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Friday, Aug. 8, 2003

Tigermania creating Hanshin hooligans as pennant win nears


Staff writer

OSAKA -- It's a hot and humid July night as the Hanshin Tigers begin another game at Koshien Stadium. More than 50,000 Tigers fans are in the stadium itself, while hundreds more are in nearby bars and restaurants watching the game on television.

News photo
A building near Osaka's Dotonbori bridge sports a Hanshin Tigers sign. Police in this area are on the alert for baseball hooligans in the runup to the Tigers' expected clinching of the Central League pennant.

In one such establishment, half a kilometer from Koshien, in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, about a dozen men and women are decked out in Hanshin Tigers gear. As the team heads toward victory over the Chunichi Dragons, the cheering grows loud, but not aggressive.

"The fans who come here are real Hanshin Tigers fans, not those who suddenly became fans these past few months. They aren't troublemakers," said Shinzo Kitamura, one of the patrons.

Kitamura was referring to what local sportswriters are terming "baseball hooligans." The Tigers, perennial losers, appear to be heading toward their first Central League pennant since 1985 and are drawing record crowds. But a number of incidents involving spectators at Hanshin games has many Tigers fans, as well as the authorities, worried that things are getting out of control.

On the evening of June 11, the Hanshin Tigers were playing the Chunichi Dragons at a stadium in Gifu Prefecture. Following Hanshin's victory and an angry exchange of words between fans of the two teams, a Hanshin supporter walked over to a section where a group of Chunichi fans was sitting and sprayed the crowd with pepper spray. Police said 31 people were taken to hospital and seven were admitted.

Moreover, on the last play of a July 29 game that Hanshin lost, the Yokohama BayStars player who dived to make the catch for the final out had a plastic bat thrown at him from the stands by an angry fan, earning the wrath of Tigers manager Senichi Hoshino, who said the fan should be tossed out.

To his credit, Hoshino has periodically blasted the behavior of Hanshin fans who cause trouble. When he took over as manager in 2001, he called for an improvement in fans' manners.

Nor are other Hanshin officials being lax. After the Yokohama incident, the team's president, Katsuyoshi Nozaki, announced that any fans caught causing trouble would be reported to police and possibly prosecuted.

But over the past two months, amid mounting official and unofficial reports of fan violence, Hanshin officials have decided to strengthen their cooperation with police, installing monitors at Koshien Station.

Nearly 300 guards are now on hand for games at Koshien. Hanshin officials have stated that this number might increase as the countdown to clinching the Central League pennant continues.

But other measures that might curb unruly behavior, such as banning the sale of alcohol inside the stadium, are not being implemented. And while bringing alcohol into the stadium from the outside is officially forbidden, security personnel do not usually check baggage very closely, as this writer, who once brought in six bottles of beer, will attest.

"It's very difficult to check the bags of everybody who enters the stadium," said Hisayo Murayama, a team spokeswoman. Discussions on checking baggage, however, are now under way, she added.

Concerns are not limited to fan violence at Koshien Stadium. In 1985, when the Tigers went on to win the Japan Series, the area around Osaka's Dotonbori district was packed with fans who went wild, jumping into the river, overturning cars and breaking store windows.

While no serious fan-related violence has occurred in the area of late, Osaka police said they will have extra officers in the area -- especially around the Dotonbori bridge -- if the Tigers win the Central League crown, and afterward throughout the Japan Series.

Police are also concerned about the area around Hanshin Umeda Station, where there have been reports of drunken, aggressive Tigers fans snatching purses and physically accosting passersby after a game.

"Since about mid-July, I avoid walking through the part of the underground complex near Hanshin Station after Tigers' games because of all of the loud, drunken fans. I've seen people pushed out of the way or called rude names by groups of red-faced young men wearing Hanshin Tigers gear," said Yuriko Kanda, who works at a computer company near the station.

Such news distresses fans like Kitamura, who has been following the Tigers for nearly 30 years.

"The troublemakers are giving us all a bad name. When the Tigers win, the true fans will be happy and proud, but not violent," he said.



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