gate:

Umm, excuse me?

I assumed that the sign listed the rules for the stadium  — you can’t bring raw shark heart inside, you can’t cheer for anyone but Ichiro, you can’t keep baseballs that fly into the stands, etc. — but didn’t bother asking anyone to translate. It was fun being clueless. That’s pretty much how it’s been nonstop in Japan. Before the trip, I figured that everyone would speak English, or at least that most people would speak some English, but no, hardly anyone speaks any English. I actually speak better Japanese than most people here speak English, which is really sad, considering that the only things I know how to say are “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “Water,” “Please throw me the ball,” and “Thank you.” (Really, what more is there?)

After walking for another minute, I saw the least confusing sign in all of Japan:

Here’s what it looked like inside the shop . . .

. . . and here’s a five-part photo that shows some of what was being sold:

Did you see the ball inside the cube on the upper right? That’s an official Japanese League ball. I didn’t buy it for two reasons. For starters, the price was 3,000 yen (which is roughly $36), but more importantly, I have almost no interest in owning baseballs that I haven’t personally snagged at major league games. The one recent exception that comes to mind is the ball that I stitched at the Rawlings factory in Costa Rica.

Check out the scene outside the baseball shop:

Those people were lined up to buy official MLB merchandise — mainly jerseys and caps. I guess they don’t get many opportunities under normal circumstances (and haven’t heard of eBay).

I continued walking around the stadium . . .

. . . and kept walking . . .

. . . and walking . . .

. . . and met up with a fellow American ballhawk named Wayne Peck. (Super-nice guy. You might remember him from my trip last year to Safeco Field.) Here we are outside Gate 11:

In case you’re wondering, the statement on Wayne’s T-shirt is true: @ChuckKnoblauch really does follow him on Twitter — and you can too @MLBwayneMLB. More links: here’s Wayne’s blog entry about this game, and here’s some info about his charity fundraiser.

With roughly 90 minutes remaining until the gates were going to open, Wayne and I wandered together around the stadium. In the following photo, do you see the wide staircase in the background?

Here’s what it looked like from the top:

I took one final photo before heading back to Gate 11 . . .

. . . and when I got there, I had to show my ticket to a guard just to get in line. At most major league stadiums, you can pretty much enter any gate no matter what ticket you have, but here at the Tokyo Dome, as an added/unnecessary security measure, all fans had to enter the gate that was printed on their tickets. So weird. Oh, and here’s more weirdness. Do you remember the photo I posted near the top of this entry that showed some fans sitting on the ground outside one of the gates? And there were towels laid out? Or signs? Or something? Well, I finally figured out what was going on when I saw the same thing at Gate 11. Have a look for yourself:

Fans reserved their places in line by getting there early and taping down newspapers or thin pieces of fabric. Then, when they returned, they had something to sit on other than the dirty ground. How civilized. Can you imagine what would happen if someone tried that outside Yankee Stadium?

Look how crowded it was right before the gates opened:

The line literally wrapped around the entire stadium, but that didn’t seem to affect me. Thirty seconds after I ran inside, I was holding this:

The way I snagged it could not have been easier. A’s pitcher Bartolo Colon (pictured above next to my thumb) walked toward me to grab a ball that had rolled onto the warning track. I asked him for it (in Spanish, just because) and he tossed it up. My main goal at the Tokyo Dome was to snag one of these balls. I knew they were going to be used during the actual games, but never expected to see one during BP. As you can imagine, it felt great to have all the pressure taken away at the start.

Moments after Colon hooked me up, I got a regular ball tossed to me by Jerry Blevins. Then, when I had a moment to spare, I took a photo — not of the field (which most people would’ve done), but of the bleachers:

In the photo above, you can see Wayne standing in my row in the middle of the next section. I’m happy to report that he ended up snagging a few baseballs, and we never got in each other’s way.

It didn’t take long for me to snag my third ball of the day — a homer by some righty on the A’s that rattled around the bleachers — but unfortunately I didn’t get to keep it. As soon as I grabbed it, an usher (in very official-looking attire) hurried over and held his hand out. At first I refused, hoping that his actions were more of a suggestion than a rule, but he insisted. How did I know? Because he started speaking Japanese really fast, and when I took one step to the side, he moved with me to block my path. That’s when I handed him the ball — it had the standard MLB logo — and for the record, I *did* count it as part of my collection. (If you’re wondering why it counts, check out the infamous “Prince Fielder debate” from my entry about the 2011 All-Star Game.)

My fourth ball of the day, thrown by Jonny Gomes in left-center, was another pearl with the “Opening Series Japan” logo. I was several rows back, and he aimed it perfectly over everyone down in front. This was my view, more or less, when I caught it:

The ushers, as you’ve probably gathered by now, allowed fans to keep the balls that were thrown by the players, but not the balls that were hit — not even when little kids snagged them. What’s up with that? Japan is way ahead of America in lots of ways, but on this particular issue, they’re stuck in 1915.

Toward the end of the A’s portion of BP, I moved to right-center and somehow managed to get Jordan Norberto to throw me a ball. (Okay, here’s how it happened: I was standing on a seat half a dozen rows back, and since I was the only fan in the entire stadium that knew his name, he fired a seed right to me over everyone’s stunned faces.) Look how crowded it was on that side of the stadium:

Why was it packed?

One word: Ichiro.

The left field bleachers were pretty crowded too:

That didn’t stop me from running back over there during the last group of A’s hitters and snagging a Jonny Gomes homer. The impressive thing about it was where it landed — or rather what it struck before it landed. In the photo above, do you see the advertisements over the bleachers? They’re between the lights and the support beams. Gomes’ blast hit the ad to the left of the red-and-white “NITTAN” sign. As soon as I caught it, an usher hurried over, took the ball from me, marched down to the front row, and dropped it onto the warning track.

Moments later, I noticed that a player was waving at me. It was Jerry Blevins and he had a ball in his hand — not just any ball, I realized, but *that* very ball. Evidently he had seen the whole situation play out with the usher, so he did his best to make things right by tossing it back to me. After an intense internal debate, I decided *not* to count this ball again because, like I said, it was the same ball that I’d already snagged.

When the Mariners started hitting, I got two quick toss-ups in left-center — my 7th and 8th balls of the day. The first came from Lucas Luetge, and the second (which I immediately handed to the nearest kid) came from a player that I couldn’t identify. Then I headed to the right-field side and got three more toss-ups over the next half-hour. The first came from an unrecognizable player (possibly Shawn Kelley), the second came from George Sherrill near the batter’s eye, and the third came from Jesus Montero. That gave me 11 balls for the day.

Back in left field at the tail end of BP, I snagged a home run ball that struck a woman on the hip and sat untouched in a nearby row while several people tended to her. She wasn’t hurt badly — just severely dazed — and when I handed her the ball, the usher swooped in and grabbed it.

After BP, I took this photo . . .

. . . and then set out to explore the stadium with Wayne.

We started by heading down the steps to a concourse that runs behind/below the bleachers:

Here’s a closer look at the concession stand . . .

. . . and here’s a photo of another:

Uh, what?

We were starving but didn’t get anything because a) we didn’t know what anything was and b) the lines were endless. Instead, we headed through the concourse toward the left field corner, and when we got there, this is what we saw:

Here’s what it looked like at the top of the stairs . . .

. . . and here’s what was happening on the field:

We wandered through the main concourse . . .

. . . and decided to head upstairs to the upper deck, but this guy stopped us:

He barely spoke English — the only words he said were “ticket” and “special security” — but we figured out the gist: because this was such an important game, everything was on lockdown, so without tickets for the upper deck, we weren’t allowed to go upstairs. I once encountered a similar rule in the States, but still, all I could think was, “Screw that, I’m finding a way up there.” For the time being, though, we were stuck on the main level, so we kept walking and taking photos. Check out this beauty:

You know what that is?

Lockers!
For fans!
For the reasonable price of 300 yen (or roughly $3.60)!
What a brilliant concept.

Show of hands: how many of you would be thrilled to have the option of paying to store your stuff during games? I sure would.

After wandering for another minute or two, we found another guard at another staircase, who spoke NO English — I’m telling you, not one word, and he was young and shy. We tried to communicate that we wanted to go upstairs to take pictures. (I pulled out my camera and pointed up. Gosh, I’m creative!) But he didn’t seem to get it. All he did was cross his arms in front of his chest so that his wrists were touching. It seemed like a gesture that was meant to say “no,” but he had a faint, bewildered smile . . . so we inched past him and began heading up the stairs. He didn’t start yelling or pull out a walkie-talkie or do anything that indicated that we would soon be spending the night in Japanese jail, so we kept going. Throughout this whole situation, he showed no emotion. He just stood there sweetly and watched helplessly as we disappeared.

When we reached the next level of the stadium, I couldn’t resist asking Wayne to take a picture of me here:

I also couldn’t resist getting some chicken yakitori from a nearby concession stand.

(I hope it was chicken.)

Wayne and I headed up another flight or two of stairs and saw another concourse — and we also saw this:

What did the “4/5″ sign on the wall mean? Were we in the upper deck? None of the other signs were in English, so we kept walking up. All we wanted to do was take a few photos from the very top of the stadium.

When we reached the next landing in the staircase, we saw this:

(Oopsie!)

Naturally I walked through the doorway and took more photos. This was the view to the right . . .

. . . and here’s what it looked like on the left:

If you were in this situation, what would you have done? Here are your options:

1) Get the hell out of there and head downstairs.
2) Turn left and walk past the boxes.
3) Keep heading toward the top of the stadium.

Admit it. You would’ve climbed Mount Fuji. That’s what Wayne and I did. Here’s what it looked like as we continued upward . . .

. . . and here’s what the staircase looked like from the very top:

We were all alone up there, and there were three doors.

I pressed down slowly on the metal handle on the door on the left.

It was locked.

Then I did the same thing with the door on the right.

Also locked.

Wayne, meanwhile, discovered that the middle door was unlocked.

“What do we do?!” he asked excitedly.

“Duh!” I said. “We open up that mother [expletive deleted] and see what’s on the other side!”

We were both really giddy and laughing hysterically. Everything was funny — the way we were gonna play dumb with security, the bad jokes about getting thrown in jail, etc. But then our foolishness turned to sheer wonder when we cracked the door open. This was my reaction at what I saw on the other side:

Now take a look for yourself:

WOW!!!

We were literally at THE TOP of the stadium — well, not dangling from the middle of the roof, but you know what I mean. This was the view when we brazenly propped the door wide open:

As my friend Todd Cook said in a comment on a recent blog entry, the Tokyo Dome looks like Tropicana Field with the Metrodome roof slapped on top. I was actually thinking the same thing when I was there, but I’ll tip my cap to him for putting it in writing first.

Wayne and I had accepted the fact that we were gonna get busted in that doorway. We even went so far as to plan what to do when it happened: don’t flee down the empty staircase because that would suggest that we knew we had done something wrong.

And then, after two or three minutes, it happened. A security guard began marching up the steps right toward us. We just stood in the doorway until he reached the top step. Thankfully all he did was look mean and point emphatically at the ground. He didn’t ask to see our tickets because he probably assumed that we’d climbed up there from the seats. Yes, climbed. The doorway was elevated nearly three feet above the top step, so we had to jump to get down. Check it out:

As soon as we were in the seats, the guard climbed into the doorway and struggled (for a solid minute) to lock the door. And that was it. Wayne and I had grabbed a couple of empty seats in the third-to-last row, and when the guard was done, he marched all the way down the steps and disappeared into the crowd. Of all the weirdly spectacular things that I’ve experienced at baseball stadiums, this was one of the best.

The 2012 MLB season was about to begin, so we watched the first few batters and then kept wandering. At that point, my only agenda was exploring more of the stadium. I probably should’ve been in the outfield, trying to catch the first home run of the season, or of someone’s career, but there wasn’t any standing room out there or even a cross-aisle, and I just didn’t feel like hustling. I’d snagged a dozen balls during BP including three with the commemorative logo. What more did I need? Wayne was also content with his day’s haul, so he kept wandering with me.

We headed out to the right field corner. Check out the funky little walkway that runs behind the seats:

We were able to walk all the way out to the very end so that we were standing next to the camera man. No one stopped us or asked to see our tickets. It was lovely.

After that, we headed back around behind home plate and out to the left field corner, but instead of walking through the cross-aisle, we toured the concourse:

Look what I saw for sale at one of the stands:

FOUR THOUSAND YEN FOR AN OPENING SERIES BALL?!?! THAT’S FORTY-EIGHT BUCKS, AND I SNAGGED THREE OF THEM DURING BATTING PRACTICE FOR FREE. AH-HA-HA-HA!!! HA-HA!!! MWA-HA-HA!!!

(Sorry, I got a bit carried away there.)

This was our view of the field as we approached the left field corner of the upper deck:

Once again, no one stopped us from walking all the way out on the funky walkway, and since there were a few empty seats out there, we sat and watched a couple innings of the game. This was the view to my left:

Why, Japan? WHY?!

Wayne and I parted ways halfway through the game, at which point I headed all the way downstairs to the very lowest level. The concourse was bustling:

In the photo above, do you see the people behind the long gray wall of windows? That was an enclosed smoking area.

Around the sixth inning, I found a friend named Hideki in straight-away left field. (I didn’t mention it at the time, but he was responsible for getting me into the 2008 Home Run Derby. He spends lots of time in New York, has dual citizenship, and speaks English and Japanese fluently.) He’s an attorney, and he was with a client (who spoke good-but-not-fluent English), and I made them both laugh. This was my view of the field . . .

. . . and this was the crowd behind me:

See the two gentlemen in suits looking right at you? Hideki is sitting on the right.

To say that I made the two of them laugh is an understatement. I actually made the entire section laugh, and it didn’t take much. You see, the polite people of Japan barely make any noise at baseball games, or at least that’s how they behaved at this one. Sure, they got excited where there was something to get excited about, but during any at-bat that didn’t involve Ichiro, the place was dead. I could hear the pitches smacking the catcher’s mitt from across the stadium — so I started yelling at A’s left fielder Coco Crisp. I didn’t say anything funny or mean. I just started shouting, and EVERYONE heard me. I shouted stuff like, “Hey, Coco! What’s up, baby! New York City in da house!” Nothing amazing, right? But I’m telling you, the whole section thought it was hilarious (and, no doubt, obnoxious). They’d probably never seen or heard anyone act like that at a sporting event, so I felt like it was my duty as the unofficial ambassador of Major League Baseball to show them how we do things in America. I kept shouting until my throat started to hurt. Then I got several fans behind me to join me in chanting, “Co-co! Co-co!” And that was pretty much it. Good times in the bleachers.

I spent the last few innings hanging out here:

I had to show my ticket to get into the tunnel from the concourse on the lowest level, but once I was there, no one ever asked for it or told me to move.

As for the game itself, the best part was seeing Ichiro go 4-for-5. Just about everyone else there would’ve agreed. Not only do Japanese people understandably worship him, but the crowd was overwhelmingly rooting for the Mariners. In the top of the 11th inning, the Mariners scored two runs, and that was your ballgame. Final score, Seattle 3, Oakland 1. Look at the scoreboard:

After the final out, most people stuck around for the on-field ceremony, during which Dustin Ackley (who’d gone 2-for-5 with the lone longball) was named the game’s MVP. During the ceremony, I noticed a little boy standing beside with me with an empty glove, so I pulled a (non-commemorative) baseball out of my backpack and held it out for him. The kid didn’t speak a word of English, but his excitement needed no translation. Here he is playing with the ball:

Here’s a random photo for you — a group shot of the Mariners’ girlfriends and wives:

Wayne pointed them out to me as we were heading for the exit. They were all posing there while some random guy was taking their picture, so I climbed up on a seat and asked if I could take one too. Turns out that the “random” guy was the team photographer. (Heh, sorry!)

Here’s one final photo of me inside the stadium . . .

. . . and here’s a photo that I took outside before heading into the subway:

Phew! What an awesome way to start the season.

BALLHAWKING STATS:

• 12 balls at this game (eight pictured here because I gave four away — two to kids and two to ushers)

• 793 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 318 consecutive games with at least two balls

• 182 lifetime games with ten or more balls

• 49 different major league stadiums with at least one ball

• 5,831 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

(I’m raising money again this season for Pitch In For Baseball, a non-profit charity that provides baseball equipment to underprivileged kids all over the world. Click here to learn more about my fundraiser, and click here to see the prizes that I’ll be giving away to donors.)

• 9 donors

• 46 cents pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)

• $5.52 raised at this game

• $19,162.52 raised since I started my fundraiser in 2009

Tokyo Dome preview

It’s official: I’m way behind on my blog, so here’s a little preview from my forthcoming entry:

I took more than 700 photos at this game, and I haven’t yet had a chance to look at them, so there’s no telling when I’ll post the entry. It’ll be worth the wait, though. I promise.

Right now, it’s 11:37pm here in Tokyo, and I’m so tired that my eyes hurt. Tomorrow morning, we’re off to Kyoto. More soon (ish) . . .

JAPAN — Day 2

This was our first full day in Tokyo, and we started by heading to the subway. Here’s what it looked like on the way:

See all those people wearing surgical masks? I’ve heard that they do it for three reasons:

1) To avoid getting scary germs.
2) To avoid giving scary germs (if  they’re already sick).
3) To reduce the effects of hay fever.

Now, don’t worry . . . this isn’t going to be an entire entry about the Tokyo subway system, but I do need to share a few photos. First, check out the idiot-proof platform barrier that prevents people from falling onto the tracks:

New York City could really use those. I’ve been told by a friend who works for the MTA that several people per week get struck and killed by trains.

Here’s a photo that I took on the train. Hello, Richard Gere!

Here’s an ad for the Yomiuri Giants . . .

. . . and check this out — something that New York City could also use:

Arrows!

And that’s not all. In several of these photos, have you noticed the yellow “path” on the ground? That’s for blind people. The grooves change to dots to indicate when there’s a turn or a doorway or a staircase or whatever. Japan knows what’s up.

Anyway, enough about the subway. Our destination was the Tsukiji fish market, which was certifiably insane. Here’s what it looked like on one of the many side streets:

Obviously, there was lots of seafood for sale, like tuna and octopus . . .

. . . and squid . . .

. . . and shrimp and crabs . . .

. . . but there was SO much more. Check out the 16-part photo below, and then scroll down to see (more or less) what everything is:

1) fruit
2) vegetables
3) beans
4) nuts
5) spices
6) kudsu [sic] vine powder
7) dumplings
8) sausages
9) fried somethings
10) egg-loaf (for lack of a better term)
11) high-quality tuna
12) teeny dried fish
13) pickled vegetables
14) desserts
15) more desserts inspired by Pokemon
16) bowls and dishes

And that was just the beginning.

Martha (my half-sister) spent 10,000 yen (about $120) on a knife. Here she is picking it out . . .

. . . and if you look at the upper left corner of the previous photo, you can see a knife as big as a sword. (It wasn’t a sword. It was actually a knife.)

Look what else I saw at the market:

Baseball fans! With “Opening Series” logos on their caps! At the time, it was only 30 hours until I’d be entering the Tokyo Dome.

Martha and my mom and I had been eating all day, but that didn’t stop us from entering a random little sushi place on one of the side streets. Here I am with Martha at the counter:

(It was about 50 degrees outside, and the restaurant had an open store front, so we stayed bundled up.)

Here’s what we ordered:

This was THE absolute best sushi in my life, and possibly in the world. It seriously melted in my mouth and tasted like medium-rare steak.

We were about to leave when Martha spotted this:

We asked our friendly waiter (who spoke fluent English) what it was, and when he told me the answer, I nearly felt sick. It was shark heart, and he said that it’s served raw. Naturally, Martha ordered some and . . . wow. Just wow. Have a closer look:

She picked up a slice with her chopsticks, grabbed a little seaweed to go with it, dipped it in salt (which is how it’s “supposed” to be eaten) and chowed down. As a somewhat picky/fearful/squeamish eater, I was totally grossed out — Martha said it “tasted like intestines” had an “after-taste of blood” — but then something clicked inside my brain. I suddenly felt a strange compulsion to try it. This so-called “food” was SO nasty that I wanted to go for it. It became a personal challenge. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and choose the path of most resistance.

I must admit that I didn’t eat an entire slice. I used my chopsticks to cut off a little piece, but still. Check it out:

RAW SHARK HEART!!!

Did you notice my mom’s reaction in the background? She wasn’t acting. She was truly horrified. And then I ate another piece, Just because.

It’s hard to describe it. I’d say it was both floppy and gristly and tasted like the ocean — in an extreme fishy/salty way. I don’t know if it tasted like intestines or blood because I’m not a zombie. All I can say is that it was pretty bad. And fun. As I mentioned later that day on Twitter, I am now the permanent winner (among fellow dumb Americans) of the “What’s the weirdest food you’ve ever eaten?” contest.

By mid-afternoon, we found ourselves outside some Buddhist temples:

Alongside of one of the temples, there were hundreds (maybe even thousands) of cement figurines which were decorated with knitted caps, flowers, and pinwheels. Have a look:

We had no idea what to make of it.

In the photo above, did you notice the huge orange structure looming up above the trees in the background? That’s the Tokyo Tower, which is 1,091 feet tall. Here it is from below . . .

. . . and here’s what it looked like inside the observation deck, roughly halfway up:

Here’s one of the many photographs that I took of the 360-degree view of Tokyo:

The city looked like that (minus the water) in ALL directions. It it truly gigantic. New York feels like a cute little village in comparison.

We headed back to our hotel in the late afternoon, hung out in the room for a few hours, and then went back out for dinner in a Times-Square-like neighborhood called Shinjuku:

I was hoping to eat ramen and walk around for hours, but that didn’t happen; I was overruled on the restaurant, and after the meal, we were exhausted. The little bit of Shinjuku that we experienced was very touristy:

I’ll leave you with one final photo of the biggest crosswalk you’ll ever see:

How’s that for an anticlimactic end? (Tokyo Dome, here I come . . . )

JAPAN — Day 1

Well, I’m in Japan.

My trip started with three hours of sleep and a 13-and-a-half-hour flight to Narita — a small city with a huge airport, located roughly 80 kilometers from Tokyo. Here’s what it looked like on the plane:

You know how some planes have computer monitors built into the seats? Check this out:

Evidently the quickest route from New York to Japan is over the Arctic Ocean.

I’m in Japan with my mom (Naomi) and half-sister (Martha). You might remember them from the trip we took last year to Barbados.

After making it through customs and getting our luggage, we headed to a train station, which had a spiffy vending machine on the platform:

Here’s the train:

In the photo above, Martha is standing on the left, and my mom is sitting in the 2nd row.

During the hourlong ride, we passed farmland . . .

. . . and a few cities . . .

. . . and something that resembled a baseball field:

(Whenever I see a random baseball field, I try to calculate how far it is to various objects in the distance — and what it would take to hit them. In the photo above, could Prince Fielder hit a ball onto the bridge? I think so.)

I was VERY excited when we made it to Tokyo . . .

. . . and as you can imagine, I photographed everything, for example:

Here’s a photo of Martha and my mom outside our hotel:

We were all exhausted and took a lengthy nap, and by the time we woke up, it was dark. We wandered outside in search of food and ended up at a non-touristy restaurant on this side street:

We had to remove our shoes upon entering and, after much confusion, discovered a nearby area of lockers:

In the photo above, do you see all those little metal boxes with numbers on them? See how some of them have wooden pieces sticking out? Those were the empty lockers. For two solid minutes, we seriously had no idea what the hell was going on; the lone employee had mumbled a full sentence in super-fast Japanese and then disappeared.

Eventually we were led upstairs to a classy, cozy, bustling dining area. There were lots of little booths and side rooms. I really wanted to take photos, but we were the only non-Asian people in the whole place, and I didn’t want to be obnoxious.

I don’t mean to brag when I say this, but I spoke better Japanese than our waiter spoke English. In other words, he spoke NO English words. And then he brought us a menu that was pretty much all in Japanese. Thankfully there were pictures on it . . .

. . . but we were still in trouble. Oh, sure, the food in the pictures might LOOK good. It might even TASTE good. But if you’re not careful, you might end up eating horse meat.

That’s not a joke.

The waiter eventually brought us another menu . . .

. . . and, well, just look:

Marbled horsemeat? How about no.

I do realize the hypocrisy of my squeamishness. I mean, why am I okay with eating pigs and chickens and cows, but not horse? Or cats and dogs?

Speaking of chickens . . .

. . . the restaurant offered “Deep Fried Chicken Cartilage.”

Thanks but no thanks.

I chose something that was a bit of a mystery, but seemed harmless: “cheese in minced katsu.” Here it is on the menu . . .

. . . and here’s what it actually looked like:

I didn’t know what “katsu” was. Martha tried to look it up on her iPhone, but there wasn’t WiFi. Years ago she went to culinary school, and in the more recent past she has traveled A LOT, so I trust her in all food-related matters. She assumed that “katsu” was beef or pork. I feared it was ground octopus testicles, but you know what? Even if it was, it still wouldn’t have been nearly as gross as a hot dog.

Martha and my mom each got the same thing: “yakisoba on iron with rich sauce.” It was pretty much just a spicy noodle dish with vegetables.

We finished the meal with three deserts. Can you guess what any of them are based on the photos below? Think about it before you scroll down. The answers will follow immediately:

On the left: organic cheese and mango vanilla.
In the middle: homemade vanilla ice cream bread.
On the right: kamakura pudding.

“Day 1″ was actually a day and a half. We woke up early in the morning in New York on March 25th, then crossed the International Date Line during the flight (which meant it technically/suddenly became the next day), and because of the 13-hour time difference between New York and Tokyo, we are about to go to bed on March 26th. Actually, it’s now 1:04am on March 27th here in Tokyo as I write this, so my first “day” has spanned three different calendar days, and I’ve only slept for a total of . . . I don’t even know. Maybe five or six hours? I managed to sleep on the plane for a bit, and then there was the hotel-room nap. I haven’t brushed my teeth or changed my clothes since . . . let’s not go there. Everything is so weird and awesome here. I can’t believe that I’m in Japan — JAPAN, SON!!! — and that I’ll be attending a major league baseball game in a day and a half.

Donate money. Win prizes.

You know how I’ve been raising money for charity for the last three seasons? Well, I’m going to be doing it again in 2012, so for those of you who already know the drill and feel like contributing, here’s the direct link to make a new pledge. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, the charity is called Pitch In For Baseball, and it provides baseball and softball equipment to underprivileged kids all over the world. Quite simply, I’ve been getting people to pledge money for every ball that I snag over the course of the MLB season, and by the time the World Series ends, the money really adds up. Click here to read more about it on my website.

Now, about those prizes . . .

A friend of mine (who wishes to remain anonymous) recently mailed me two random/awesome pieces of memorabilia. He suggested that I give them away as prizes after the season to people who donate money. Let me show you the items, and then I’ll explain how it’s going to work. Here’s the first one — a ball signed by Edgardo Alfonzo . . .

. . . . but not ANY old ball. This was Alfonzo’s 6th home run of the 2004 season, and as you can kinda see, it comes with a ticket from the game. My friend caught this ball. Here’s another photo of it from the other side:

The other piece of memorabilia is a used/signed bat by Alfonzo — not the actual bat that hit the home run, but still pretty cool. Here’s a photo of it . . .

. . . and here’s a closer look:

Check out Fonzy’s career stats on MLB.com. He played 12 seasons, collected more than 1,500 hits, was an All-Star in 2000, and once went 6-for-6 with three homers — in a single game! Not too shabby.

Anyway, here’s how prize/raffle situation is going to work . . .

For every penny per ball that you donate to my fundraiser in 2012, you’ll get your name thrown into the hat. (Or box. Or whatever container I end up using.) In other words, if you donate five cents per ball, your name will be in there on five different slips of paper. Ten cents per ball equals ten slips of paper. And so on. The way I see it, it wouldn’t be fair for someone who donates one penny per ball to have the same chance of winning as someone who donates a dollar per ball.

I’ve never done anything like this, so I’m open to suggestions. Should I bundle the Alfonzo items as one prize, or should they be kept separate? Perhaps I’ll throw in a signed copy of The Baseball as a prize. Perhaps someone else will donate something that can be offered.

Note that simply pledging money will not get you into the drawing; only the people who actually donate money at the end of the season will be eligible. I’m thinking that the cut-off for donations will be December 1, 2012. That’ll give everyone a full month to settle up with Pitch In For Baseball after the World Series. Then I’ll start giving away the prizes. Whoever’s name is picked first will get first choice — and will NOT be eligible to win another prize.

Again, this is just how I’m envisioning it, so talk to me. Leave a comment and speak your mind. If there are conflicting opinions, I’ll attempt to take a vote, but ultimately I have the final say. This is meant to be fun so let’s play around with the idea and raise lots of money in the process.

***UPDATE***

Here’s another prize — a ticket stub from the Opening Series in Japan . . .

. . . and you’ll receive it in this envelope.

***ANOTHER UPDATE***

On 7/2/12 at LeLacheur Park, I got my hands on two Dom Dimaggio Bobbleheads, and I’ve decided to give them both away. Each one will be a separate prize. Here’s what they look like:

***YET ANOTHER UPDATE***

If you donate money, you’ll be eligible to win this amazing Bernie Williams compact disc (brought to you by Kraft) titled “The Journey Within” . . .

. . . but if you’re one of those miserable human beings that doesn’t like music, then perhaps you’ll prefer this authentic signature of Hall of Famer Billy Herman:

More prizes coming soon, perhaps . . .

Dimes, Japan, facial hair, Newt Gingrich, etc.

Following up on my previous entry. . .

I took my loot to a TD Bank yesterday. After standing at the coin-counting machine for five solid minutes and shaking the bottle vigorously, I finally got all the dimes out. Turns out there were 2,182 of them, so the total was $218.20. (I might just need to spend that money on a flight to Miami, ho ho ho.) Congrats to Cathy for making the closest guess. (She wins . . . bragging rights!) Props to Skim for making an almost-as-close guess; to Andrew Gonsalves for being marvelously methodical; to Ben Weil for making me laugh; and to DanR for making a solid point. Opening Day DOES need to get here soon. To Nicholas Badders: thanks for the heads-up on the mustache contest, but I’m not going to enter for two reasons: 1) My amazing facial hair is now gone, and 2) I’d have to travel to Oakland. For the record, I love the Coliseum. (No, seriously.) You may recall that I snagged four foul balls there at these three games last season — What’s not to love? — but I’m just not ready to head back so soon unless, of course, the A’s feel like paying for my trip (wink-wink, Billy Beane). Speaking of trips (and of Opening Day), I’m leaving for Japan in four days. I’ll be there for a week and a half, and if I don’t gain at least five pounds, I’ll be disappointed. In other news, I’m planning to snag baseballs for charity again this season, and as soon as I get help setting it up on my site, I’ll post a separate entry about it. Finally, I’m way behind in answering emails (especially the longer ones that require me to click on links and/or write more than a sentence). If you’re waiting for a reply, I promise you’ll get it but probably not for at least a few more days. Oh wait, one more thing (because it’s nice to end with good news): the whole fiasco with my driver’s license has been resolved. Of course, with gas costing $4,000 per gallon, who really wants to drive anyway? Clearly, this country needs Newt Gingrich to be the president so he can wave his magic wand and lower gas prices. Yay, Amurrrica!

St. Patrick’s Day

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I’m going to share two photos. The first one shows the crowd/barricades that added half an hour to my commute home from work:

I took the photo above on 59th Street, facing west toward 5th Avenue, where there was a daylong parade. New York City is wonderfully maddening.

Here’s the second photo — an Absolut Vodka bottle full of dimes.

I hear that people drink a lot on St. Patrick’s Day, so that’s why that photo is relevant. Personally, I’m not much of a drinker and can’t stand the taste of vodka, but anyway, I acquired that bottle years ago (after its original contents had been emptied) and gradually filled it with dimes. At some point next week, I’m going to take it to the bank and dump it into a coin-counting machine. Does anyone want to guess how much money it holds? I have no idea and could be waaay off, but I’m gonna say . . . $186.30.

1962 Mets players’ expense sheet

For those who don’t know, my family owns a big/old bookstore in New York City called Argosy. At this store (which was founded by my grandfather in 1925), the 6th floor is devoted entirely to autographs. Most of the items there have nothing to do with sports, but then there are things like this — perhaps the coolest piece of baseball memorabilia that I’ve EVER seen:

In the photo above, I included the pencil to give you an idea of the size. Now, are you ready for a closer look at the top of the white sheet of paper? Check it out:

It’s the actual expense sheet that the New York Mets used during Spring Training in 1962. This item just came into the store a few days ago, and all I can say is wow.

Here’s a shot of the entire sheet:

(Note that you can click all of these photos to expand them.)

Unfortunately Casey Stengel didn’t scribble his name on the sheet, but there are plenty of other big-time signatures. Here’s another photo of the sheet:

Do you see where it says “Hornsby”?

When I first saw that, I thought, “That can’t be the Rogers Hornsby, can it? He probably wasn’t even alive at that point, and even if he was, what the hell did he ever do with the Mets?”

Well, sure enough, according to Wikipedia, THE Rogers Hornsby was a “scout and third base coach for the New York Mets in 1962,” and he died the next year.

Unreal.

After reading up on Hornsby, I checked out the 1962 Mets roster on Baseball Almanac to verify names such as Richie Ashburn (a Hall of Famer), Clem Labine (a former Brooklyn Dodger), Gus Bell (father of Buddy Bell and grandfather of David and Mike Bell), Frank Thomas (who ended up hitting 34 home runs that season), Gil Hodges (overall stud and member of the Mets Hall of Fame), and so on. And by the way, the “Ruffing” on the sheet is Hall of Famer “Red Ruffing,” who served as the team’s pitching coach.

This item isn’t even for sale right now because we don’t know how much to price it, but yeah, just had to share it here on the blog.

Here’s one final photo of it from afar:

In the photo above, it’s leaning against the bookshelf on the lower left. The photo shows part of the autograph department — there’s a LOT of stuff there — and do you see the woman on the right? Her name is Naomi. She runs the autograph department. She’s also my mom. (Here we are in 1977. D’aww!)

Left field at Citi Field

In case you missed it, here’s the latest photo of the new left field seats at Citi Field. The Mets posted it yesterday on their Twitter feed (@Mets). Check it out:

Looks . . . interesting. And potentially awesome. I heard a rumor, though, that the new seats are going to sell for $100 apiece and include an all-you-can-eat deal with waiter service. Can anyone confirm this? What does everyone think?

(Also, two additional playoff teams?! This could turn out to be great, but I’m not sold yet. I love how hard it is/was to make it to the post-season. Major League Baseball is becoming more like the other major team sports — not necessarily a bad thing, but right now I feel a bit queasy.)

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